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Apparent Time

Ongoing Change in Relation to Age

In observing language change in progress, sociolinguists have had to tackle the question of time one way or another. As mentioned in Chapter 4, the examination of changes in real time is often impossible for the contemporary researcher. Developments are so slow that grasping them takes longer than a researcher's active career or whole lifetime. Useful data on earlier stages of the language for comparative research are seldom available today, and they were even rarer 30 years ago when sociolinguistic studies were first introduced.

An insightful concept to solve this problem is apparent time. Tracing a linguistic change in apparent time means looking at the distribution of linguistic variables across age levels. In this way conclusions about developments can be drawn from language samples collected within a short period of time.

Figure 5.1, adapted from Downes (1998: 238), illustrates how the apparenttime construct is thought to function. The horizontal axis refers to real time, and the vertical to apparent time. The basic assumption here is that each generation acquires its language, both use, structure and attitudes, during the formative years of childhood and youth. Consequently, if a linguistic feature is observed at a specific point in time, as in Survey 2 in 1950, each generation uses the form or forms they learnt in their youth. Those who were 60 years old in 1950 would have acquired their linguistic variants around 1900, a pattern repeated with each successive younger generation, until we reach those who were 20 years old and who had only adopted their forms about 10 years before the survey. The 60- and 50-year old informants would have the same variants in Survey 2 as they did in the first Survey 40 years earlier.

In the case of language change, each successively younger generation is expected to employ the innovative form more than the previous one; in other words, it is not only the variants but also their frequencies that are acquired during the formative years. The emerging pattern1 then reflects a change in progress, indicating its direction and possibly also its rate of

Real and apparent time in language change (adapted from Downes 1998

Figure 5.1. Real and apparent time in language change (adapted from Downes 1998: 238).

change. If no pattern appears, what we see is most likely stable linguistic variation.

The apparent-time construct has proved to be a powerful tool in sociolinguistics. It can give us valuable information about the transition of linguistic changes within populations. Several real-time replications of earlier studies have testified to its validity and usefulness (e.g. Labov 1994: 85-112; Bailey et al. 1991; Chambers 1998), although diverging results have also been obtained (Trudgill 1988).

There are, however, serious problems connected with the basic assumptions of the apparent-time model. We cannot take for granted that people go on using the same linguistic items all their lives. The literature usually introduces the concept of age-grading, i.e. a regular change of linguistic behaviour with age that is repeated in each generation (Labov 1994: 46). For example, middle-aged people have been observed to use the standard language more than the young and old (Downes 1998: 223-224), and teenagers' increased employment of slang and other non-standard varieties is a well- known phenomenon. Labov (2001) argues for an adolescent peak that is especially noticeable in stable sociolinguistic variation. It is clear that the possibility of age-grading must always be taken into consideration when apparent-time surveys are carried out. In addition, it is known that changes in external conditions, such as migration and social mobility, often promote changes in individuals' language.

It is not only speaker-variables that explain shifts in peoples' language. The emergence of change has been said to depend on the type of linguistic phenomenon at issue. According to Labov (1994: 83-84), sound change and morphological change typically follow the pattern of generational change, while lexical and syntactic changes represent the converse pattern, communal change. In the first, individual speakers enter the community with a characteristic frequency of a particular variable, which is maintained throughout their lifetimes. But there are also regular increases in values adopted by individuals and generations, which lead to linguistic change in the speech community. In communal change all members of the community alter their frequencies together or acquire new forms simultaneously. It is obvious that generational change is the pattern that corresponds to the basic idea of apparent time described above. Studies such as Chambers (1998), including apparent-time analyses of some lexical, morphological and phonetic items, suggest that Labov's argument about the connection between type of change and linguistic character may not entirely hold.

Furthermore, the success of apparent-time studies depends heavily on the comparability of the data used. External variables such as gender, socioeconomic background and ethnicity should be kept constant so that the age cohorts all have a similar background (Chambers & Trudgill 1998: 151).

 
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