Course materials © for/by Peter L. Patrick. May contain other copyrighted material used for educational purposes. Please respect copyright.

The text below consists primarily of independent observations of my own, though informed by the literature in language variation and change (especially the work of Bill Labov, Allan Bell, Penny Eckert, Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes). Please feel free to quote & use this material for educational purposes but respecting authors' intellectual rights and copyright laws.

Notes on the Sociolinguistics of Style(-Shifting)

Peter L. Patrick – Notes for LG554 and LG232

(Read these notes together with Bell 1997, Labov 1972 and 1984 and Wolfram & Schilling-Estes 1998.)

  1. Definitions
  2. Style: the Second Dimension
  3. Function vs. Structure
  4. Overview of Approaches to Style
  5. Labov's Approach: Attention to Speech -- Findings -- Problems
  6. Bell's Approach: Audience design -- Features -- Problems
  7. The Speaker Design Approach -- Problems
  8. References on Style

(See chart comparing approaches to style)



Sociolinguists generally define notions of language style and register primarily as

[Notice that’s not very different from how we define language, dialect or variety. The distinction's a bit vague…] In Chambers (1995:5) this notion is implicit – he actually doesn’t refer to sets of features directly or attempt to define style. He says

[Confusingly, he also uses the term to refer to this social dimension, which underlies the variation – but obviously, that should be kept separate from the linguistic elements].

Bell (1997:240) is somewhat clearer in emphasizing the linguistic elements:

[Note that this doesn’t do much to cut down the field either, e.g. it appears to include code-switching between two completely different languages as "style-shifting".]

Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1998:214) define language style quite similarly, as

Halliday’s systemic-functionalist approach distinguishes two kinds of linguistic variation:

o        "according to the user" (what we normally think of as social dialect variation,

where people speak differently because of some relatively permanent aspect of their identity as group members, such as ethnicity, region of origin, or social class), and         

He calls the second type of variation 'register', & includes in it what variationist sociolinguists mean by style.

But most sociolinguists have two kinds of "variation by use" in mind. They distinguish "style" from "register", or talk as if they can anyhow, and mean something narrower by the latter – something characterized by less permanent aspects of people’s identities, such as their occupations (lawyers as in "legalese", or firefighters, as in the lexicon of "smoke-jumpers"), or temporary roles (an adult interacting with a child, as in "baby-talk").

            To Romaine, for example, registers are distinguished by differences in vocabulary, while also being typically

            It’s notable that style is rarely explicitly defined – Romaine, Chambers, Labov 1966 or 1972, Halliday, for example – and often only very broadly when it is (Wolfram, Bell).


Style as the 2nd main dimension of linguistic variation

            All of the above efforts are clearly trying to maintain a two-dimensional model, with group social characteristics (or variables) conditioning variation in a general fashion, on the one hand, and simultaneously individual identities and circumstances conditioning it in a very specific manner. Obviously, the two cross-cut each other in any single instance. This basic conception, which is widely shared, creates both a methodological and a theoretical problem.

·         The theoretical problem is to understand how the two dimensions are related to each other (and the discussion in our readings suggests we still aren’t sure).

·         The methodological problem is parallel to the one of controlling for population differences – there, sampling is the answer, and allows you to compare how different groups talk. In the case of style, the problem is how to control for the circumstances that affect variation. This problem was first understood and methods created by Labov in his NYC study, and despite many advances in methods and criticisms of his theoretical model of style, many people still use his approach today.

            You can get a lot of mileage out of this two-dimensional approach to variation and the role it casts for style. But style is the poor stepchild in the equation; whatever isn’t accounted for by social variation, must be accounted for by style. As poor stepchildren do, it has grown up, although neglected, and threatens to take over the whole show today.

            (An Aside: This is an instance of a general phenomenon in theory-building which you can think of as the Elsewhere or Garbage-Can phenomenon. Attention focuses around a dominant theoretical domain as giving the most desirable sorts of explanation – e.g. generative syntax in the 1960s and early 1970s– while things which can’t be well explained by it are relegated to other, theoretically underdeveloped and politically marginalized, domains which function for practitioners of the dominant paradigm as Garbage Cans – e.g., at that time, pragmatics. Also, typically, problems which ought to be solved by the marginalized domain are treated in the dominant one, just because it is dominant.

