What is American English and, if "yes", how many? Needless to say, American English is not a monolithic entity, but the region is characterized by considerable regional, social, and ethnic linguistic variation. In this seminar, we will examine the development of the English language ever since it first hit the shores of North America in the 17th century, ultimately becoming one of the most influential varieties of English worldwide. In particular, we will look beyond what is generally referred to as "standard" or "general" American and zoom in on a selection of regional, social, and ethnic varieties of English, discussing their respective sociohistories and linguistic properties. Within this topical context, students will be introduced to number of linguistic subdisciplines and related methodological approaches, e.g., dialectology, sociolinguistics, and variation studies, and we will take a hands-on-approach to studying linguistic variation in American English(es).
William Labov (1972: xiii), generally regarded as the founder of variationist sociolinguistics, is often quoted saying: ”I have resisted the term sociolinguistics for many years, since it implies that there can be a successful linguistic theory or practice which is not social.” In fact, it is virtually impossible to separate language from its social embedding. Whenever we use language, we not only transfer information, but we automatically convey something about who we are, where we come from, and what social groups we are associated with.
Variationist sociolinguistics is mainly concerned with studying the variation that can be observed at all linguistic levels and its social determinants. The main assumption is that the observable variation is not random but highly systematic, i.e., there is orderly heterogeneity (Weinreich, Labov & Herzog 1968). Language-internal as well as -external factors, in particular social variables such as age, gender, level of education, social class, or ethnicity, condition this variation and allow us to identify (social) language varieties, categorize speakers as members of certain social groups, and investigate how speakers draw on linguistic resources to position themselves in the social landscape and express particular identities.
In this class, we will zoom into the three waves of variation study, discussing theory and relevant methodological approaches against the backdrop of key studies from the field. Starting with Labov’s (1963) influential work on Martha’s Vineyard, we will strive through half a century of variation study and will take a hands-on-approach to studying variable language use - possibly in our own community.
Linguistics certainly has its theoretical, even philosophical side, but it also offers a practical toolkit of notions and definitions that enable informed users to analyse and savour a language that less informed users merely speak. In addition to recapitulating and practising the more general and historical contents of lecture 35702, this seminar will show how the categories and terminologies introduced there can be profitably applied to the sounds, word forms, and syntactic structures of the English language.
Course requirements: regular attendance, active participation, completion of written exercises.
The ability to identify the meaning-distinguishing sound types (phonemes) of the language is a minimum requirement for anyone concerned with English. Advanced learners, however, will need a conscious knowledge of distributions, distinctive features and articulatory processes in order to better monitor their own pronunciation, assess regional and social variation and efficiently correct the inevitable Bavarianisms of future pupils. This course will, once more, introduce the set of symbols and the conventions relevant to all types of linguistic exams and practise British and American Standard transcription on authentic material of increasing complexity.
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