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date: 22 March 2019

Third Wave Variationism

Abstract and Keywords

This article traces the development of the most recent approach to the study of sociolinguistic variation and considers the theoretical issues it raises. This field has moved through three waves of analytic practice. The first focused on the spread of linguistic change, finding robust correlations between linguistic variables and macrosocial categories across large populations. The second wave took an ethnographic turn, examining the relation between variation and local social dynamics. The third wave focuses on the indexical nature of sociolinguistic variation and on the stylistic practice in which variables gain their meaning. This approach differs from earlier practice in its focus on social meaning and speaker agency, and on the role of stylistic practice in social change and the construction of social distinctions.

Keywords: Sociolinguistics, variation, indexicality, third wave, style, persona


The Third Wave of variation studies views socially meaningful variation as a design feature of language, part of a larger pragmatics that allows the nonpropositional expression of social meaning. This approach to variation, which emerged in the second millennium, is distinguished from earlier approaches (or waves1) by its focus on meaning. It builds on the earlier waves, extending the view from the abstract macrosocial patterns representing the “high level” structure of society to the local and concrete patterns of language use in which variation takes on social meaning. It views variables, and the styles that they constitute, as indexical signs. Work in the Third Wave extends the inventory of variables well beyond changes in progress and variables that stratify macrosocially to a broad range of patterns and expressive resources. It treats variation as a social indexical system with the potential of expressing any and all of a community’s social concerns. As such, variation does not simply reflect the social world but plays a central role in its continual change.


The First and Second Waves

Beginning with William Labov’s (1966) study of New York City and continuing in a variety of urban survey studies (e.g. Trudgill 1974; Wolfram 1969), the First Wave established the broad patterns of social stratification of variation across the primary macrosociological categories of class, age, gender, and ethnicity. This tradition viewed individual variables as directly indexing place of residence and membership in macrosocial categories. Central to this approach to variation is the notion of the standard—the language variety that is native to the upper middle class, shows the least ethnic and regional distinctiveness, and is maintained by powerful societal institutions. The global prestige of the standard makes it the target of the upwardly mobile and sets up a contrast with increasingly local, hence stigmatized varieties as one moves lower in the socioeconomic hierarchy. The term vernacular in general parlance in the field refers both to the local speech at the lower end of the hierarchy and to each speaker’s most automatic speech. This framework accounts for a general pattern in which each speaker’s stylistic range is a subset of the societal range, with the speaker’s most careful production closer to the standard and his or her personal vernacular, emerging in casual speech, closer to the societal vernacular. Agency in this view is limited to responses to status pressure, which leads speakers to monitor their speech.

The First Wave of variation studies had its roots in dialectology and the study of sound change, and many, perhaps most, of the variables that have been the focus of variation studies have been sound changes in progress (hence regionally specific variables). The means by which change spreads through society have been the main concern of social analysis, with the macrogeographic and macrosocial distribution of variables serving as an indication of the spread of change through geographic and social space. The main utility of the notion of the personal vernacular (Labov 1972) in variation theory has been its role in preserving the autonomy of sound change. To the extent that sound change emerges from pressures within the linguistic system, a theory of variation has to limit the role of conscious social processes in its inception. The vernacular, the speaker’s natural system and source of sound change, is thus located in the unconscious, while social agency is viewed as conscious. This view has kept the study of variation exclusively in the cognitive realm, inasmuch as the social acts only to provide a path of least resistance for the spread of change and to regulate attention to speech. The social nature of that regulation thus remains external to the linguistic system, and to the extent that the First Wave entertains a notion of social meaning, it is limited to the direct effects of macrosocial categories. And since variables, whether changes in progress or not, show similar macrosocial stratification, it has been assumed that all such stratified variables have similar social meaning. Thus analysis commonly focuses on one variable at a time, taking individual variables as tokens of a more general process.

The Second Wave took an ethnographic turn by delving into the local dynamics of variation, seeking out local categories (e.g. Rickford 1986; Eckert 1989) and configurations (e.g. networks: Milroy 1980) that articulate class with community life. It moved away from the passive view of the vernacular, arguing that it is used expressively, and sought explanations for broader patterns in local practice. Greater attention to social theory, and particularly theories of social reproduction (e.g. Bourdieu 1977; Giddens 1979), led to the perspective that variation at the local level is both constrained by and constitutive of the macrosocial patterns uncovered in the First Wave. Furthermore, the close-up examination of the social practice in which variation emerges led to an awareness both of the role variation plays in the construction of larger social styles and the role linguistic styles play in a broader material style system (Eckert 1980, 1983).

