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Emergent sociolinguistic variation in severe language endangerment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 July 2019

Jonathan R. Kasstan*
University of Westminster, UK
Address for correspondence: Jonathan R. Kasstan School of HumanitiesUniversity of Westminster309 Regent Street London, W1B 2HW,


Contrary to Labov's principle of style shifting, studies in language obsolescence portray speakers of dying languages as ‘monostylistic’, a characterization questioned here. Variationist methodology is adopted in a context of gradual language death. By combining quantitative and interactional analyses of data from older, younger, and new speakers of Francoprovençal in France and Switzerland, the article considers (a) to what extent variability in language obsolescence differs from that found in ‘healthy’ languages, and (b) how innovations might spread through communities speaking threatened languages characterized as ‘monostylistic’ and lacking overt normative infrastructure. It is argued that style variation (not monostylism) emerges from linguistic decay: among more fluent speakers, a categorical rule of /l/-palatalization before obstruents becomes underspecified, rendering palatalization available for strategic use. Among new speakers, novel palatal variants form part of an emergent sociolinguistic norm. The study offers fresh insights on the origins of sociolinguistic variation with implications for variationist theory. (Language obsolescence, language death, language variation and change, style variation, new speakers)*

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2019 

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I thank Jenny Cheshire, Silvia Dal Negro, David Hornsby, Naomi Nagy, Devyani Sharma, Itxaso Rodríguez-Ordóñez, and two anonymous reviewers for their feedback on earlier drafts of this article. The research on which the article is based would not have been possible without generous funding from a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship (ECF-2017-584). I am indebted to the communities from whom the data discussed here have come.


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