The social meaning of th-fronting in east-central Scotland

Clark, Lynn

University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom


Th-fronting is one of several consonantal changes taking place in non-standard varieties of British English. A number of studies (e.g. Stuart-Smith and Timmins 2006; Kerswill 2003) have correlated the use of the incoming labiodental variant of (th) with ‘macro’ social factors such as age, gender and social class. These studies typically show that th-fronting is being led by working class male adolescents. However, while these ‘first wave’ methods (Eckert 2005) provide the ability to describe the social distribution of th-fronting across a number of communities, none of these approaches have accounted for the variation that continues to exist within these pre-determined social categories. This paper therefore takes a ‘third wave’ approach to the examination of this phenomenon in an effort to better understand the distribution and social meaning of th-fronting at the ‘micro’ level in a community in east-central Scotland.

The data presented here are taken from a corpus of 38 hours of conversation (roughly 370,000 words), compiled over a two year period using the ethnographic technique of participant observation. The 54 speakers in the sample play together in two interrelated pipe bands. They belong to the same institution but there is little cohesion within the larger social structure. Instead smaller communities of practice exist within the larger structure and combined they form a ‘constellation of communities of practice’ (Wenger 1998:126).

The first part of this paper discusses the results of a varbrul analysis of th-fronting in this community. The analysis codes for 12 independent social and linguistic variables and finds that the factor group ‘community of practice membership’ substantially outranks all other constraints on this variation.

The paper then discusses the interpretation of these data within a (third wave) community of practice framework. Following Eckert (2005) and Moore (2003), this paper employs the community of practice construct in an effort to explain the ways in which social meaning becomes associated with linguistic variables. Eckert (2005) argues that linguistic variables may be associated with fairly abstract social meanings that then take on more specific social meanings associated with the practices of a particular community of practice. In light of this claim, I explore the relationship between the reported supra-local meaning of th-fronting (i.e. ‘youth-norm’, Docherty and Foulkes 1999: 15) and the different local social meanings that th-fronting has acquired for these speakers.

Finally, I explain why the existence of variation in social meaning at a local level is entirely predictable within a usage-based model of language-structure such as Cognitive Grammar (Langacker 1987, 1991), highlighting the potential for a greater synthesis between sociolinguistic and cognitive linguistic accounts of meaning.

Session: Paper session
Change (Phonological)
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30
room: 12