University of Michigan
The phonetics/phonology research tradition of the past five or six decades tended to treat languages as mostly invariant systems that can be subjected to description and analysis (e.g., the syllable structure of Language X, the acoustics of sibilants in Language Y, etc.). The past decade, however, have seen an increased move towards recognizing the variation between individual speakers, even within the same speech community. In this paper, I will review the shift in focus from languages as invariant systems to their individual speakers, and will interrogate the relationship between individuals and the languages that they speak. The paper will consider questions such as the limits of individual variation within a speech community, the sources of individual variation (be those cognitive, biological, or social), and the agency of individuals in the use of that variation. The paper will argue that any adequate formal model of the linguistic competence of speakers has to allow for the complex interplay between the individual agency of speakers and the linguistic communities in which they participate.