            (Eventually, such problems come to be recognized as numerous and important – the lid comes off the Can. The theory and practice of the marginalized domain become more developed; it is seen as complementary to the dominant domain, rather than a Garbage Can or a threat, and it is given academic prominence. This is obviously related to Th. Kuhn’s ideas on scientific revolutions, though a Garbage Can need not result in a Kuhnian paradigm shift. Another relevant example in linguistics: free variation and the idiolect served as garbage cans for non-linguistically-conditioned variation until sociolinguistics made such variation a central concern.)

            We’ll see in Bell’s and Wolfram/Schilling-Estes’s accounts that the emphasis on the individual is the most powerful influence on style research today, and this is partly – to my mind – because of the growth of discourse studies, where groups are downplayed and individuals come to the fore (for all sorts of reasons).

            There are problems created, too, by looking at style as the second major dimension. One is that it’s almost impossible to get a good definition! as we saw above. Here we want to get a handle on what sociolinguists actually DO with style, aside from what they say. In practice, we can treat style as consisting of:

These sets are ranged on a social continuum – most commonly, one of formality – which presumably also applies to other areas of socially-evaluated behavior (dress, bearing). This one-dimensionality has been identified as problematic, and it is, but it’s certainly not a necessary feature of all definitions, as we’ll see below.

            Now, the above is my personal definition by observation, and you’ll notice that it has two components: a linguistic-descriptive one, and a social one. That’s important. You’ll also notice that I make no reference to the speech of an individual as a defining factor, and that’s important too. In these ways my definition is influenced by Labov’s approach (given explicitly in Labov 1984:29). It’s interesting that he starts off his entire discussion of "aims and working principles" with four principles focused on style, which clearly has pride of place in a methodology for studying language variation:

Labov’s (1984) definition:

"By ‘style…’ we mean to include any consistent… [set of] linguistic forms used by a speaker, qualitative or quantitative, that can be associated with a… [set of ] topics, participants, channel, or the broader social context."

He’s interested in characterizing a set of linguistic forms, and in relating them to some social factors beyond the individual. His discussion is also very practical and focused on the target of eliciting vernacular speech, a style which is privileged in Labovian work. Partly because of that, we’re going to use Labov’s model for coding style on our data, though we need not subscribe to his early theory of style as attention paid to speech.


Function versus Structure

            This sociolinguistic tradition of investigating style as an aspect of symbolic speech variation differs from that of anthropological linguistics or ethnography of communication, which primarily focuses on ‘ways of speaking’ – including styles and registers – as expressing particular social functions, events, or relationships (though it also includes careful linguistic description).

            An important movement in sociolinguistics in recent years has been the merging of variationist analysis with such an ethnographic conception. In the case of style, a group led by Penny Eckert (the California Style Collective) at Stanford led the way with a paper in 1993. They discard a purely-linguistic definition or identification procedure for style, and instead crucially emphasize the role of social function and practices. This is also linked with a focus on style as collective and dialectic, rather than stressing its individual, intra-speaker and static nature.

[Note that this approach agrees very closely with the systemic-functionalist take on style as ‘register’.]

            I think it’s useful to take both social functions and linguistic structure quite seriously, as Eckert and the CSC do. In work on style and register in Jamaican Creole (Patrick 1997), I initially tried to give a structural definition of a code or way of speaking, and ended by including and even stressing the social functions. It might have been smarter, I suspect, if I first began by locating codes through their social functions, and then proceeded to examine their linguistic structure!

[This is also, of course, the method prescribed by the ethnography of speaking approach.]

            We can see a movement towards functional definition in Wolfram’s and Schilling-Estes’s (1998) discussion, right away. They include not only the formal-informal axis of variation, but also treat shifting from one dialect into another as style-shifting – whether or not the second dialect is native to the speaker (if not, this use of an out-group dialect has been called "crossing", Rampton 1995) – as well as shifting registers, in the sense we described above. Looked at in this light, it’s hard to see why shifting from one language into another quite distinct one (code-switching) wouldn’t also be style-shifting for them, and they argue (217) that it’s hard to make distinctions among these.

            This shows quite clearly that they are not limiting their definition by linguistic structure – since the notion of register they use, and dialect, and language, all seem to be distinguished by structural criteria, at least partly.

            The same is true of Bell’s definition: if an individual speaker controls different dialects, or languages, they are "styles" for him.


Overview of Approaches to Style

            Now we’ve had an overview of the theoretical bases of different approaches, let’s look briefly at some of the specific ones and their advantages and problems, following the discussions in Bell (1997) and Wolfram & Schilling-Estes (1998). First, some general preliminaries that are widely agreed:

·         There are many types of style-shifting, at least including formality-based, cross-dialectal and cross-linguistic, register shift, hyper-correction, and performance speech (see below).