The analytical attractiveness of macrosocial categories such as socioeconomic class lies in their replicability. But this replicability is only as valid as the means of determining category membership across communities. The common rubric for determining socioeconomic class, for example, is difficult to apply in rural areas. Furthermore, as long as we view individuals’ patterns of variation primarily as passive results of their social address, and as long as we view individual variables simply as marking that address or, in the case of agentive style-shifting, reflecting their striving to change that address, we do not need to go beyond notions of prestige and stigma to understand the significance of these categories for everyday life. But to the extent that we see more agency at work in variation, we need to delve beneath these categories. Studies in the Second Wave began this process.

The emergence of the Third Wave

The Third Wave of variation study focuses on the fact that variables are indexical signs. Charles Sanders Peirce (1931-) distinguished among three kinds of signs on the basis of the relation between form and meaning. Symbols are associated with their objects purely by convention; icons are associated through resemblance, and finally, indexes are associated through contiguity. An indexical sign “points to” the immediate context. Michael Silverstein distinguishes referential indexes, such as tense and pronouns, from pure indexes, which have no referential value but “signal the structure of the speech context” (Silverstein 1976: 30). Phonological systems function in the symbolic realm, providing a set of oppositions with which we can construct the purely referential distinctions that normally concern semantics. Variation functions in the pure indexical realm, pointing out distinctions in the social world. Variables emerge in the construction and presentation of self in relation to whatever aspect of the social world is salient at the moment and in the long term. While macrosocial categories call out basic social parameters, they are both abstract and heterogeneous. Indexical activity, on the other hand, is local and specific, and it is at the local level that we produce and recognize the social. The First Wave viewed variables as indexing the speaker’s membership in macrosocial categories, a view that the Second Wave challenged implicitly and that the Third Wave challenges explicitly.

An ethnographic study done in the early 1980s in the predominantly white high schools of the Detroit suburban area (Eckert 1989, 2000) represents the transition from the Second to the Third Wave. These schools housed a peer social order based on an opposition between two class-based communities of practice“Jocks” and “Burnouts.” The Jocks, most of whom were from the upper half of the local socioeconomic continuum, constituted a middle-class, corporate culture, were college bound, and based their social lives in the institution of school and its extracurricular sphere. The Burnouts, coming predominantly from the lower end of the local socioeconomic continuum, constituted a working-class culture, were workplace bound, oriented to the local conurbation and the urban periphery in particular, and were alienated from the school institution. Jocks and Burnouts constituted about half the school population, but the remaining students referred to themselves as “In-Betweens,” evidence of the hegemony of the Jock–Burnout opposition. The In-Betweens voluntarily located themselves socially in terms of practices shared with one or the other extreme.

The Jocks and Burnouts constituted distinct communities of practice (Lave & Wenger 1991; Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992)that is, collectivities that emerge in response to shared concerns and that over time develop common practices. The Jocks’ and Burnouts’ differences were deeply ideological, and they maintained a mutual distinction using whatever means were at their disposal, many of which indexed urban versus institutional identities and practicesclothing, makeup, territory, activities, consumption patterns, and language. The Burnouts led the Jocks significantly in the use of nonstandard forms and of urban sound changesthe backing of dress2 and strut and the raising of the nucleus of priceas they spread outward from the urban periphery into the suburbs. Most important in this study was the fact that the phonological variables correlated with social category affiliation and not with parents’ socioeconomic class. Thus one cannot say that variation reflects passive social address or a system acquired at home during childhood. Rather, participation in these sound changes emerged as part of the speakers’ participation in the peer-based social order as they constructed an adolescent identity. One might be tempted to say that these urban sound changes marked social category membership. However, the linguistic production of individual In-Betweens correlated with the ideologies and practices that they shared with Jocks or Burnouts, indicating that urban sound changes did not relate directly to category membership but rather corresponded to the stances, practices, qualities, and ideologies that served as the basis for those categories.

