Age, as Chamber (1995: 159) suggests plays an ‘autocratic role’ which not only causes changes in physical features but also in people’s speech, therefore, there are a different speech patterns corresponding to every stage of life. Those changes are characteristic of growth, increasing and decreasing through the different stages and help to distinguish different age cohorts groups from each other. This process is known as Age-Grading. Coulmas (2005: 52) states that every generation needs to change their language in order to ‘suit their experiences’.

However, the different speeches found in each stage are complementary, providing a wider view of the changes in the individual speech patterns, and consequently, being variants within the speech of that age group. According to Eckert (1997: 151), those variations must be stable, regular, predictable, and as Chambers (1995:201) defines them: ‘[C]hanges that might be thought of as marking a developmental stage in the individual’s life. ’ Furthermore, Meyerhoff (2006: 145) points out that ‘…there is no ongoing shift towards or away from one variant or another. Additionally, it is necessary to clarify that age-grading does not lead to a change in progress. There is not a progressive direction in this process; on the contrary, fluctuations and peaks are a constant. Age-grading is noticeable in the development of an individual’s speech, where every stage has its own linguistic characteristics over a particular period of time, and where other variants might be involved, class, gender, style, etc… A child’s speech lacks social interaction and language might be still in the process of being acquired.

There is a repetitive use of words such as: daddy, mommy, among others. In adolescent, language evolves. Young people are passing through a period of transition, being more independent and where peers fill an important position, influencing their speech. There is a necessity to be distinctive, and vocabulary is an important device, highlighting the use of slang as a feature. Subsequently, in adulthood, people are exposed to more responsibilities, tending to be more conservative, being subject to more standard usage, due to working life, parenthood, etc…

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Lastly, in middle age and old age, people’s speech returns to more dialectal speech forms, because of the less socialization, end of working life due to retirement and age related reasons are some causes. It is possible to find many empirical researches about age-grading, by means of real time studies, such as the different percentage of user of [in] instead of [i?] in Norwich by Trudgill (1970), the increase of the use of multiple negations among different age groups in Detroit and in the Apalachian region of America by Romaine (1984), or the use of vernacular forms, peaking at young age to be reduced subsequently in adulthood.

However, there is a study (in Chambers’, 1995: 201), which took place in Canada, in two different periods, by means of a trend study, which provides a clear point of what age-grading represents. In America, /z/ is called zee, it is a shibboleth, due to the fact that in other English speaker and non-English speaker countries it is called zed. However, in Canada and because of the geographical proximity, there is some population who use zee instead of the standard form zed.

In Toronto in 1976, a study about this phenomenon was executed, resulting that more than 65% of the population which comprised 12 years old called to /z/, zee; whereas, just 8% of the adult group did it. Fifteen years later, in 1991, the same survey was carried out, but the age groups varied, in order to match the age of the individuals already studied. (They were not the same speakers; otherwise it would have been a panel study). Hence, the study chose a group of young adults between 20 and 25 years old and other group which speakers were older than thirty year old.

The results showed a decrease in the use of zee, just 39% of the younger group still used it; whereas, in the older group was 12. 5%. In this case, it is possible to state that there is a change in the way individuals vary their speech along the different stages in their life: age-grading. However, real time studies are not always possible due to their high cost, the time consumed, the lacking of past data or the changes in those societies.

On the other hand, there is another kind of study also used in evidencing language changes: Apparent time. It inquires the differences among various age groups, simultaneously and during a specific period of time. Even though, being less reliable, the results are quicker to compute. Nevertheless, age-grading is difficult to determine in apparent time, there is no depth in time, a specific period is being observed, and the possibility of comparison with other periods is not always available.

However, it can be corrected in successive studies. An example of age-grading in apparent time is the survey executed in Glasgow by Macaulay (1977), about the use of glottal stop instead of /t/. This is another shibboleth strongly criticized by prescriptivists, it can create confrontation and inferiority feelings among speakers, dialect and accent against standardization. Macaulay researches three age groups, 10 year old, 15 year old and adults, among three different working classes, MC managers, and WC clerks and trade workers.

There are two different tendencies regarding WC, in both of them the graphs show the decrease in the use of glottality. However, it is sharper for clerks, who standardize their accents, in order to fit in the working market. The results point to a clear age grading in the use of [?] in the MC diagram. Between the ages 10 and 15 the use of [?] drops more than 40%, indicating that there is a pressure from the adults to standardize the language in order to differentiate themselves from lower social status.

Meyerhoff (2006: 147) mentions Bourdieu’s work, which considers the power that middle class exerts on the correctness of the discourse, overt prestige, acquiring ‘symbolic power’ and preserving the status of a particular social dialect. Stable variants might endure changes along the different age stages. However, they might also modify the direction of the variations towards a change in progress. Those changes can be conscious, from above, defending the appropriateness of language: e. g. Labov’s study of the prevolcalic /r/ in New York among the different social classes. Or they can be unconscious, from below.

A representative illustration of it is the language standardisation suffered in Tsuruoka, studied in real time by The National Language Institute in Tokyo (1950-1991), where the depth in time and the different generations played a crucial role classifying it as change in progress.


Chambers, J. K. (1995). Sociolinguistic Theory. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Coulmas, F. (2005) Sociolinguistics. The study of speakers choices. Cambridge: CUP. Eckert, P. (1997) The Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Meyerhoff, M. (2006). Introducing Sociolinguistics. Abingdon: Routledge.


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