A new role for narrative in variationist sociolinguistics

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Labov and Waletzky’s (1997[1967]) path-breaking description of “narrative syntax” arose in the context of variationist sociolinguistic research, and narrative continues to be an important source of data for variationist’ work. In most of this work, however, narrative is not the object of study. Variationist sociolinguists are interested in the structure and function of sounds, words, and phrases found in narrative data, but they have not typically asked how the structure and function of narrative itself might bear on the questions about linguistic variation and language change that define their field. Here I suggest that close attention to the structure and function of narrative can, in fact, shed light on a topic of central interest to variationists, namely vernacular norm-formation. I argue that narratives about encounters with linguistic difference help create shared orientations to particular sets of nonstandard linguistic features and link them with region, class, and other sources of identity. I further suggest that narrative functions particularly well as a vehicle for language-ideological differentiation (Gal & Irvine, 1995) of this sort.


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