The relation between class and the peer social structure is clear, and the motivations for differential use of language lie in this relation. The peer social structure gives meaning to social class in the adolescent context, and it is built into the powerful school institution. The Burnouts’ local and urban orientation and the Jocks’ institutional orientation are constrained, but not determined, by their family origins. In turn, these orientations constrain, but do not determine, their adulthoods. The linguistic output of the middle-class Jocks and the working-class Burnouts no doubt patterns with the adult stratification of linguistic variables. But the output of Jocks from working-class homes and Burnouts from middle-class homes conflicts with the adult pattern. Thus the macrostratification of variation describes the typical case only to the extent that social mobility is limited.

The ethnographic situation in the Detroit suburbs is explanatory in a way that macrosocial categories are not, but it is quite local. However, the local categories are replicable: This sociolinguistic situation was repeated in schools throughout the Detroit suburban area. Every school had its Jocks and Burnouts, who used the same means to maintain their mutual distinctions. But the urban–suburban continuum is also a socioeconomic continuum, and it is the socioeconomic character of the respective communities that gives urban sound changes their social meaning. Thus the difference between Jocks and Burnouts within each school was replicated in differences among schools. While the Burnouts everywhere led the Jocks in the use of urban and nonstandard variants, the Jocks and Burnouts in more urban schools led the Jocks and Burnouts in more suburban schools in the use of urban variants. Jocks from urban schools who moved to more suburban schools often fit in better with the Burnouts in their new schools than with the Jocks. In this way, class and geography are merged, and the local patterns explain the macrosocial patterns of the First Wave.

Categories like Jocks and Burnouts are to be found in high schools across the country, but in each case their specific characters reflect the local social structure. In rural areas, the distinction between Townies and Farm Kids may enter in, and in ethnically diverse schools, ethnicity will interact with class in the construction of the social order (e.g. Bucholtz 2011; Mendoza-Denton 2008). Thus while some Jock and Burnout practices may be specific to the conurbations in which they live, these communities of practice emerge from a shared place in the political economy.

While one can see that class structures the Jock and Burnout dynamics, the use of variables in this population does not directly index class. What is being indexed is the stances and practices that distinguish Jocks and Burnouts and that distinguish suburban from urban kids. Viewing themselves as the school’s “have-nots,” the Burnouts in every school are certainly aware of the importance of class and of their families’ class positions. But this is only background to their day-to-day lives and to the stylistic practice in which they put themselves forward in that day-to-day. Furthermore, distinctions among localities in the almost exclusively white suburbs of Detroit are primarily socioeconomic, but kids view them in terms of peer life. The Burnouts view more urban kids as more autonomous, more streetwise, and tougherall qualities that they admire. And it is these kinds of qualities, not their abstract class positions, that they have reason to index in their stylistic practice.

Indexicality, style, and persona

Stylistic practice

We distinguish people based on our perception of their qualities, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. We categorize them on the basis of perceived aggregates of these qualities, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Categorization can provide a mechanism for distancing ourselves from others or for predicting things about strangers. We want to know a person’s social class or gender to derive more detailed information or expectations. In other words, macrosocial information is valuable only as a potential key to more personal information.

Sociolinguistic variables function as components of stylessocially located combinations of linguistic resources. The meanings of variables, as of all linguistic signs, are underspecified and only become specified in their stylistic context. A strongly released stop may sound prissy when accompanied by standard language features, tough or angry when accompanied by nonstandard ones (Eckert 2008). The specification is further supported by the co-occurring material styles—patterns of behavior that, along with language, signal and create social distinctiveness (Irvine 2001). In other words, it is at the level of style that variation connects meaningfully to the social, becoming truly indexical. Social categories are populated by social typescharacterological figures (Agha 2003) or personae—which are distinguishable on the basis of style. Our understanding of the social world is based in and facilitated by a stylistic landscape. Personae structure the landscape: types such as Valley Girl, Orthodox Jewish Male, Suit, Teenybopper, Zoot Suiter, Sloanie, Flapper, Punk, Hood, or Cholo are located socially and temporally, and all of them are composed of manyoften overlappingelements. Stylistic practice, like linguistic practice more generally, involves comparing styles on the basis of their social differences and parsing out elements perceived as indexing salient aspects of those differences. To the extent that a stylistic parse is widely shared, the resulting units become available for incorporation in other styles. In this sense, stylistic practice is a process of bricolage (Hebdige 1984; Lévi-Strauss 1967), in which stylistic agents appropriate and recombine available resources to construct a new style.

