Variation, structure and norms
After a period when the focus was essentially on mental architecture, the cognitive sciences are increasingly integrating the social dimension. The rise of a cognitive sociolinguistics is part of this trend. The article argues that this process requires a re-evaluation of some entrenched positions in linguistics: those that see linguistic norms as antithetical to a descriptive and variational linguistics. Once such a re-evaluation has taken place, however, the social recontextualization of cognition will enable linguistics (including sociolinguistics as an integral part), to eliminate the cracks in the foundations that were the result of suppressing the sociocultural underpinnings of linguistic facts. Structuralism, cognitivism and social constructionism introduced new and necessary distinctions, but in their strong forms they all turned into unnecessary divides. The article tries to show that an evolutionary account can reintegrate the opposed fragments into a whole picture that puts each of them in their ‘ecological position’ with respect to each other. Empirical usage facts should be seen in the context of operational norms in relation to which actual linguistic choices represent adaptations. Variational patterns should be seen in the context of structural categories without which there would be only ‘differences’ rather than variation. And emergence, individual choice, and flux should be seen in the context of the individual’s dependence on lineages of community practice sustained by collective norms.