Analysing variation in English

Analysing variation in English. Ed. by Warren Maguire and April McMahon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xiii, 332. ISBN 978052189669. $99 (Hb).

Reviewed by Susanne Wagner, Chemnitz University of Technology

This book contains contributions from different research areas unified by the common aim of variation analysis and its practical application. The book is suitable for doctoral students, but it really targets researchers looking for new ideas beyond their area of expertise.

The introduction covers the central questions of the book: how to collect, analyze, store, and present data showing variation; and how to compare and validate different methods of analysis.

Erik R. Thomas’s comprehensive yet concise overview of sociophonetic methods includes such topics as traditional dialectology, modern surveys, transcription, and computer-supported acoustic analysis. He identifies discreteness and binarity as particularly problematic, stressing the importance of employing mixed models for the integrated analysis of variables. In the following chapter, Isabelle Buchstaller and Karen Corrigan look at different methods for investigating morphosyntactic variation, such as reformulation tasks, grammaticality judgement tasks, magnitude estimations, and pictorial elicitation. They identify magnitude estimation as a robust way of making intuitions succeed. An important caveat is that different settings may require very different methods.

Alexandra D’Arcy’s chapter on corpora seems geared more towards undergraduate students than researchers. It is also noteworthy that the choice of corpora is generally very eclectic; despite a general North American bias in the selection of corpora and references, the large Brigham Young University (BYU) corpora are not included. The only dynamic corpus mentioned is the Bank of English (COBUILD). In the following chapter, Hermann Moisl presents a rather advanced look at cluster analysis. The author emphasizes the advantages of the method but also discusses problems involved with using this (or any) method without knowing how it works.

Warren Maguire and April McMahon show how to quantify similarities and differences on all linguistic levels—from traditional isoglosses and feature bundles via honeycomb maps to Levenshtein distance on a phonetic level and trees of distance. Their emphasis is on interaction between types of measurement and other practical or theoretical concerns. They hope for an extension of these methods, employed mostly in lexis and phonetics, to other levels of analysis, particularly morphosyntax. In the chapter that follows, Chris Montgomery and Joan Beal use starburst charts to illustrate perceptual dialectology in England, a field so far neglected.

Part 2 establishes a link between linguistic variation and other fields. Patrick Honeybone looks at variation and linguistic theory, emphasizing the role of the individual in theory formation, and discusses such popular theories as rule-based phonology, optimality theoretical phonology and syntax, and principles and parameters syntax. Gregory R. Guy discusses traditional notions of variation and change, which were revolutionary at the time of their inception and are now commonplace in variationist studies (e.g. orderly heterogeneity, inherent variability, real and apparent time, S-curve, age-grading, incrementation and stabilization). He also stresses the link between research on variation and change and historical linguistics. Touching upon a yet underrepresented area, Frances Rock looks at the role of variation in forensic linguistics. She emphasizes factors important in both fields, such as the role of style and style shifting.

In her chapter on variation and identity, Emma Moore discusses ‘variationists’ current identity crisis’ (219) and stresses the importance of the historical context to understand the social meaning of linguistic variables, particularly emphasizing the need to combine methods. In the most exceptional chapter of the volume, Rob McMahon looks at variation and (genetic) populations. Parallels exist, for example, in terms of differentiation or dissecting variation into different subsystems. The book’s final chapter, by Graeme Trousdale, centers on the role of standard and non-standard varieties of English in national curricula, stressing the problematic status of ‘standard English’ and whether a variety other than the standard could be successfully used for instruction. He also calls for collaboration between (academic) linguists and teachers.