Understanding media influence on language: insights from stylistic variation

Jane Stuart-Smith

University of Glasgow, UK

WS156: Interfaces between media, speech, and interaction

Despite continuing resistance from mainstream sociolinguistics that the media may not influence change in core grammar, recent results from Glasgow force us to entertain this as a serious possibility. Large-scale multifactorial regressions show consistent statistically-significant links between phonological innovations and a range of social factors including those capturing dialect contact, specific social practices and engagement with television. Moreover, interpretation of the models does not allow us to skirt a direct causal link for the influence of television on language. But understanding such influence is not straightforward, especially given that additional data from the Glasgow informants rejects conscious orientation towards televised models (cf Carvalho 2004).

Given that we reject a blanket, non-negotiated transmission of linguistic elements to passive viewer-speakers, partly because such a view is long-abandoned within media studies, and also because it is clearly not apparent in our data, we turn to alternative approaches which focus on individuals as they interact/engage with the media (cf Holly et al 2001). These intersect with existing work on the appropriation – and stylistic exploitation – of media material, mainly drawn from discourse (eg Branner 2002).

We therefore move from group patterns to the sociolinguistic behaviours of individuals. 36 adolescents in three age-groups, and 12 adults from the same working-class area of Glasgow, were recorded taking part in a range of activities, from reading a wordlist and chatting with a friend without the researcher present, to taking part in a professionally-filmed TV quiz show. Four variables undergoing change, (th) as in think, (dh) as in brother, (l) as in well, and (r) as in car were analysed auditorily.

Here we focus on the stylistic variation found within and across speakers. One result is particularly intriguing. The use of innovative phonetic variants is enhanced in the wordlist recordings. For many of our informants, reading the wordlist did not provoke the kind of shift to standard norms predicted by previous studies. Rather, these adolescents, reading for the fieldworker, and before their friend/conversational partner, elected to deploy a specific repertoire, which included an increased use of non-local non-standard variation. In other words, reading the wordlist presented a particular stylistic opportunity for the exploitation of specific variation – clearly presented as and felt to be ‘their own’, but at the same time, partly relating to their media engagement, amongst other things.

The paper concludes by relating these results to the modeling of media influence in terms of linguistic appropriation from the media, which draws on key notions from media studies (appropriation), speech and language perception and production (exemplar theory), and current sociolinguistic models of style in which the speaker demonstrates substantial agency over the deployment of linguistic repertoire.

Branner, R. (2002) ‚Zitate aus der Medienwelt’, Muttersprache 4, 337-359.

Carvalho, A. (2004), ‘I speak like the guys on TV’, LVC, 16, 127-51

Holly, W., Püschel, U. and Bergmann, J. (eds), Die sprechende Zuschauer,Wiesbaden: WV

Session: Workshop (part 1)
Interfaces between media, speech, and interaction
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 04