2017, the year in which this 4th Workshop takes place, marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Uriel Weinreich. In addition to his important work on the Yiddish language, Weinreich was also deeply concerned with problems of language change. Together with two young colleagues by the names of William Labov and Marvin Herzog, Weinreich contributed a paper entitled “Empirical Foundations for a Theory of Language Change” to the symposium Directions for Historical Linguistics, convened by Winfred Lehmann and Yakov Malkiel at the University of Texas-Austin in 1966.
Widely regarded as the founding paper in quantitative sociolinguistics, the insights of “WLH” continue to resonate. In addition to famously setting out five issues (constraints, transition, selection, embedding, actuation) the authors argued were central to any theory of linguistic change, their paper also highlighted how earlier work had erred in ignoring or abstracting away from variation, either at the level of the individual, the community, or both. WLH argued that variation at both levels is not merely multidialectism or “performance”, but is as much a part of the speaker’s knowledge of language as the syntax or lexicon.
It is thus perhaps fitting that the 4th WSC takes place 50 years after the completion of this landmark work, and we hope that this Workshop will provide an opportunity to discuss, debate, and reflect on the ideas contained therein.