In Brazil, the Portuguese dialects spoken in rural areas preserve, despite their own innovations, several features of the language that were common in the 16th century. This phenomenon is particularly evident in the so called “caipira dialect”. These conservative features include phonological, lexical and semantic aspects, and are considered archaisms in the modern standard dialect. On the other hand, a number of innovations in Brazilian Portuguese originated in the more urbanized areas (southeast region, especially São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) and then spread to the rest of the country.

On another geographic scale, Brazilian Portuguese as a whole is considered rather conservative, when compared to European Portuguese. Historically, until the 19th century, Brazil remained as basically an agrarian economy, while Portugal was the urbanized colonial center.

Evidently, this is not a scientific observation (so it may be strongly biased), but it seems that urbanization and the rate of language change are somehow correlated. Is that a fact?

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    Your point on the rural dialects being more conservative does correlate with the concept of NORMs (Non-moving, older, rural males), where dialectologists use older, rural speakers in order to determine the true dialect of an area (I.e. the most conservative forms) Aug 13, 2012 at 9:53
  • I read that as "capybara dialect". Aug 22, 2012 at 23:42
  • @Mechanicalsnail I think both words come from the Tupi language. Aug 24, 2012 at 0:52

3 Answers 3


Urbanization and language change are, no doubt, somehow correlated; the question is whether change spreads faster/slower in urbanized areas or small communities. Both arguments have been proposed. Here is a (very brief) summary of the main points in Crowley and Bowern 2010 (13.3.4 Variation in small communities). On the one hand, it's easier to enforce language norms in small communities. On the other hand, social networks are denser in small societies (i.e. change will spread easier/faster), not in towns. Thus, Crowley and Bowern, while discussing language change in small communities in Melanesia and Aboriginal Australia, conclude that "linguists do not yet know the answer."

Also, social prestige is a very ambiguous term in the sense of what is considered prestigious is different for different social groups. Living in town is not universally "desirable" in all societies.

William Labov is the "god" of sociolinguistics. You should read his works on this problem.

  • Interesting point about prestige. I've always taken for granted that the prestige variant is whatever that happens to be spoken by the rich and powerful people. Now, it seems it's more complicated than that ;-) Dec 22, 2011 at 18:13

I'll answer according to a theory of language change mostly associated with Croft, according to which change comes from intra-speaker variation. In an evolutionary model of language change, changes may be propagated via neutral selection (linguistic variants randomly come in and out of existence, but more frequent ones should be the most durable) and via replicator selection (where variants produced by certain prestigious groups people have a better chance of enduring).

We expect innovation (upheaval in customary forms) to happen more frequently when there is greater variation in the community, and when there are groups of people with whom prestige is associated. An urban setting doesn't necessarily have to have both of these, things but they tend to. We should expect innovation in urban settings especially when (i) the residents are coming in from various parts of the country where different varieties are spoken (more variation), (ii) within the urban center itself, there are people who are considered prestigious, and whose speech tends to get disproportionately emulated. If these two conditions are met (and additionally we assume relatively free interaction between speakers), then, according to the theory, we should expect the relatively rapid emergence of a new urban speech variety.

So I think the answer to the question is that this is a valid assumption, since the factors encouraging language change tend to be very frequently present when new urban centers form.

Some downloadable papers:
Croft (2010): The Origins of grammaticalization in the verbalization of experience

Baxter et al (2009): Modeling language change: An evaluation of Trudgill's theory of the development of New Zealand English

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    I've been told (by Penny Eckert, who should know) that language change in the US -- at least the phonological kinds -- is driven by (roughly speaking) teenage lower/working-class women. This is probably the way it's always been, but compactification certainly helps, simply because there's more opportunity to talk.
    – jlawler
    Dec 22, 2011 at 1:46
  • Interesting. I do wonder whether the "malleability" of certain subpopulations for changing their speech can have a significant effect on the overall population.
    – user483
    Dec 22, 2011 at 2:20
  • It seems generally the case worldwide that women's speech is in advance of men's, with regard to sound changes.
    – jlawler
    Dec 22, 2011 at 16:28
  • @jlawler but the fact that women in general tend to gravitate towards prestige dialect as much as possible may indicate that their speech is relatively conservative, isn't it?
    – nb1
    Jan 17, 2012 at 6:38
  • Not likely. Prestige is a local, social, concept, so the most prestigious dialect in one social group may well be the least in another. Group identification and solidarity are strong forces that keep dialects different; and constantly changing in all directions, as every parent knows who's tried to use teen slang with their teen kids.
    – jlawler
    Jan 17, 2012 at 17:06

Urban language change may be distinctive due to different patterns of language acquisition. If in hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies children take parents/grandparents as their linguistic models right through the acquisition process, then this would produce a pattern of language change in which slow, steady incremental change would dominate. (Though this basic pattern would be later subject to processes of linguistic diffusion through contact with other groups.)

In urban environments, however, there are larger groups of children and adolescents living in the same settlement. In some cases they may take their age-peers as linguistic models from a relatively young age, which might be expected to accelerate changes in process.

On change by incrementation and diffusion, see: Labov (2007), “Transmission and Diffusion.”

For an example of urban language change breaking with the normal incrementation pattern, because of different socialisation patterns, see: Cheshire et al. (2011), "Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: The emergence of Multicultural London English"

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    I second the Chesire et al. recommendation. I was lucky to be in those guys' department at QMUL, and the whole Multicultural London English project is fascinating. As far as the (southern) UK is concerned, urbanization is definitely correlated with innovation, to the extent that very little youth language doesn't originally come out of London (usually thanks to immigrant populations).
    – legatrix
    Aug 9, 2012 at 9:29

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