Language Variation and Change

Language Variation and Change

Languages are simultaneously both remarkably stable, and prone to variability at all levels. The variability in language is conditioned by a combination of internal (or cognitive) and external (or social) factors. From a synchronic perspective, we are interested in understanding the inherent variability in language, and identifying the linguistic, situational and social factors that systematically affect this variation in spoken as well as written language. We are especially interested in how language use in bi- or multilingual settings affect language variation. From a diachronic perspective, we investigate how these patterns of variation shift over time, eventually leading to language change.

We concentrate on the details of linguistic structure in spoken and written language production and processing, using experimental as well as corpus-linguistic methods. Our research extends across a range of languages, but we have a strong focus on English as it is used in different parts of the world where it exists in contact with other languages and is used by bi- and multilingual speakers.

Areas of interest

Language contact

Contact between languages is an important factor that introduces variability into a language, which may lead to language change. Research in areas as diverse as second-language acquisition (SLA), learner Englishes (also studied under the rubric of English as a foreign language or EFL), creole languages, English as a lingua franca (ELF) and non-native indigenised varieties of English (L2 varieties or New Englishes) all focus on the effects of the presence of two or more languages in individual psycholinguistic processing as much as in the social context more broadly. We investigate how language contact may lead to cross-linguistic influence at lexical, semantic, phonetic, phonological, prosodic, tonemic, graphemic, morphological, syntactic and pragmatic levels, in both spoken and written language – and how this may lead to language change over time.


Sociophonetics integrates the principles, theoretical frameworks, and techniques of phonetics with those of sociolinguistics to advance our understanding of language variation, including the origins and spread of sound change. Sociophonetic analysis uses sophisticated phonetic and statistical approaches to investigate features of speech production, perception, and language processing in relation to socially determined factors within individuals and groups. Factors such as age, sex, gender orientation, language background, regional affiliation and history, ethnicity, speaking style, community of practice, and the demands of social context (among many others) all affect the way we process speech. In quantifying the fine phonetic detail of speech production and perception, we use methods from acoustic phonetics, speech physiology (e.g. electroarticulography, ultrasound, and electroglottography), and psycholinguistics (e.g. eye tracking, priming, shadowing). The analysis of variation includes both synchronic and diachronic approaches to establish phonetic variation in the community at a point in time (synchronic) and across different time periods (diachronic).

Variationist sociolinguistics

Sociolinguistics investigates the interaction between language, culture and society. We analyse how this interaction affects the variability of language in a systematic way, focusing on how linguistic variation results from different speaker backgrounds and different contexts of communication, and how the use of linguistic variants construct social meaning in interaction. In this research, we draw extensively on the methods of quantitative variationist sociolinguistics.

World Englishes

World Englishes offer a very dynamic field for linguistic and sociolinguistic research, with new varieties continually evolving in multilingual habitats across the world. Macquarie researchers focus on English in contact with other languages in postcolonial contexts such as South Africa and the Philippines.

Our projects

Australian Voices

This project is an ongoing study into the phonetics and phonology of Australian English including aspects of its origin, evolution and variation. The dedicated Australian Voices website developed by Professor Felicity Cox and Dr Sallyanne Palethorpe is an interactive portal that provides an accessible resource to detailed information about the project. The website invites users to explore accent variation and change through the extensive use of audio files, which take listeners on a linguistic journey spanning 100 years. Visitors to the site can listen to audio files of spoken language from speakers from a range of different cultural, social and regional groups including mainstream Australian English, Australian Aboriginal English and various ethnocultural Australian English varieties.

Language, register and stylistic change in the Hansard (1900-2015)

This project, funded under a Macquarie University Research Development Grant (MQRDG 2017-2018) led by Dr Haidee Kruger, uses newly compiled comparable historical corpora of the British, Australian and South African Hansard to investigate how written English usage changes over time in three varieties of English.

Linguistic epicentres: Empirical perspectives on regional and international influences on world Englishes

Funded by a Universities Australia / DAAD grant (2018-2019) in partnership with the Justus Liebig University Giessen, this project investigates how regional varieties develop their local features while in contact with neighbouring varieties and “supervarieties” (such as American and British English) through global media, in print, broadcast and online. This project addresses two questions on relationships among varieties of world English: (a) whether particular varieties of English function as epicentres of influence on neighbouring varieties, e.g. Indian English on Pakistani or Sri Lankan English; or Australian English on New Zealand’s, and (b) how great the influence of American English is on these four ex-British Commonwealth Englishes

Varieties of English in the Indo-Pacific: English in Contact (VEIP–EIC)

VEIP–EIC is an international research initiative, embracing the now numerous varieties of English in the Indo-Pacific, and focusing on their contact with other languages in areas adjacent to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. VEIP was endorsed by the Union Academique Internationale in May 2015, as one of its major projects. It is co-directed by Emeritus Professor Pam Peters (Macquarie University) and Professor Kate Burridge (Monash University), with research collaborators based at other universities across the world. It currently includes projects on Melanesian English, Micronesian English, Fiji English, Filipino English, Hong Kong/China English, Singapore English, ASEAN English, Indian/Sri Lankan English, Ugandan English, South African English, and Australian English.

Our people

Current researchers

Felicity Cox
Andy Gibson
Loy Lising
Joshua Penney
Pam Peters
Adam Smith
Anita Szakay
Nick Wilson

Current students

Hannah White
MPhil Thesis Title: Voice quality variation in multicultural Sydney
Supervisors: Prof. Felicity Cox and Dr. Anita Szakay

Tim Shea
MRes Thesis Title: Attitudes of Australian English speakers to Fricated /t/: a perception study
Supervisors: Prof. Felicity Cox and Dr. Anita Szakay

Recent PhD students

Melanie Ann Law: The role of editorial intervention in ongoing language variation and change in South African and Australian English

Joshua Penney: Glottalisation as a cue to coda voicing in Australian English

Karien Redelinghuys: Language contact and change through translation in Afrikaans and South African English: A diachronic corpus-based study

Contact us

Dr Adam Smith

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