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Principles of Variation Analysis

Peter L Patrick

University of Essex



Principle of quantitative modelling


o       We can examine closely the forms that a linguistic variable takes, and note what features of the context co-occur with these forms. (“Context” means the surrounding linguistic environment and the social phenomena that co-occur with a given variable form.)

o       With a large enough data-set, we can make statements about the likelihood of co-occurrence of a variable form and any one of the contextual features we are interested in. These statements express in quantitative terms the strength of association between a contextual feature and the linguistic variable.


Principle of multiple causes

o       It is unlikely that any single contextual factor can explain the variability observed in natural language data.


Other principles of language variation:

o       Individual speakers may differ in their basic rate of use of a variable rule, ie, in their input probability for the rule (in Varbrul terms).

o       Individuals belonging to the same speech community will be similar or identical in the factor values assigned to linguistic constraints on the rule.


The first of these principles allows for, eg, social stratification within a speech community whose members nevertheless (by the second principle) adhere to the same hierarchy of constraints.


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Last updated 05 December 2007