"You wouldn't even have expected an answer, then, would you?": Exploring the stylistic function of tag questions

Emma Moore, Robert J. Podesva

University of Sheffield, UK, Georgetown University, USA


The last decade has seen two significant changes in the role style plays in our exploration of the social meaning of linguistic variation. Firstly, sociolinguists have demonstrated that social meanings are most effectively revealed via 'multi-modal' stylistic analysis – the analysis of spoken language in combination with practice, behaviour and activity (Bucholtz 1999, Eckert 2000, Zhang 2005). Secondly, and more recently, researchers have considered how the social meaning of language is better understood when language features are considered in their full linguistic context, as indices operating across grammar, sound and/or discourse (Campbell-Kibler et al. 2006).

This study brings together researchers working on disparate areas of the grammar (discourse, morphosyntax, and phonology) in order to demonstrate how the social meaning of tag questions is best understood when examined relative to the full social and linguistic contexts in which they occur. Drawing upon ethnographic data from a community of high school girls in northwest England, we examine 40 hours of conversational data (comprising 261,880 words) and consider the use of tag questions among four different social groups (the Townies, the Populars, the Geeks and the Eden Village girls).

Our data demonstrate that whilst tag questions exhibit common linguistic properties and pragmatic functions, these can be stylised to construct different nuances of social meaning. A quantitative analysis of 800 tokens reveals that tags are stylised by virtue of the surrounding discourse context (e.g. whether speech overlaps, whether the interlocutor responds). Moreover, members of the four groups differentiate themselves from girls belonging to other groups through their use of syntactic and phonological variables in tags as well as their choice to change or sustain conversation topics.

We argue that, whilst frequency plays a role in assigning social meaning, it does not explain how linguistic features tie to identities. A qualitative analysis of the discourse indicates that tag questions are used to express particular stances/alignments, which then track recursively outwards, connecting in subtly different ways to communities via a process of stance accretion (Du Bois 2002, Rauniomaa 2003). Whilst these communities connect to ideological instantiations of larger social categories such as gender (see, for instance, Holmes 1984, 1995 for an examination of the correlation between gender and tag questions), the flexibility of tag questions as a resource means that they need not always do so in prototypical ways. Consequently, we show that the ‘same’ linguistic feature comes to mean different things when incorporated into the style of the four communities we study.

Selected References:

Campbell-Kibler, Kathryn, Penelope Eckert, Norma Mendoza-Denton and Emma Moore (2006) The Elements of Style. Poster presented at NWAV35. Ohio State University.

Holmes, Janet (1984) “Hedging your bets and sitting on the fence: Some evidence for hedges as support structures”. Te Reo 27: 47-62.

Rauniomaa, M. (2003) “Stance accretion”. Paper presented at the Language, Interaction and Social Organization Research Focus Group, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA.

Zhang, Qing (2005) “A Chinese yuppie in Beijing: Phonological variation and the construction of a new professional identity”. Language in Society 34: 431-466.

Session: Paper session
Gender 3 (Identity)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 16