·         Style operates on all linguistic levels: phonology, grammar, lexicon and semantics, but also pragmatics and discourse (exs: irony, address forms, conversational overlap).

·         Style also may be influenced by a wide range of social factors and contexts (audience, topic, channel, mode, genre, situation and setting, etc.).


Labov’s approach: Style as attention paid to speech

 Findings by Labov et al. related to style include:

 Problems with Labov’s model of style:


Bell’s (1984, 1997) audience-design model of style shifting

            This is a variationist version of speech accommodation theory; quantitative study of linguistic variables according to Labovian principles is taken as the norm. The model assumes that speakers adjust their speech primarily towards that of their audience in order to express solidarity or intimacy with them, or conversely away from their audience’s speech in order to express distance.

The model elaborates a taxonomy of audience members:

 Other features of the model include:

Besides the types of style-shifting covered by the principal modes above, there are also other types which Bell sees as secondary and tries to integrate with the above:

 Problems with the audience-design model:

Speaker design style shifting

A new emphasis, called speaker design, works to break down the original dichotomy between social and stylistic variation, since the projection of identity includes both its permanent aspects and also fleeting ones (Wolfram & Schilling-Estes 1998). It has the following features:

·         Identity is dynamic: speakers project different roles in different circumstances. The interaction of the desire to project identity with the recognition that audiences differ means that we don’t see it as purely an individual phenomenon, but rather a relational one: role relations, and speaker choice, are the focus.

·         This allows explanation of some previously puzzling cases, eg. dialect-performance speech events, or other instances where divergent speech is adopted but solidarity seems to be intended. The speaker is adopting a role towards which she, and the audience, may be expected to have a positive orientation (even though the speech produced is not like either the speaker’s or the audience’s everyday conversation).

·         Even the cases of convergence for which audience design and accommodation theory were invented can be better seen as pro-active – a choice to conform to existing norms.

·         From this it’s a small step to the idea that all speech is performance, all shifts involve adopting roles. This would contradict approaches which privilege particular styles, e.g. the idea that the vernacular is the most "natural" and does not require speakers to put on roles.

Problems with the speaker design approach to style

As a new approach to style, then, this is designed to solve some of the problems of previous ones, but equally some of its own characteristics and weaknesses are not yet clear. We might ask questions of it, such as:


Some References on Style

Bell, Allan. 1984. "Language style as audience design." Language in Society 13(2): 145-204.

Bell, Allan. 1997. "Language style as audience design." In Nikolas Coupland and Adam Jaworski, eds. 1997, Sociolinguistics: A reader, 240-50. St. Martin’s Press.

Biber, Douglas and Edward Finegan, eds. 1994. Sociolinguistic perspectives on register. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chambers, J. K. 1995. Sociolinguistic theory: Linguistic variation and its social significance. Oxford: Blackwell.

Coupland, Nikolas. 1984. "Accommodation at work: Some phonological data and their implications." International Journal of the Sociology of Language 46: 49-70.

Eckert, Penelope & John R. Rickford. 2001. Style and sociolinguistic variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [P 126.S7]

Eggins, Suzanne. 1994. An introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics, Chap. 3, "Context of situation: register". London: Pinter Publishers.

Finegan, Edward and Douglas Biber. 1994. "Register and social dialect variation: An integrated approach". In Biber and Finegan, eds. 1994.

Labov, William. 1972. Sociolinguistic patterns. Chap. 3, "The isolation of contextual styles" (70-100); Chap. 5, "Hypercorrection by the lower middle class as a factor in linguistic change." Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Labov, William. 1984. "Field Methods of the Project in Linguistic Change and Variation." In John Baugh and Joel Sherzer, eds., Language in Use, Prentice-Hall: 28-53.

Patrick, Peter L. 1997. "Style and register in Jamaican Patwa." In Edgar W. Schneider, ed., Englishes Around the World: Studies in Honour of Manfred Goerlach. Vol. 2: Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Australasia. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 41-56.

Preston, Dennis R. 1991. "Sorting out the variables in sociolinguistic theory." American Speech 66(1) Spring: 33-56.

Rickford, John R. and Faye McNair-Knox. 1994. "Addressee- and topic-influenced style shift: A quantitative sociolinguistic study." In Biber and Finegan, eds. 1994.

Romaine, S. 1994. Language in society: An introduction to sociolinguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wolfram, Walt, and Natalie Schilling-Estes. 1998. American English, Chap. 8: "Dialects and style". Oxford: Blackwell.


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