Social practice in language variation: the spread of linguistic elements in ethnolects

Stefania Marzo

Hogeschool Gent / K.U.Leuven (Belgium), Belgium


Research into linguistic variation rarely focuses on gaining insight into the way in which variation comes about (Marshall 2004: 5). The purpose of this paper is to respond to this lack of studies, by examining the underlying dynamics of variation; in particular, by answering the following questions: (1) why do people vary their language? (2) how are new linguistic elements introduced and adopted by others?

In order to answer these theoretical questions, I will start from an empirical study on citétaal (“language spoken in the cités”), an ethnolect, spoken by youngsters in Belgium. It is a variety that is used in the former ghettoized mining areas of Limburg and that hasn’t received any scientific attention yet, unlike other “youth languages” or “steet languages” in multiethnic neighbourhoods in Belgium and the Netherlands (Appel & Schoonen 2005; Jaspers 2005). Citétaal is characterized by typical ethnolectal features, o.a morphological overgeneralization and borrowing, particularly from Italian. Furthermore, this variety is used both by immigrant and non-immigrant youngsters, so that it can hardly be called a minority language.

The main question of this presentation is: why and how do youngsters, and particularly non-immigrants, decide to use these linguistic forms? In analyzing this problem, I will decompose the notions of social meaning and identity, by focusing on the multiple factors that play a role during linguistic interaction. This will be done within a theoretical framework that considers language and linguistic variation as a dynamic social practice (Clark 1996; Eckert 2000) and speakers as agents who influence each other by their language use. In this perspective, variation emerges when two or more linguistic forms are in competition (Tomasello 2006): in every linguistic interaction, a variety of linguistic phenomena is offered and the interlocutor can choose the form he wants to adopt. His choice will depend on a series of factors that determine the importance of the form within the linguistic practice (the person that offers the form, the setting, …).

On the basis of data gathered during a fieldwork (participant observation, interviewing and group recordings) in two neighbourhoods in Belgian Limburg, I will elaborate this theoretical framework, in order to develop a model that can shed more light on the processes of variation, in particular on the practice of lending and spreading linguistic elements.


Appel, R. & Schoonen, R. 2005. “Street language. A multilingual youth register in the Netherlands”. Journal of multilingual and multicultural development, 26(2). 85-117.

Chambers, J.K. 1995. Sociolinguistic theory. Linguistic variation and its social significance. Malden; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Clark, H.H. 1996. Using language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert, P. 2000. Linguistic variation as social practice. The linguistic construction of identity in Belten High. Malden; Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Jaspers, J. 2005. Tegenwerken, belachelijk doen: talige sabotage van Marokkaanse jongens op een Antwerpse middelbare school. Brussel: VUB press.

Marshall, J. 2004. Language change and sociolinguistics. Rethinking social networks. New York. Palgrave Macmillan.

Tomasello, M. 2006. “Acquiring linguistic constructions”. In D. Kuhn & R. Siegler (Eds.), Handbook of Child Psychology. New York: Wiley.

Session: Paper session
Youth Language 3
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 13