«Towards a comprehensive view of variation in language: the absolute variable», published in Language & Communication

«Towards a comprehensive view of variation in language: the absolute variable» by Miguel Ángel Aijón Oliva and María José Serrano is already published in Language & Communication (Elsevier), a journal devoted to the interdisciplinary study of language and communication. It is indexed on Journal Citation Reports with a 1,037 year impact factor.

Approaches to variation in syntax usually consider formal variants as complementary, on the assumption that they share the same descriptive meaning and are manifestations of a structural variable which may be correlated with social and situational factors. However, such a concept of variable, which will here be termed relative, favors a deterministic and automated view of linguistic choice. After discussing the main theoretical and methodological restrictions of the traditional model of variation, in this paper a different analytical frame will be outlined, based on absolute variables.

Syntactic structures are meaningful in themselves and not just by their alleged opposition to others. Thus, instead of quantifying their rates of appearance against supposed alternatives, their overall frequencies can be calculated according to some independent measure, such as the word number of texts. This implies seeing language use not as a mere succession of choices among two or more forms in opposition, but rather as a process involving the parallel construction of textual form and notional meaning.

The need has often been stressed to unify the quantitative and qualitative sides of linguistic description within a global theory. Today we are just starting to hint at the possibilities offered by cognitive approaches to language, in which a view of variation as the creation of meaning in interaction seems to fit quite naturally. Methodological tools such as relative and absolute variables can undoubtedly be a great help to the development of a general theory of language and communication.

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4 comentarios

  • Responder Julio 21/09/2011 - 17:44

    Congratulations for this new success. I think the conception of variation emerging from the analysis of absolute variables merits detailed consideration indeed. Whereas in earlier studies the calculation of overall item frequencies seems to have been prompted by mere methodological necessity (given the difficulty in specifying exhaustive sets of variants when it comes to non-phonological phenomena), now it can be recognized as the analytical counterpart of what seems to be growing into a properly theoretical model of language production. The fact that a linguistic construction is unequally likely to occur in different communicative situations and human groups is itself incorporated to that elusive reality we call «meaning» and which I believe resides in speakers’ knowledge of the semiotic potential of linguistic elements. However, I think an important and problematic question in this respect is to what extent such knowledge can be said to be shared or intersubjective, that is, do speakers’ communicative intentions match what is interpreted by hearers, and why (not)? Also, to what extent are those alleged intentions above the level of conscience? Does speaker communicative competence somehow include the information that a form should be used more often in a given situation?

    Anyway, in my view developments like your absolute variables are landmarks along the road from the classic concept of «linguistic variation» towards that of «linguistic-communicative choice», which helps integrate the essential dynamic side of language usage into a traditionally structuralist paradigm. This also entails viewing non-discrete, cognition-based communicative styles as the fundamental varieties deserving scientific attention, as you have made clear in your publications.

  • Responder Miguel A. 22/09/2011 - 11:41

    @Julio: Thank you so much for your comments. The questions you raise are no doubt crucial to the development of a theoretical paradigm of variation (or «choice», as you interestingly suggest). As I have sometimes remarked, most approaches to language are still centered on production while basically neglecting reception, which is obviously as fundamental if we want to talk about communication. However, I believe interactional approaches such as the one we try to apply to variation can partly compensate for this fact. When the analysis linguistic choice is not confined to the boundaries of the utterance, but rather is viewed within the broader context of conversational interaction, it is possible to (at least partly) ascertain the effects of such choice by observing the reactions it elicits.

    As for speaker knowledge about occurrence probabilities, it is a rather complicated matter as well, but there is a growing body of work suggesting the existence of a gradual component of competence and sometimes even pointing to a gradual nature of competence itself (see some references in this paper).

  • Responder María José 24/09/2011 - 23:29

    Great and fairly discussion! I agree with both of you. The ongoing research in absolute and relative variables is indirectly trying to match up the hearer and speaker competence and will rather fill the gap between the real communicative goals of both in interaction. Meaning plays a crucial role in this task and it is exhaustively analyzed in our research as it is developed alongside the multiple co-variable features displayed in every interaction.

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