Personae represent not only different social types but different possibilities for individuals as they move through situations and through life. Our personae shift in our roles as professors, parents, lovers, tennis players, and so on. And in constructing these shifting personae, we call upon different styles. Robert Podesva’s (2007) study of gay professional men as they move among widely disparate situations in their daily lives shows the relation between style and the variety of personae that each man inhabits. The persona that a doctor assumes in the clinic with his patients is radically different from the “gay diva” persona he assumes at a barbeque with his friends. Similarly, the persona that a buyer uses when meeting with his supervisor is radically different from his “partier” persona at a weekly boys’ night out. While analysis might interpret the gay diva and partier personae as “gay,” the men are gay in their work personae as well. Each is presenting two gay personae, two gay styles. More importantly, the linguistic resources that contribute to the diva and partier personae—e.g. falsetto (Podesva 2007), /t/ release (Podesva 2004), and advanced California vowels (Podesva 2011) are not specifically “gay” features but figure in a wide variety of styles (e.g. Schoolteacher and Valley Girl) that involve some of the qualities that the diva and partier personae call up.

Individuals modify their personae as they move into new life stages or as their identities develop. Podesva’s doctor did not have his doctor persona or his diva persona as a young boy; they emerged over time. In an ethnographic study of high school girls in northern England, Emma Moore (2004) followed the split of a community of practice in the course of a year. Among the communities of practice in this school were people commonly known as Populars, who were fairly serious partiers, and the more extreme Townies, who were more street oriented, trouble prone, and alienated from school. In the course of Moore’s ethnography, a subset of the Populars moved off, joining the Townies in a “wilder” lifestyle. This change was accompanied by a significant increase in the new Townies’ use of nonstandard morphosyntax (e.g. negative concord and third person singular use of were). This linguistic shift was an important part of their change in personaindeed, it was part of what made the girls Townies rather than Populars.

Indexical dynamism

Phonological units on their own are not signs, but once a piece of phonetic form comes to be associated with some social meaning, it becomes a sign. The emergence of a sign opens an order of indexicality (Silverstein 2003)that is, its content creates a chain of associations, any of which can rise to the level of primary content. In the Detroit suburban area, a backed variant of the strut vowel originated as an index of urban location. But in the Detroit-area high schools, it was called upon for the salient adolescent urban associations of toughness, autonomy, and street smarts. Labov’s study (1963) of Martha’s Vineyard provides a textbook example of indexical order, making this study an early precursor of the Third Wave.

Martha’s Vineyard, like other islands along the eastern coast of the United States, has been known for its historically conservative centralized pronunciation of the nucleus of price and mouth. Contrasting with the lowered variant characteristic of the mainland, the centralized variant indexes island native status. While these vowels were lowering on the Vineyard, Labov found that those islanders opposed to mainland incursion, particularly local fishermen, were raising their nuclei, reversing the change and rendering their speech more “Vineyarder.” In other words, this disappearing regional form was appropriated to index a particular stance in a local ideological conflict. It is common in sociolinguistics to view the use of local variants such as these Vineyard vowels as indexing “local identity.” But the desire to signal one’s place of residence depends on what speakers think residing there does for them. Presumably those fighting mainland incursion were no more loyal to the Vineyard than those who anticipated catering to the tourist crowd. They simply had a different vision for the island. Rather than meaning “Vineyarder,” centralized price and mouth came to mean a particular kind of Vineyarder. This process could theoretically continue: once a centralized variant came to be associated with a stance against mainland incursion on Martha’s Vineyard, it would be available for extensionfor example, young people could pick it up to index an oppositional stance in a quite different controversy.

