A Sociolinguistic Study of Language Variation

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Published on International Journal of Social, Politics & Humanities
Publication Date: April 19, 2019

Miftawu Fuseini
Departement of Applied Linguistics, University of Education
Winneba, Ghana

Journal Full Text PDF: A Sociolinguistic Study of Language Variation (Study in Dagbani).

The goal of this paper is to examine the nature and functions of language use and variation taking into account PHONOLOGCAL variation within the dialects of Dagbani, a language belonging to the South-Western languages of the Western Oti-Volta subgroup of the Gur group of languages. The paper considers the possible variation of linguistic items that seem to be alternating within and among the dialects of Dagbani. The paper also examines possible factors responsible for the observable phonological variation in the recent times. I also propose some social variables responsible for the variation; which are, age (young and the old), gender and education. The paper also provides statistical distribution to the phenomenon to ascertain the dominant choice of linguistic items as well as the external linguistic factors. I give the paper a comparative flavor by drawing data from the three dialects of the language to buttress my claim based on empirical evidence that the phenomenon discussed is quite pervasive in this language. The study objectives are tested by data from interviews. Participants used in the studies were young and old male and female native speakers of Dagbani across the three dialects. The paper selected forty (40) participants for the study who used language for their everyday interactions and they are familiar with the two variables; laɣiri and liɣiri. The participants were purposefully and randomly selected for the study. The methodology and the analysis are basically from a Labovian sociolinguistic perspective (Labov, 1963). The paper analyzed the data using an SPSS software to generate tables and findings are drawn from the data. Upon careful analyses of the data collected, the study observed the following: the choice between the two variants [liɣiri] or [laɣiri] is social stratified in the speech community. It is observed that [liɣiri] is the less dominant variant but it socially marked for male and older generation. The study also observed that [laɣiri] appears to be a more dominant variant and socially marked for female and the younger generation. I conclude that the interaction between the people through communication and time, accounts for language variation in the society.

Keywords: Dagbani, Variation, Variants, Social variables, Speech Community, Gur, Laɣiri, Liɣiri, Variables & Linguistic Variables.

Language has been studied for many years and from different perspectives. At first, language was studied in terms of its structure; however, with the advent of sociolinguistics, it began to be studied in relation to the society which uses it, which makes language described in an objective way, as there was a more scientific and descriptive approach to linguistic analysis with emphasis on the spoken usage. The advent of sociolinguistics has attracted the interest of many researchers, and it is concerned with the connections between language and society and the way we use it in different social situations. It describes language variation in its social context and it was William Labov who opened the door to such a study, which had been neglected completely in linguistic theory. Speech variation as an important subject has been discussed by many sociolinguists in different dimensions. Sociolinguistics, as a huge field, studies the wide variety of dialects across a given region, to the analysis of the different social variables influencing the speaker’s language. It often shows us the humorous realities of human speech and how a dialect of a given language can often describe the age, gender, and social class or level of education… of the speaker. (Naima, 2012).
This paper is poised to analyze the nature and functions of language use and variation taking into account language variation and change within the dialects of Dagbani (South Western Oti-Volta), a central Gur language spoken by the Dagbamba in Northern Ghana. The canonical word order of Dagbani is basically Subject, Verb, and Object (SVO), also called Agent Verb Object. Dagbani has three major dialects which include: Tomosili, (the Western dialect) spoken in Tamale and its surroundings, Nayahili (the Eastern dialect), spoken in and around Yendi, and Nanuni, which is also spoken around Bimbilla and its surroundings. Noticeable dialectal differences are basically phonological and lexical without any known syntactic/structural differences. The data for the study is drawn from oral conversations through interview. The use of data from oral conversations have been motivated by the fact that in general, it is better to get someone else’s speech in linguistic analysis, since it is not influenced by the particular research agenda. Though a native speaker of the Nayahili dialect myself, the generalizations concerning the alternations of linguistics items within the speech communities could not be limited to a particular dialect of Dagbani, since interactions with speakers of the other three dialects show that similar phenomenon exists in Tomosili and Nanuni as well. (Samuel 1971, Greenberg 1963, Wilson 1970a, Issah, 2008, and Fusheini 2006).

Dagbani is a Gur language widely spoken by the Dagbamba in the Northern part of Ghana. This language belongs to the Niger-Congo language family. Native speakers of Dagbani are called Dagbamba (plural) or Dagbana (singular). These have been modified to Dagombas and Dagomba respectively. The geographical area within which Dagbani is spoken is called Dagboŋ. Dagbani has been classified as belonging to the Moore Gurma sub-group of African languages: Bendor-Samuel (1971), Greenberg (1963), and Wilson (1970a). Though Dagbani has a continuum of dialects, two major dialects stand out: Tomosili (the Western dialect) and Nayahili (the Eastern dialect). Whilst the former is spoken in and around Tamale, the political capital of the Northern Region, the latter is spoken in and around Yendi, the seat of the traditional head of Dagboŋ. Fusheini (2006) argues that Nanuni be part of the dialects of Dagbani making it three contrary to other literatures. The data used for analysis in this thesis are based on the three dialects of Dagbani. Though Dagbani is a tonal language, this work, following the orthographic conventions of Dagbani, does not mark tone.

