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Review of  Corpus and Sociolinguistics

Reviewer: Lamont D. Antieau
Book Title: Corpus and Sociolinguistics
Book Author: Bróna Murphy
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.2334

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AUTHOR: Murphy, Bróna
TITLE: Corpus and Sociolinguistics
SUBTITLE: Investigating Age and Gender in Female Talk
SERIES TITLE: Studies in Corpus Linguistics, Vol. 38
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Lamont D. Antieau, Milwaukee, WI

Although age is recognized as an important sociolinguistic variable, much of the
research on the effect that age has on language use has focused either on
children and adolescents or the very elderly, often neglecting differences in
language use at different stages of adulthood. Additionally, much of the
research that has been done in this regard has been done with an emphasis on
understanding language change. In “Corpus and Sociolinguistics: Investigating
Age and Gender in Female Talk”, Bróna Murphy aims to address this gap through an
analysis of discourse features used by three groups of Irish English speakers at
different life stages. As Murphy notes: “In examining age-related variation in
language, [the study] analyses the discourse synchronically, that is, it takes a
sample of language from three age groups at one point in time and looks at it
with a number of perspectives in mind, for example, pragmatics and life-span
perspectives which may shed light on and explain the patterns of linguistics
behaviour encountered” (8). At the same time, Murphy presents the material to
show how a relatively small corpus and the tools of corpus linguistics can be
useful for answering the kinds of questions that emerge from research on age-
and gender-related differences in language use.

At the core of Murphy's research is her corpus: the Corpus of Age and Gender
(CAG), a relatively small corpus of 90,000 words of Southern Irish English. This
corpus was created by recording small groups of participants from August 2003 to
April 2004 in Limerick and Cork and then transcribing the interviews and storing
the transcriptions as text files for computer analysis. In this study, Murphy
primarily focuses on a subcorpus in CAG that she calls the Female Adult Corpus
(FAC) and uses the corpus to investigate the language use of three age groups
within the collection: the first a group of women 20-29 years old; a second
comprising speakers 40-49 years old; and a third group consisting of women in
their 70s and 80s. In order to better understand differences in the use of
linguistic features among these groups, she compares the results of her work on
FAC with the performance of the same age groups in a subcorpus of CAG referred
to as the Male Adult Corpus (MAC).

Through the use of word frequency lists, cluster analysis and keyword searches
on the corpus as a whole and the subcorpora formed from the three different age
groups, Murphy was able to identify particular linguistic phenomena that seemed
to show age-related differences in the collection. At the level of discourse,
these were hedging and vague category markers; at the level of grammar,
amplifiers and boosters; and at the level of lexis, the use of taboo language.
Language use pertaining to each of these five areas was then investigated, and
the results of these investigations are presented in Chapters 4 through 8.

As a model of how the chapters on particular linguistic phenomena are generally
structured in the text, I briefly summarize the contents of Chapter 4 here. In
this chapter, Murphy focuses on hedges. The first ten pages are devoted to what
hedges are, how they have been dealt with in the previous linguistic literature,
particularly in their introduction to the field, views from the perspective of
different linguistic subfields, and the role they have traditionally played, and
continue to play, in discussions of language and power, formality and gender.
Murphy then shows how hedges are used in CAG, using numerous tables to present
the different distributional patterns that emerge from the corpus. In
particular, she finds that women in their 20s and in their 40s, respectively,
use hedges similarly in terms of frequency but that the types of hedges favored
by speakers in the two groups differ (with the informants in their 20s
preferring to use adverb forms such as ''like'' and ''actually'', and the women in
their 40s verb forms such as ''you know'' and ''I think''). The frequency of hedge
use among women in their 70s and 80s in FAC, however, drops off significantly.
Murphy reasons that variation in the frequency of hedging use is more than a
reflection of differences in the ages of informants but is also the product of
different conversation types the speakers have at those ages, with participants
in their 20s and 40s using hedges to save face (following Brown & Levinson 1987)
as they broach the sensitive issues that are often addressed in their
conversations. The older women in CAG, however, do not delve into such issues in
their conversations, perhaps because of the time or place in which they were
raised, and thus do not use hedges as often in their conversations. In comparing
the results of the female corpus with a parallel corpus comprising the speech of
males in the same age groups, Murphy finds a similar decrease in the use of
hedges by males in the older age group, speculating further that it is not only
the nature of the conversations that older informants have but the long time in
which they have known one another that results in the low frequency of hedges in
their conversations.

