Dimensions of Variation in American English Vocabulary
Vocabulary varies in more than just the single dimension of the list of words that appears in typical desk-size dictionaries. Attention to the multidimensional nature of lexical variation can contribute in important ways to our understanding of language, and more particularly to the situation of a language in its particular culture. The vocabulary of AmE has less to do with supposedly authoritative wordlists than it does with the the cultural, historical, regional, and social life of the country, and this can be illustrated from specialized dictionaries. A special focus of this essay is quantitative analysis. The features of a language may be con-sidered in terms of either magnitude or frequency, and such treatment has the potential to inform our understanding not only of a particular language, but of the workings of language taken more generally. Lexical variation is pervasive and normal: we should observe the interactions of the qualitative, quantitative, and structural dimensions of a language that promote the variation, and we should think differently about what a language is and how it works if we are to account for such behavior by words.
Published online: 01 January 1996