Editors’ Introduction and Review: Sociolinguistic Variation and Cognitive Science

Topics in Cognitive Science 10 (4):679-695 (2018)
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Abstract

Sociolinguists study the interaction between language and society. Variationist sociolinguistics — the subfield of sociolinguistics which is the focus of this issue — uses empirical and quantitative methods to study the production and perception of linguistic variation. Linguistic variation refers to how speakers choose between linguistic forms that say the same thing in different ways, with the variants differing in their social meaning. For example, how frequently someone says fishin’ or fishing depends on a number of factors, such as the speaker's regional and social background and the formality of the speech event. Likewise, if listeners are asked to use a rating scale make judgements about speakers who say fishin’ or fishing, their ratings depend on what other social characteristics are attributed to the speaker. This issue aims to reflect the growing number of interactions that bring variationist sociolinguistics into contact of different branches of cognitive science. After presenting current trends in sociolinguistics, we identify five areas of contact between the two fields: cognitive sociolinguistics, sociolinguistic cognition, acquisition of variation, computational modeling, and a comparative approach of variation in animal communication. We then explain the benefits of interdisciplinary work: fostering the study of variability and cultural diversity in cognition; bringing together data and modeling; understanding the cognitive mechanisms through which sociolinguistic variation is processed; examining indexical meaning; exploring links between different levels of grammar; and improving methods of data collection and analysis. Finally we explain how the articles in this issue contribute to each of these benefits. We conclude by suggesting that sociolinguistics holds a strategic position for facing the challenge of building theories of language through integrating its linguistic, cognitive, and social aspects at the collective and individual levels.

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