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The role of editorial intervention in ongoing language variation and change in South African and Australian English

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posted on 2022-03-28, 02:34 authored by Melanie Ann Law
The role of editorial intervention in written published texts has been noted by a number of researchers in areas of World Englishes as well as language variation and change. The widely held view of these scholars is that editorial intervention is a primarily normative activity in which editors fulfil a gatekeeper function by consciously removing innovative features and limiting variation in the texts they edit. As a result of this view, it is often argued that editorial intervention is an obstacle to the processes of change, and within the context of World Englishes, the progression of varieties towards endonormativity. There is no doubt that this view is partly true: part of editors’ work is to consciously match the text that they edit with usage sanctioned in the norm-providing sources (or overt norms) that their employers/clients require them to use. However, editors’ removal of the features associated with ongoing change must be a matter of degree, since corpus-based investigations of written published texts have shown that features and usage patterns associated with ongoing change do actually occur in texts that have undergone editorial intervention, and that sometimes these types of texts are highly receptive to these features. This study proceeds from the view that because most written published texts undergo some form of editorial intervention, the language of published written texts, which forms part of the input that language users are exposed to, cannot be solely attributed to the author of the text, and it is therefore necessary to investigate the contributions of editors to these texts. Furthermore, this study argues that editorial work forms an important part of processes of language variation and change, particularly in World Englishes where investigations of editorial intervention in written published texts might provide some information on the acceptability of these features within a variety. Thus, this study focuses on the interaction of overt norms and covert norms in conditioning editors’ acceptability judgements of such features, which may shed light on how varieties progress towards endonormativity. To do this, this study investigates how editors working in different varieties of English, particularly Australian English and South African English, respond to the presence of a particular linguistic feature associated with ongoing change in written published registers. The feature this study is concerned with is genitive alternation, and the interest of the study is in how editorial work influences the patterns of variation (and potentially change) of this feature across the two varieties investigated. Three research questions guide this study. The first question is theoretical and explores how broad trends of language change, the different contextual forces of the varieties of English, register effects and editorial practice interact to potentially influence language variation and change. The second question zooms in on editors and editorial work and enquires into the sociolinguistic profiles of editors (providing information on their covert norms) and the norm-providing sources (as a reflection of the overt norm) used by editors of English texts in Australia and South Africa. Against this background, the study then focuses on how editors of English texts in the two varieties respond to the presence of one feature, namely genitive alternation. The genitive alternation is selected as the feature to investigate in the current study for several reasons: there is evidence of ongoing change in the use of this feature in present-day English; this change can be linked to broader processes of language change, namely colloquialisation and densification, which are known to play out differentially in different varieties of English and across different written published registers; and some normative advice exists for the feature (reflecting overt norms), but it is not so saliently marked that it would be specifically targeted by editors (providing room for covert norms to condition editorial choices). Furthermore, genitive alternation is a good example of a linguistic variable in the variationist sense, and is known to be conditioned by both language-internal and language-external factors. It can therefore be investigated by drawing on variationist methods and state-of-the-art statistical techniques. The third research question draws together the theoretical and empirical dimensions of the study to reflect on how editorial intervention in different varieties of English and across different registers interacts with broader processes of language change, specific processes of language change in varieties of English, and register effects, to influence different opportunities for and constraints on the processes of dissemination and conventionalisation in a variety’s progression towards endonormativity. To answer the first research question, the study adopts a usage-based view of language that integrates cognitive and social factors to account for language structure, use and ongoing change in World Englishes. It makes an innovative theoretical contribution by positioning editorial influence as an important mechanism in the processes of variation and change in different written published registers in different varieties of English. To answer the second research question, the study surveys editors of English texts in Australia and South Africa in order to gather information on their sociolinguistic profiles (as a reflection of their covert norms), and the kinds of norm-providing sources that they use to guide their editorial choices (as a reflection of their overt norms). To investigate the actual changes that editors make to the texts they edit and their treatment of genitive constructions across five written published registers, a corpus-based approach is adopted in which a register-differentiated, parallel corpus of unedited texts and their edited counterparts representing each of the two varieties and five written published registers (academic, creative, instructional, popular and reportage) is constructed. The findings of the empirical investigation show that editors of English texts in Australia and South Africa are mostly older females who are highly educated and, who in sociolinguistic terms, are therefore most likely more conservative language users who prefer standard, prestige forms of the language (as sanctioned in overt norm-providing sources). However, the contrast between the more homogenous linguistic landscape in Australia and the heterogenous linguistic landscape in South Africa is reflected both in editors’ language profiles and choice of norm-providing sources: the Australian editors are all first-language users of the variety and draw on norm-providing sources for Australian English while the South African editors are mostly English–Afrikaans bilinguals who are either first- or second-language users of two sub-varieties in the country, White South African English and Afrikaans English. The Australian editors therefore represent a group of editors for whom the normative environment is homogenous and in which overt norms are closely aligned to covert norms, while the South African editors represent a group of editors who work in a much more diffuse normative environment and in which there is a high degree of heterogeneity in covert norms and overt norms. The findings of the corpus-based investigation show the importance of covert norms in influencing editors’ acceptability judgements of features associated with ongoing change in different varieties of English, but demonstrate that this is not simply a matter of a broad, national usage pattern. Instead, the findings demonstrate that stylistically distinct usage patterns of features associated with ongoing change may arise at the level of a variety more broadly, but may also arise in contexts where multiple sub-varieties interact with each other in the same context. Furthermore, these stylistically distinct patterns of features associated with ongoing change are informed by the unique interaction of many factors in different varieties of English, including differing stylistic preferences across sub-varieties, substrate influence, the amount, type and duration of contact among the language users of the different sub-varieties, the differing strength of linguistic factors, the progression of the sub-variety along the stages of the Dynamic Model and the kinds of overt norms available. In other words, the findings show that while overt norms are more saliently represented in editors’ mental representations of language than they are for other language users, editors are also frequently exposed to changing and differing usage patterns through the process of reading and evaluating unedited writing, and as a result they largely accept the distinctive usages of authors. This shows that endonormativity may be achieved at the level of a variety more broadly, as is the case for Australian English, or it may be achieved at the level of individual (but interacting) sub-varieties, as is shown to be the case for South African English. The study therefore demonstrates how editorial intervention forms part of the processes of ongoing language variation and change in different varieties of English and across different written registers, and how, at least in the case of the feature investigated in this study, editorial intervention helps to accept distinctive stylistic usages of the feature in different varieties of English, legitimising their use and contributing to their further dissemination.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction, contextualisation and problem statement -- Chapter 2. Theoretical framework : editorial intervention, language variation and language change in written varieties of English -- Chapter 3. Varieties, registers and grammatical feature investigated -- Chapter 4. Methodology : combining survey and corpus research to investigate the effects of editing in written varieties of English -- Chapter 5. Presentation and analysis of the empirical data : evidence for the role of editorial intervention in ongoing language change in AusE and SAfE and across written published registers -- Chapter 6. Synthesis of findings, recommendations for future research and conclusion -- Bibliography -- Appendices.


Bibliography: pages 250-265 Theoretical thesis. "Thesis submitted to Macquarie University for the degree Doctor of Philosophy in Linguistics and North-West University for the degree Doctor of Philosophy in Linguistics and Literary Studies in accordance with the Cotutelle agreement dated 17 December 2015" -- title page

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Linguistics

Department, Centre or School

Department of Linguistics

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Haidee Kruger

Additional Supervisor 1

Bertus Van Rooy

Additional Supervisor 2

Pam Peters


Copyright Melanie Ann Law 2018. Copyright disclaimer:




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