Language Change Across the Lifespan

Posted: 13 Feb 2018

See all articles by Gillian Sankoff

Gillian Sankoff

University of Pennsylvania - Department of Linguistics

Date Written: January 2018


Understanding the relationship between language change and variation has progressed considerably over the last several decades, but less is known about how speakers at different life stages deal with ongoing change in their speech communities. Longitudinal studies of individuals and groups reveal three trajectory types postadolescence: stability (the most common), adopting (to some degree) a change led by younger people (the next most common trajectory), or swimming against the community current by reverting to an older pattern in later life (the least common trajectory). Declining plasticity over the life course places limits on possible trajectories, which are also subject to social and cultural influences. This article reviews relevant studies from historical linguistics as well as panel studies on African American English and dialect contact, proposing that future progress will be made by interdisciplinary research combining psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic perspectives. Lifespan trajectories in situations of community stability are also discussed.

Suggested Citation

Sankoff, Gillian, Language Change Across the Lifespan (January 2018). Annual Review of Linguistics, Vol. 4, Issue 1, pp. 297-316, 2018, Available at SSRN: or

Gillian Sankoff (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania - Department of Linguistics ( email )

Philadelphia, PA
United States

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