As a sociolinguist, I sometimes look at regional variation in English. To do that, I can study production differences, perception diferences, or, following Dennis Preston’s work in perceptual dialectology, I can look at where people think the language differences are.
One of the things that we’ve learned from this research is that absolute geographic differnce isn’t necessarily the best measurement of difference. If major natural borders (mountain ranges or rivers) or social boundaries inhibit interaction, people on either side of them will talk differently, even if there is very little geographic distance between them.
In recent years, people have been interested in how the internet and phone services influence language. The research suggests that it is possible to see dialect variation spread from region to region over such media, but only when there are close personal relationships. Service encounters (e.g. telemarketers) are unlikely to inspire dialect accommodation.
Still, it’s worth paying attention to the way we interact in these media, and Alex Goldmark has posted an entry on the magazine Good, that provides a very colorful illustration of cell phone interaction in the United States based on research from MIT’s Senseable City Lab.
Notice how the data differ depending on how you measure things. Certainly, there are clusters of interaction (see the first map and the video below), but the map in the middle–which documents transnational interaction with L.A. demonstrates that the situation is more complicated than that.
This data is great because it raises interesting questions for sociolinguistics, but we will need more information about the kinds of relationships that these calls facilitate before we can make any predictions.