Qing Zhang (2008) traced the emergence of the association of a prominent Beijing male character type with the rhotacization of syllable finals characteristic of Beijing Mandarin. This association, a common local trope, was enregistered (Agha 2003) in the course of the twentieth century, especially the later part of the century, in the genre of “Beijing flavored” literature, particularly novels and commentaries on this literature. Since rhotacization is one of the few Beijing accent features that can be represented in writing, it is used commonly to construct local characters. The prime character that emerged in these novels as prominently using rhotacization was the “Smooth Operator”a slick, worldly character type specific to Beijing. Zhang argues that smoothness “functions as a form of social lubricant. Despite their diverse socio-economic and professional backgrounds, the literary instantiations of the folk icon share a set of characterological attributes centering on worldly wisdom, street smarts, slickness, remarkable urban versatility, and savoir faire” (Zhang 2008: 213).

Zhang (2005) found that this variable played a key role in stylistic practice among young managers in Beijing’s financial sector. Changes in the Chinese economy were bringing about the development of a class of affluent young professionals working in the growing foreign financial sector. These “yuppies” developed a cosmopolitan and consumptive lifestyle, in clear distinction from their peers working in the more conservative and less lucrative state financial sector. The yuppies, and most particularly the women, also displayed a speech style that differed significantly from the style of the state employees. On the one hand, the yuppie women did not use rhotacization, while the women in the state sector did (although less than the men in the state sector). In addition, the yuppie women adopted the full tone characteristic of southern speech and associated with the financial centers of Shanghai and Hong Kong. This gave their speech a kind of staccato quality that added, according to Zhang, to the “crispness” of their style. Non-use of rhotacization alone or adoption of full tone alone would not have had the effect of the broader stylistic elaboration. These two features, among others, constituted a distinct style that set the women apart as cosmopolitan. This speech style went along with their stylish Western dress, cars, furnishings, and “toys” in the construction of a new kind of cosmopolitan persona.

Linguistic and social change

Variation is arguably the most dynamic part of the linguistic system, suited—and quite central—to participation in social change. Social change inevitably involves the continual modification of existing personae and the emergence of new ones, and variation plays a central role in this process. The common association of a variable with a particular character type creates a sign, which is then available for indexing qualities associated with that character type. Whether the sign will be called upon, and in virtue of which of its possible associations, will presumably depend on needon whether speakers have an emergent distinction to make. Stylistic innovation is not random but serves to pick out distinctions, to make them salient to individuals beyond those who first use them. As archaeologist Ian Hodder argues (Hodder 1982: 193):

decoration and shape distinction may relate not so much to the existence of social categories but to a concern with those categories…. Where social groups are threatened or contradicted, or are otherwise concerned with self-legitimation, ‘stylistic behaviour’ … may be most marked. Stylistic behaviour is … linked directly to … ideologies and strategies of legitimation.

The Vineyard fishermen’s centralized diphthongs did not emerge out of nowhere but were a response to economic change and a strategy for affecting that change. The Beijing yuppies’ innovative speech style did not just reflect their yuppie status but was part of the construction of that status. The emergence of yuppies in Beijing is part and parcel of enormous economic change in China, and the linguistic style associated with the yuppies is not an afterthought but a central resource in the production of this new characterological type and the sector that gave rise to it. Similarly, the situational variability of the gay men in Podesva’s study represents significant changes across their lifetimes, and these personal changes respond and contribute to broader social changes. The increasing attention to and public use of styles thought of as “gay” is part and parcel of changing societal attitudes about sexuality. In this way, variation is not just a manifestation of linguistic change but an important component of social change. And it links to social change, as it links to the social, through its role in constructing social types or personae.

Part of moving through life is modifying one’s persona or taking on new personae. On a larger scale, this is also an important aspect of societal change. Beatniks, Hippies, Punks, Hipsters, Valley Girls, Gay Divas, and Hip-hoppers are all era-specific personae. That they are primarily youth or young adult personae bears witness to the fact that it is primarily the young who bring about social change. And while these styles may appear trivial on the surface, they each embody some emerging social distinction.

Work in variation has traditionally distinguished between stable variables and variables that represent sound changes in progress. Designation as a sound change generally entails some kind of permanencethe rotation of a vowel system such as the Northern Cities Shift is not likely to reverse. But presumably there are short-term changes as well. There is little question that the age differences in the use of vocal creak found in California (e.g. Podesva & Callier 2015) are evidence of change. While all people creak to some extent when they fall into the lower end of their respective pitch ranges, current styles in the young accomplish this fall earlier in the intonational phrase, yielding a greater duration of creak (Eckert 2014). Young people in California are using more creak in their normal interview style than older people, and while this might represent age grading, evidence suggests that young people were using less creak fifty years ago. It remains to be seen if this voice quality will last, and if so, how and for how long. But certainly we can expect stylistic resources to come and go as styles continually seek out material to recruit into indexical service. Change, then, may be more or less lasting.

