Sociolinguistic change, indexical fields, and the longue durée: examples from the urban sociolinguistics of German
Most sociolinguistic research on language change views variation merely as a transitional stage during which new and old forms compete, until one of them (usually the new one) supersedes and becomes categorical. The social part of the analysis tries to explain why one variant wins and the other one is lost. However, a look into phonological variation in the history of German quickly reveals that many phonological variables do not conform to this pattern but remain variable over centuries. What does change, sometimes repeatedly, is their social interpretation and the social groups which draw on a variant to create social meaning. However, the repertoire of variants remains the same. Drawing on research on the historical urban sociolinguistics of the German-speaking language area, I develop an approach to language change in this plenary which takes this kind of persisting variability into account. The approach is indebted to Michael Silverstein’s and Penelope Eckert’s notions of the indexical order and the indexical field, respectively.
I argue that the reinterpretation of variants as multiply meaningful indices is deeply linked to the role of cities in the spread of a standard variety of German, or, in the case of German-speaking Switzerland, to the inverse process of ousting standard German from the domains of spoken language. The standard–dialect dynamics constitute the longue durée historical context of these processes of sociolinguistic change.