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Research areas

The central research question of variationist linguistics is to find out why languages and language varieties differ from each other. This question can be approached along several different dimensions. The empirical side of language variation – more in particular linguistic microvariation (e.g. differences between dialects or language varieties) as well as quantitative language variation (e.g. differences within separate dialects, between groups of speakers or even between individual speakers) can be divided over three dimensions that together constitute the space in which the varieties of a language show variation.

Language in the geographical sphere

The heart of the research into linguistic variation at the Meertens Institute as it was performed in the past was mainly focused on the description and study of the traditional dialects, which were typical of the confined, pre-industrial village communities populated by farmers, fishermen and craftsmen. This research resulted in the publication of monographs dealing with the grammar and the vocabulary of specific local dialects or with the comparison of related local dialects. Such comparisons took place along geographical and historical dimensions. The aim was to gain insight into developments that took place in the past, using our insights into the present. This historical approach has been abandoned at present. In the present view, this dimension primarily presupposes a synchronic approach of linguistic variation. In addition to the traditional dialects, there is ample attention for other forms of geographical (and social) variation, such as urban dialects.

Language in the social sphere

The relationship between language and society can be studied from two sides. Linguistic sociology occupies itself with the position of a language (variety) in a society insofar as it is reflected in the number of speakers, the question if the language (variety) we are dealing with is used in all situations or domains or just in some, and the status of a language (variety) in the society we are focusing on. The main focus of such studies is on sociological and ideological aspects. Sociolinguistics is primarily occupied with formal variation in the use of language insofar as this is connected to social relations (e.g. social class, ethnic groups) and processes (e.g. social and geographical mobility and, in connection with this, linguistic mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion).

Language in time

As was said before, the central research question of variationist linguistics is to find out why languages and language varieties differ from each other. Diachronic linguistic research approaches this question from the perspective of language change, or, in other words, linguistic variation along a time line. This approach includes questions like why does language change, how does language change, are there any limitations, and if so, which are they? Within the field of diachronic linguistics there are roughly two explanations for language change: a language-internal explanation – language is inherently unstable – or a language-external explanation – language change is caused by linguistic contact. Apart from these two approaches, the research can be focused on the past (reconstruction of older language phases) or, on the contrary, on the present (trying to understand the present situation from a diachronic perspective).


Names are indispensable in human communication. Besides, they are a central part of administrative systems. We need them to be able to establish unique references. They are a special component of language. Names are words that obey different laws than ‘ordinary’ nouns. Apart from their grammatical characteristics, the role played by their meaning is particularly intriguing. Of equal importance are the language-external aspects of names, such as cultural, historical, psychological, sociological, geographical and legal aspects. Finally, names are strongly attached to identity, both on an individual and on a social level. All these characteristics turn proper names into ideal objects of research.