Reconstructing sociolinguistic variation

Jessica Kantarovich, Lenore A. Grenoble


In this paper we illustrate a methodology for reconstructing language in interaction from literary texts, demonstrating how they can serve as documentation of speech when primary linguistic material is unavailable. A careful incorporation of facts from literary dialect not only informs grammatical reconstruction in situations with little to no documentation, but also allows for the reconstruction of the sociolinguistic use of a language, an oft-overlooked aspect of linguistic reconstruction. Literary dialogue is often one of the only attestations of regional varieties of a language with a very salient standard dialect, where no primary sources are available. Odessan Russian (OdR), a moribund dialect of Russian, serves as a case study. OdR grew out of intensive language contact and differs from most other varieties of Russian, with substrate influences from Yiddish, Ukrainian, and Polish, and lexical borrowing from other languages. The only records of "spoken" OdR are found in fctional narrative. An analysis of works from several prominent Odessan writers, including Isaak Babel and Ze'ev Jabotinsky, reveals considerable variation among speakers of OdR; careful tracking of this variation shows how it was distributed among different social groups, and suggests how it may have been deployed to index and acknowledge different social roles.


historical linguistics; language variation; sociolinguistics; historical reconstruction; language contact; Russian

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Copyright (c) 2017 Jessica Kantarovich, Lenore A. Grenoble

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