Investigating Variation: The Effects of Social Organization and Social Setting

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Linguistic variation has most commonlu been studied in communities that have the dominant social organization of our time: occupation and ethnic diversity, socioeconomic stratification, and a population size that precludes community-wide face-to-face interaction. In such communities literacy introduces overarching, extra-community linguistic norms, and linguistic variation correlates with socioeconomic class. Investigating Variation explores a different kind of social organization: small size, enclavement, common occupation, absence of social stratification, bilingualism with extremely weak extra-community norming for the local minority language, which shows a very high level of individual variation. Nancy C. Dorian's examination of the fisherfolk Gaelic spoken in a Highland Scottish village offers a number of explanations for delayed recognition of linguistic variation unrelated to social class or other social sub-groups. Reports of similar variation phenomena in locations with similar social-setting and social-organization features (contemporary minority-language pockets in Ireland, Russia, Norway, Canada, and Cameroon) make it possible to recognize a particular set of factors that contribute to the emergence and persistence of socially neutral inter-speaker and intra speaker variation. The documented existence of still other forms of social organization, rare now but once more widespread, suggests that additional forms of linguistic variation, as well as other facets of language use related to social organization, remain unexamined, calling for attention before the few communities that represent them disappear altogether.