The range of variables

The Third Wave’s focus on social meaning leads us in search of a wide range of expressions, and once we move away from variables that are regional or clearly class stratified, we encounter a vast range of possibilities. For example, we might consider the role of affect in variation. Emotion is commonly considered “not social” but rather psychological, internal, and individual. But emotion is eminently social, and its expression is governed by strong social norms, so one might expect affective variation to be quite different across cultural and gender groups. Men, for example, are more licensed to show hot anger than women. If we were to trace the use of consonant fortition, one index of anger, would we find that men lead women overall? This would no doubt not show up in a corpus of sociolinguistic interviews, but might show up in real-world use.

If we turn to emotional displays, we move into the iconic realm. This is not to say that sociolinguistic variables are by nature, or overwhelmingly, iconic, but that sound symbolism is a rich resource for social expression. Phonetic iconicity serves the purpose of linking speech directly to the physical worldto the immediate and corporeal. It foregrounds the fact that language is an embodied practice, working through both acoustic and proprioceptive effects. Such iconicity seems to emerge most clearly in affective displays, perhaps because emotions are felt to be the closest, most internal to the speaker. It stands to reason, then, that the most obviously iconic signs of emotion involve voice quality and prosody, resources that, with a few exceptions, are not involved in propositions.

What John Ohala (1994) terms the frequency code associates higher fundamental frequencies (F0), as well as higher acoustic frequency of segments, with smaller size. This is based on the observation that all vocalizing species use lower frequencies in agonistic displays to signal larger size. And while there are strong arguments against the universality of this phenomenon in human languages, it is certainly common to many languages. As a kind of synesthesia, the frequency code lies somewhere between the natural and the conventional. The opposition between large and small moves into the affective arena through salient social differences associated with size. Shoko Hamano argues that by association with childhood, Japanese palatalization indexes negative qualities of children such as “instability, unreliability, uncoordinated movement, diversity, excessive energy, noisiness, lack of elegance, and cheapness” (Hamano 1994: 154). Silverstein (1994), on the other hand, found that the fronting and backing of Wasco-Wishram /a/ is associated with a range of positive and negative evaluations, respectively (e.g. “intimate; dear” vs. “distanced; off-putting”; “desirable” vs. “to-be-shunned”; “personal” vs. “impersonal”; “pleasing; satisfying” vs. “gross; disgusting”) in what he refers to as an affective engagement with smallness and largeness.

Eckert (2011) compared a preadolescent girl’s pronunciation of the lot and price vowels in two extended conversationsone in which she was talking about positive things (things she likes to do) and one in which she was talking about negative things (what jerks boys are). Her lot and price vowels were significantly backed and raised in the second (negative) conversation in comparison with the first (positive) conversation. In a between-subjects experiment,3 listeners heard one token of the same name (Josh) from one of the two conversations and were asked how the speaker felt about Josh. Overwhelmingly, the fronted token from the positive conversation was heard as indexing a positive attitude toward Josh, and the backed token from the negative conversation was heard as indexing a negative attitude.

Iconization does not apply just to affective displays. The characterological smoothness of the Beijing Smooth Operator is popularly construed as iconically linked to the sound itself: rhotacization is perceived as an “oily,” “smooth” sound. Needless to say, iconicity in language is never “pure.” That is, natural sounds are integrated into language through conventionalization (Goffman 1981; Irvine & Gal 2000). These resources can then lose their iconic associations and become more general stylistic resources, as with the age-graded use of rising intonation among Australians (Guy et al. 1986), creak (Podesva & Callier 2015), and posttonic lengthening (Calder et al. 2013). Whether such patterns represent changes in progress or simple age grading, claims as to their indexical meaning based solely on demographic correlations are problematic, as they lack evidence in use. For example, the claim that young women use creak to sound authoritative (e.g. Yuasa 2010) is problematic to the extent that it is derived simply from an association of creak with men, and not from observation of its situated use. Creak comes with low or irregular subglottal pressure, which can be associated with such things as fatigue, fear, relaxation, sensuality, or confidentiality. Attempts to find “the” meaning of creak (or of any linguistic sign) are both futile and misleading. It is quite possible, though, that the tendency to use creak for some particular purposes may catch on in a segment of the population and then spread beyond those purposes, becoming first a specific and then a more general index. If young women en masse are using more creak than other speakers, it is not because they’re all indexing the same specific thing but because creak has spread to a more general indexical level and has become habitual among that population.