The widest context of verbal interaction for sociolinguistic research is usually taken to be the speech community. The study of speech communities has interested linguists for a long time; there has always been a lot of disagreement over exactly what a speech community is.
One of the definitions of ‘speech community’ given by John Lyons is as all the people who use a given language (or dialect). According to this definition, speech communities may overlap (where there are bilingual individuals) and need not have any social or cultural unity. Hudson is of the view that it is possible to delimit speech communities in this sense only to the extent that it is possible to delimit languages and dialects without referring to the community that speaks them. Charles Hockett defines a speech community as: ” the whole set of people who communicate with each other, either directly or indirectly, via the common language” In this definition, the condition of ‘communication within the community’ is added and so if two communities speak the same language but has no contact at all with each other they would be treated as two different speech communities.
Leonard Bloomfield views a speech community as ‘’a group of people who interact by means of speech”. Such a definition hints at the possibility that the group need not be entirely of people who speak the same language. Some may speak one language and others another language. Gumperz’s view on speech community is any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language use. For William Labov the speech community is not defined by any marked agreement in the use of language elements, so much as by participation in a set of shared norms: these norms may be observed in overt types of evaluative behavior, and by the uniformity of abstract patterns of variation, which are invariant in respect to particular levels of usage.
According to Morgan (2004) cited in Korsah (2012), a speech community refers to a particular group of people who use a particular language or language variety and are guided by the same set of linguistic norms. And for one to claim membership of a speech community, one must be conscious ‘’… of the way language choice, variation, and discourse represent generation, occupation, politics, social relationships identity and more’’. In this study, the speech communities are speakers of Dagbani which comprise the three dialects in Dagbani.

This paper seeks to quantitatively highlight how ’liɣiri and laɣiri’ are used by members of the three dialects of Dagbani in the Northern part of Ghana to mean ‘money’. The study demonstrates how the users of this language use the two lexical items as two variants of the same variable in their everyday interaction. It further tries to show how wide or otherwise is the use of the standard and the non-standard forms of the two items. This paper also seeks to investigate how different people use different variants based on their age, education, gender and dialect.
In this current study, the researcher investigates the usage of these lexical items by the speakers of Dagbani. The researcher observes that in the Dagbani speech communities, speakers use the two words to refer to the item (money). The researcher refers them as old and new forms in the usage.

2.1 Standard form (Old form):
The researcher’s definition of standard form in this paper is the widely accepted lexical item used within the Dagbani speech communities. The lexical item, ‘’liɣiri’’ is unanimously agreed and used by the people across the three dialects of the language. Irrespective of which area the person is coming from, ‘’liɣiri’’ is the standard form to be used for ‘money’ but not ‘’laɣiri’’. There is no dialectal difference with regards to the use of that lexical item.

2.2 Non- standard form (New form):
In this current paper, the non-standard form is explained as the unacceptable usage of a form in the language. In this case the words that are not approved by the users of the language are said to be non-standard forms if they are used either by native speakers or non-native speakers of the language. For this case, laɣiri is said to be a non-standard form if it is used for money instead ‘wooing’. Laɣiri as a lexical item exists in Dagbani to mean ‘wooing’/’dating’ for the progressive form and laɣi, ‘woo’ simple present tense form.

There have been many studies in the language use and linguistic choices in speech communities as far as sociolinguistics is concerned. These include; Labov (1966) study in New York city, Korsah (2012) in University of Ghana, Fischer (1958), Trudgill (1974), Hudson (1988) among others. However, little or no similar study has been done in Dagbani. The only work that comes to mind is Inusah (2017), which looked at the sociolinguistic variation of [r] in Dagbani. Unfortunately Dagbani has received little or no scholarly attention as far as sociolinguistic study is concerned. Both past and recent researchers have channeled their energy towards the grammar, phonology and syntax of Dagbani neglecting the sociolinguistic aspect of the language. This present study finds it prudent to look at an aspect of language use in the Dagbani speech communities. Thus, language variation of ‘’laɣiri and liɣiri’’ in Dagbani.

This paper adopted the Labov’s sociolinguistic paradigm of language study to examine how three dialects of Dagbani use ‘’laɣiri and liɣiri’’ in their everyday conversations. Labov as a sociolinguistics researcher, had used this approach to the study of language change and variations within a speech community or the other. This approach has been tested and used to elicit natural data from participants. Many researchers in sociolinguistic study have gone Labovian to investigate variations in languages across the world. Prominent among them include but not limited to; Labov (1966), Trudgill (1974), Hudson (1980), Korsah (2012), Inusah (2017), Labov (1963), Fischer (1958) to mention a few. William Labov’s model of narrative analysis differs from some of the earlier approaches in that his method focuses on oral narrative instead of written text. Earlier linguists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure, believed in a structural approach. This meant that language had to be approached as a fixed, clearly defined set of symbols, which furthermore had to be studied in isolation.