Variation is a characteristic of language: there is more than one way of saying the same thing. Speakers may vary in pronunciation (accent), word choice (lexicon), or morphology and syntax (sometimes called "grammar"). But while the diversity of variation is great, there seem to be boundaries on variation – speakers do not generally make drastic alterations in word order or use novel sounds that are completely foreign to the language being spoken. Linguistic variation does not equate to language ungrammaticality, but speakers are still (often unconsciously) sensitive to what is and is not possible in their native lect.
|Areas of study|
Variationists study how a language changes by observing it. This is accomplished by looking at authentic data. For example, variation is studied by looking at linguistic and social environments, then the data is analyzed as the change occurs. Variation in research programs must be malleable due to the nature of language itself. This is because language is also fluid in transition and does not shift from one state to another instantaneously.
Language variation is a core concept in sociolinguistics. Sociolinguists investigate whether this linguistic variation can be attributed to differences in the social characteristics of the speakers using the language, but also investigate whether elements of the surrounding linguistic context promote or inhibit the usage of certain structures.
Studies of language variation and its correlation with sociological categories, such as William Labov's 1963 paper "The social motivation of a sound change," led to the foundation of sociolinguistics as a subfield of linguistics. Although contemporary sociolinguistics includes other topics, language variation and change remains an important issue at the heart of the field.