January 21st, 2011 by Rob

On a recent trip to Australia I was reminded of when the field of culturomics was born there some half a century ago. From 1954-1955 the seminal sociologist John Fischer and his wife were famously engaged in the study of child-rearing in a New England village (Fischer 1964). It is not so widely-known that the sociolinguist Martin Joos also accompanied them on this trip and that their study also took them to Australia and Great Britain. The team at Google Books recently discovered transcripts from this period where the two were talking (talkin’) about the relationship between language variation and linguistic universals:

December 1955, Sydney, AUSTRALIA:

Fischer: Just as I observed in New England, the ‘-ing’ (/ŋ/) variant is the prestige variant and the ‘-in’ (/n/) variant more stigmatized here in Australia. In addition, the ‘-ing’ variant is also more common among female speakers. This seems to arise from the division between Standard Australian English (Standard AusE) which favors the ‘-ing’ more than the stigmatized Broad Australian English (Broad AusE). This looks like the same case of ‘phonetic drift’ (Joos 1952) we noted in New England. Surely, this variation should be part of our linguistic models and not shunned from our science (Joos 1950).

Joos: It is more than a coincidence that /ŋ/ is considered the standard form, and /n/ the non-standard variant in independently evolved English speech communities. As many researchers have no-doubt noted /ŋ/ is more marked than /n/ in English, as evidenced by the fact that only /n/ may be word-initial. Cross-linguistically, there is evidence that this results from linguistic universals. To my best knowledge, there are no languages that contain /ŋ/ but not /n/ in their phonetic inventory, but many that contain /n/ but not /ŋ/. It is straightforward to claim, therefore, that a linguistic universal exists where /ŋ/ is more marked than /n/. It seems that English speakers evaluate that alternating /ŋ/ with /n/ is non-standard (despite neither being inherently right or wrong) which leads to the characterization of the /n/ alternation as the stigmatized ‘lazy’ form in all cases. This accounts for why we find the same variation (and, importantly, the same evaluation of the variation) in independent English speech communities. It may pattern probabilistically, but the key part of linguistics is the invariable markedness constraint.

Fischer: But this universal falls short of a full explanation when we compare it to variation that we cannot similarly explain, such as variation involving a feature that is strictly local. For example, in New England the ‘ey’ variant for the article ‘a’ indexes formality more strongly than the ‘-ing’ variant, which is a subtle but important observation: not all variation is equal. Unlike the ‘-ing’/‘-in’ alternation, the use of ‘ey’ does not seem to be related to any phonetic or phonological universals, and it is not a variation that is commonly found in English more broadly. Here in Australian English it seems that the ‘ey’ variant simply does not exist, and if produced it would most likely be evaluated the product of a (non-English) accent, if noticed at all. Therefore, while the ‘ey’ variant more strongly indexes formality in New England English, the ‘-ing’ variant more strongly indexes formality in Australian English. This leaves very little room to appeal to linguistic universals in the variants, as the variation motivated by linguistic universals can be more or less strong than the local variant.

Joos: It is not important that the local variant can be stronger than the one derived from universals. It simply means that knowledge of linguistic universals is difficult to derive from observing everyday speech, which is evidence against using this particular methodology. I believe a promising young linguist named Chomsky is currently working on a manuscript making arguments to this effect…

February 1956, London, GREAT BRITAIN:

Fischer: To return to our earlier conversation, we cannot only consider universal factors when the local variation can reverse the universal trends. The ‘-in’ form seems to carry more prestige among the educated upper-classes here in Great Britain in words that express the social activities of the class such as ‘huntin’, ‘fishin’ and ‘shootin’. This may well be the result of the upper-class seeking to distance itself from the lower classes through innovation, and is therefore still ‘phonetic drift’ (Joos 1950), but it stands as a counter-example to the markedness constraint. The result is that even if /ŋ/ is universally more marked than /n/ and the ranking is absolute according to universal linguistic constraints, it is nonetheless employed probabilistically. Do we banish the constraint from linguistics for having an observable but non-absolute effect among a minority of speech communities? It seems that speakers are free to take ‘universals’ and employ them like any other variant for constructing social meaning.

Joos: It is likely that the /ŋ/-favoring British middle-classes provide enough of a buffer to prevent /n/ indexing the lower-classes, and this allows the /n/ variant to be evaluated very differently in the context of upper-class British (Received) English and the lower-class Cockney English, where it is also prevalent. No such buffer exists in Australian English. The upper-class men, talking about ‘shootin’ and ‘huntin’, are an exception only because the speakers are deliberately flaunting what they instinctively know to be a universal markedness constraint (and only for a restricted vocabulary relating to upper-class activities) so this can be explained as an exception that proves the rule.

Fischer: Certainly, but this fails to account for why we find the /n/ variant in both the British and Australian upper-classes, and the social meaning of employing the variant in each speech community. Among the upper-classes of both Australia and Great Britain, the men are much more likely than the women to use the /n/ variant than the /ŋ/ variant, but for opposing reasons. Upper-class Australian men are more likely to use the /n/ variant to express egalitarianism with Australian men of other socioeconomic groups, while upper-class British men are more are more likely to use the /n/ variant to distance themselves from British men of the lowest socioeconomic groups. For both, only men are able to use the /n/ variant without stigma, but for very different reasons. If an upper-class Australian woman used the /n/ variant, she would be indexing a lower socio-economic status or nouveau rich. However, if an upper-class British woman used the /n/ variant in ‘shootin’ or ‘huntin’ she would be indexing masculinity, but upper-class masculinity. Therefore, even when we find the same pattern of usage, the social meaning may differ.

Joos: So are you claiming that there is no room for universals in such an analysis?

Fischer: No, there is room for identifying linguistic universals, but identifying universals in language use is applying a label, not providing an explanation.


Fischer, John. 1964. Social influence in the choice of a linguistic variant, in Word, 14.
Joos, Martin. 1950. Description of language design. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 22
Joos, Martin. 1952. The Five Clocks, New York: Harcourt

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>