In the chapters that follow (Chapter 5: Vague Category Markers; Chapter 6:
Amplifiers; Chapter 7: Boosters; and Chapter 8: Taboo Language), Murphy presents
other facets of language use using a similar format. Each of the chapters begins
by addressing important theoretical issues on the particular phenomenon and
summarizing earlier research on it before presenting the results of Murphy’s
investigation of the FAC, a comparison of these findings with MAC, and
explanations for why certain patterns might emerge from the data.

This book meets the main goals that Murphy lays out in the first few chapters.
In particular, her strategy of dividing adult informants into three groups by
age does indeed shed light on some patterns that emerge in different life-stages
of adulthood and in various facets of the grammar, providing support for her
thesis that adulthood is not as static as some linguists have suggested or
assumed. Additionally, even though she is mainly interested in synchronic
variation, major differences in language use by women in the different age
groups that Murphy investigates would seem, as she suggests at different points
in the book, to not be indicative only of language change, but of social change
as well.

There are several reasons that the book can be recommended to a range of
readers. For those just learning to conduct linguistic analysis using text, the
sections on how Murphy chose the areas to study that she did could shed some
light on how corpus tools can be used to approach large collections of data that
might seem daunting otherwise. Students new to discourse analysis and pragmatics
will benefit from the theoretical discussions and literature reviews in each of
the five areas presented in the book for, while relatively brief, they are also
highly informative, adequately setting the stage for Murphy’s analyses later in
the chapters. More advanced students will encounter familiar topics like hedging
and boosting but should appreciate finding them in what is probably unfamiliar
terrain, viz. Irish English and age- and gender-related research. Numerous
figures are used in each chapter, clearly presenting results and allowing for
simple comparisons of group performance. In general, the coverage of each of the
linguistic phenomena under investigation is adequate for the purposes of the
current study, while also leaving ample room for future research to be conducted
employing similar methods in other sociolinguistic communities.

A shortcoming of the book is that although the author mentions statistics, the
only numbers presented are of the most basic kind, mainly in the form of raw
counts of features for each of the age groups. For some features, differences in
the frequency of their use among groups are great enough that statistical
testing may not be necessary (a table on expletive use in the corpus, for
instance, shows the use of “fuck” and “feck” to be highest among women in their
20s [3,461 uses], much lower among women in their 40s [1,311 uses], and absent
in the speech of the women in the oldest group); however, differences in other
areas are not as great, and statistical testing might have provided some
rationale for discussing some of these differences and ignoring others.
Additionally, such testing might have provided greater insight into some
crossover patterns that emerge from the data but are not addressed by Murphy.
Additionally, and perhaps not an altogether unrelated issue, the explanations
accompanying some tables is rather vague and somewhat difficult to follow; for
example, a discussion of several tables in Chapter 6 appears to mischaracterize
the ranking of two features, viz. “very” and “so”, when simply referring to them
as being among the top performers would have more accurately expressed how they
are presented in the relevant tables.

Nevertheless, in “Corpus and Sociolinguistics: Investigating Age and Gender in
Female Talk”, Bróna Murphy accomplishes a great deal, and among these
accomplishments is providing evidence of the usefulness of small corpora to
answer big questions in linguistic research.

Brown, Penelope, & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in
language use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lamont Antieau works as an editor and as a research assistant in the area of speech synthesis. His primary research interests are in language variation, corpus linguistics and pragmatics. Currently, he is working on a textbook on linguistic diversity in the United States with Susan Tamasi.