The treatment of social meaning in sociolinguistic variation has come in three waves of analytic practice. The first wave of variation studies established broad correlations between linguistic variables and the macrosociological categories of socioeconomic class, gender, ethnicity, and age. The second wave employed ethnographic methods to explore the local categories and configurations that inhabit, or constitute, these broader categories. In both waves, variation was seen as marking social categories. This article sets out a theoretical foundation for the third wave, arguing that () variation constitutes a robust social semiotic system, potentially expressing the full range of social concerns in a given community; () the meanings of variables are underspecified, gaining more specific meanings in the context of styles, and () variation does not simply reflect, but also constructs, social meaning and hence is a force in social change.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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