Quotative variation in later childhood: Insights from London preadolescents

Stephen Levey

University of Ottawa, Canada

WS146: New Perspectives on New (and old) Quotatives

Quotative variation in later childhood: Insights from London preadolescents

Although there has been a good deal of scholarly interest in quotative variation in adolescence and early adulthood (see e.g. Macaulay 2001; Tagliamonte & D’Arcy 2004), there has been correspondingly less attention paid to quotative variation in younger populations. This paper addresses quotative variation in preadolescence, as exemplified in the following narrative extract from a recently compiled corpus of preadolescent speech based on recordings of children aged 7-11 in outer east London:


he had a bleeding head

and… he’s saying, ‘I want to go to hospital’

I’m going, ‘No, you don’t really, do you?’

and he goes, ‘Yeah I do.’ [9F6]

Both narrative and non-narrative speech in the preadolescent corpus are fertile territory for charting the acquisitional trajectory of vernacular quotative variants such as go and be like, and exploring correlations between vernacular quotative usage and ‘convergence towards the relatively focused norms of the peer group’ (Kerswill 1996: 191) as older children move away from parent-oriented networks. Furthermore, given the locus of the quotative system as an acknowledged site of linguistic innovation (Buchstaller 2004), a variationist perspective on the quotative system in later childhood can potentially elucidate the under-researched issue of how children actively engage in patterns of variation and change.

Building on earlier foundational research which has identified both age-and gender-differentiated patterns in the use of direct speech (Ely & McCabe 1993), an examination of some 500 quotative contexts extracted from the London preadolescent corpus and coded for a variety of factors including age, gender, content of the quote, and tense shows that there are nuanced age-and gender-affiliated differences in the pragmatic functions of specific quotative variants. Particularly conspicuous, however, in the light of previous research correlating be like with youth, is the low incidence (5%) of this variant in the preadolescent corpus, which points to potential discontinuities in patterns of quotative variation between preadolescents and adolescents, as well as possibly indicating differential rates of diffusion of this variant in different varieties of English.

Say and go are overwhelmingly the major exponents of quotative variation in the preadolescent corpus examined here. A distributional and multivariate analysis of this narrowly circumscribed envelope of variation not only furnishes valuable insights into the acquisition of vernacular variant go in the preteen years, but also has broader ramifications relating to the emergence of gender-differentiated orientations to the construction of discourse in later childhood.


Buchstaller, Isabelle (2004). The sociolinguistic constraints on the quotative

system-British English and US English compared. PhD thesis. University of


Ely, Richard and Allyssa McCabe (1993). Remembered voices. Journal of Child

Language 20: 671-96.

Kerswill, Paul (1996). Children, adolescents and language change. Language

Variation and Change 8: 177-202.

Macaulay, Ronald ( 2001). You’re like Why not? The quotative expressions of

Glasgow adolescents. Journal of Sociolinguistics 5: 3-21.

Tagliamonte, Sali and Alex DArcy (2004). He’s like, she’s like: The quotative

system in Canadian youth. Journal of Sociolinguistics 8: 493-514.

Session: Workshop (part 2)
New Perspectives on New (and old) Quotatives
Friday, April 4, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 02