As linguists, how do we capture the passage of time in our empirical research? Long relegated to the periphery of core linguistics due to the legacy of de Saussure (1984 ), the relationship between language and time has traditionally been associated with the research domain of historical linguistics. However, a number of domains of linguistic research have challenged the Saussurean dichotomy between diachrony and synchrony, and developed methodological approaches to take into account the relationship between language and time.
Various approaches have been adopted to analyze the passage of time and its effect on linguistic structure and processes. Linguists have assessed stability or instability in language through the observation of speech events, the linguistic behavior of individuals over their life span, successive generations of a given speech community, the history of a language over a longer span, or, at the broadest level, the evolution of language. Depending on their research questions, linguists have focused on the individual, the community, a specific language or dialect, or the language faculty as a whole. The various fields of linguistics have problematized the time dimension differently. First language (L1) acquisition studies examine the question of time alongside cognitive developmental stages in early childhood. While the focus of second language acquisition (SLA) is also on the individual, this field observes the development of interlanguage stages within a time span that can encompass a longer portion of the individual’s life span. Historical linguistics apprehends the time dimension through a much larger time scale, trying to understand, for example, how modern Romance languages, such as French, Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese, emerged over centuries from spoken Latin, or how a specific linguistic phenomenon has evolved or grammaticalized over time. Sociolinguistics fits somewhere in between on this continuum, with one of its central research questions relating to linguistic change in progress at the community level, but also with an interest in the development of sociolinguistic competence at the individual level. These various objects of inquiry have directly impacted research design and methodological choices within the discipline.