General implications

The Third Wave is based on the understanding that language is not just structure but practice. Change is basic to human life, and as part of social practice, language must be dynamic at its core. Language does not just happen to changelanguage is change. Once we view language as a dynamic social semiotic system, stability becomes a problematic conceptmore of an ideology than a material reality. Daniel Casasanto and Gary Lupyan argue that stability of concepts, categories, and word meanings is an illusionthat they are constructed ad hoc as “Commonalities across instantiations … yield some emergent stability and create the illusion of context-independent core properties” (Casasanto & Lupyan 2015: 543). Certainly we assume stability as we function in the world. We treat our social categories and their ways of speaking as if they were stable. But to the extent that change is central to social life, stability cannot be a default. We are intent on changing through the life course. This drive is particularly strong in childhood, when a kind of developmental imperative is at the core of social identity. Kids measure their age in tiny increments, and being behind the developmental curve carries social stigma for them. Self-worth is based on the milestones one has achieved (among other things), and while developmental milestones may change throughout life, they’re always there.

As variation has been studied in adults and from a macrosocial perspective, so too the development of variation has been viewed as the development of consciousness of the adult macrosocial structure. But children learn the relation between variation and the social from the very earliest stages of awareness of language, beginning with affective displays. And as children participate more in family relations, and in the broader social setting as their worlds expand, so does their stylistic awareness (Andersen 1990). The power relations children have with their parents and even with their older siblings eventually generalize to relations with adults, doctors, teachers, and bullies. Baby talk becomes a stylistic resource precisely because developmental progress is a primary social concern for little kids. Indeed, children’s social relations lead to features of baby talk playing a considerable role in adults’ stylistic practice in the expression of intimacy and power relations.

This perspective suggests that we not view language and society as separate. Linguists, including most sociolinguists, have tried to account for the dynamism of language by linking it remotely to situations. The social is treated as external to languageas “context,” functioning at a higher and more conscious level than language, and somehow learned after language. But the social is learned along with language and is embedded in the unconscious to the same extent and in the same way as the linguistic. Just as speakers are developing a linguistic system from the very earliest childhood, they are developing a social system as well. Pierre Bourdieu’s (1977) notion of the habitus is a cognitive embedding of the social, developed from the earliest years as a function of one’s location in society. The habitus has even been described (Wacquant 2005) as the social equivalent of the vernacular. Most work in variation has focused on production, and the analyst can assume that the speaker has a limited number of personae to present. But perception, particularly of strangers, requires much more cognitive work. Hearers’ judgments in vowel identification tasks are influenced by information about the speaker’s geographic originwhether presented explicitly (Niedzielski 1999) or by an “accidental” sighting of a geographically relevant plush toy (Hay & Drager 2010). Emotional tone of voice influences the processing of tokens of homophonous lexical items, so that, for example, experimental subjects are more likely to process [flæwɚ] uttered in a happy voice as flower but uttered in a neutral voice as flour (Nygaard & Lunders 2002). Kathryn Campbell-Kibler (2008) has shown that experimental subjects interpret the intent of the use of a variable (e.g. whether the speaker is being condescending or compassionate) as a function of their more general construal of the speaker. While it might be tempting to claim that the persona construal is prior to the interpretation of the linguistic variable, it seems more likely that each feeds the other, as, for example, put forth in Jonathan Freeman and Nalini Ambady’s (2011) connectionist and dynamic systems account of person construal. The Third Wave, in other words, which began with the simple question of what variables mean, in the end raises fundamental questions about the nature of language.


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(1) For a more comprehensive account of the three waves of variation, see Eckert (2012).

(2) I use Wells’s (1982) Standard Lexical Sets to refer to variables.

(3) I am grateful to Annette D’Onofrio, who performed this experiment.