«Form and meaning»: A new book on variation

The book Form and meaning. Studies of grammatical variation and choice in Spanish has just been published by Peter Lang as a volume of its prestigious collection Studien zur romanischen Sprachwissenschaft and interkulturellen Kommunikation (order here).

Edited by María José Serrano and Miguel A. Aijón Oliva, the book presents a state of the art in studies of variation that approach meaning — in all its possible facets — as the key to scientific explanation. It brings together a group of international scholars whose work pursues the systematic integration of meaning and function in models of grammatical usage. Traditional variationist approaches — based on the analysis of correlations between allegedly synonymous linguistic forms and geographical zones, speaker sociodemographic features and/or communicative situations — have proven scarcely effective to go beyond description and answer questions that seem crucial, including the following ones:

  • Why does linguistic variation exist? Are linguistic variants different ways of saying the same thing, as they are usually understood?
  • Is it possible to describe regular or systematic connections between the inherent meanings of grammatical forms, their contextual interpretation and their statistical distribution according to extralinguistic factors?
  • Are processes of diachronic change a mere effect of mechanical and/or sociocultural factors, or do they entail the simultaneous replacement of certain meanings with different ones?

The book is headed by a foreword from Nikolas Coupland, a world-renowned specialist in sociolinguistics, variation and style. A theoretical introduction by the editors reviews the evolution of the scientific study of variation, from traditional models based on structural synonymy to the latest developments made thanks to the contributions of functional and cognitive linguistics. Later, the seven empirical chapters focus on morphosyntactic phenomena in different varieties of European and American Spanish. They analyze a wide range of discourse types and communicative domains, from sociolinguistic interviews to mass media and social network interactions.

Some of these chapters address well-known phenomena of Spanish morphosyntactic variation from new perspectives incorporating sociopragmatic, discourse-analytic and/or functional-cognitive models. These include preverbal vs. postverbal subject placement in interrogatives (Ramos Martín) or the choice of tense in conditional clauses (Mielenz). Another oft-cited and complex phenomenon of variation, namely the choice between the indicative and subjunctive moods, is investigated as a cognitively-grounded feature that interacts with social and stylistic factors (García Yanes). Focalizing ser (‘to be’) cleft constructions, usually viewed as a mere matter of dialectal variation in American varieties, are shown to be inherently associated with the construction of reference and discourse processing (Méndez Vallejo). Finally, other chapters are representative of the growing interest in the development of discourse viewpoint, the interpretation of reference, and the management of identities through initiator-defocusing constructions (Aijón Oliva, Fábregas, Serrano). These studies represent a significant departure from the study of traditional variables composed of supposedly alternative variants and advocate for a much wider approach to syntactic variation as communicative choice in context. They also offer guidelines for the analysis of variation in other languages.

Here is the list of chapters of the book and their authors:


Nikolas Coupland (Cardiff University)

1. Introduction: Variation, choice, and the construction of meaning

Miguel A. Aijón Oliva (Universidad de Salamanca) & María José Serrano (Universidad de La Laguna)

2. Variation, syntax, and semantics: Person features and the non-specific reading of participants

Antonio Fábregas (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

3. Variation of the independent infinitive and the desubjectivizing viewpoint of discourse

María José Serrano (Universidad de La Laguna)

4. Defocusing constructions, viewpoint, and reference: The shaping of public institutions vs. citizens in digital opinion pieces

Miguel A. Aijón Oliva (Universidad de Salamanca)

5. Variation in hypothetical conditional structures in the Spanish of Astorga

Benjamin D. Mielenz (University at Albany, State University of New York)

6. Subject position in Hispanic yes/no interrogatives: A description according to utterance pragmatic function and geographical variation in a corpus of written speech

Dania Ramos Martín (Université Rennes 2)

7. A semantic approach to mood variation: Habitual and factual clauses introduced by después (de) que

Francisco Javier García Yanes (Consejería de Educación, Gobierno de Canarias)

8. Understanding the Focalizing Ser structure: Going beyond syntax

Dunia Catalina Méndez Vallejo (Princeton University)

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