LINGUIST List 23.2334

Wed May 16 2012

Review: Sociolinguistics; Text/Corpus Ling.; Pragmatics: Murphy (2010)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <jsalmonslinguistlist.org>



Date: 16-May-2012
From: Lamont Antieau <lamontantieau.org>
Subject: Corpus and Sociolinguistics
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AUTHOR: Murphy, BrónaTITLE: Corpus and SociolinguisticsSUBTITLE: Investigating Age and Gender in Female TalkSERIES TITLE: Studies in Corpus Linguistics, Vol. 38PUBLISHER: John BenjaminsYEAR: 2010

Lamont D. Antieau, Milwaukee, WI

SUMMARYAlthough age is recognized as an important sociolinguistic variable, much of theresearch on the effect that age has on language use has focused either onchildren and adolescents or the very elderly, often neglecting differences inlanguage use at different stages of adulthood. Additionally, much of theresearch that has been done in this regard has been done with an emphasis onunderstanding language change. In "Corpus and Sociolinguistics: InvestigatingAge and Gender in Female Talk", Bróna Murphy aims to address this gap through ananalysis of discourse features used by three groups of Irish English speakers atdifferent life stages. As Murphy notes: "In examining age-related variation inlanguage, [the study] analyses the discourse synchronically, that is, it takes asample of language from three age groups at one point in time and looks at itwith a number of perspectives in mind, for example, pragmatics and life-spanperspectives which may shed light on and explain the patterns of linguisticsbehaviour encountered" (8). At the same time, Murphy presents the material toshow how a relatively small corpus and the tools of corpus linguistics can beuseful 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. Thiscorpus was created by recording small groups of participants from August 2003 toApril 2004 in Limerick and Cork and then transcribing the interviews and storingthe transcriptions as text files for computer analysis. In this study, Murphyprimarily 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 groupswithin the collection: the first a group of women 20-29 years old; a secondcomprising speakers 40-49 years old; and a third group consisting of women intheir 70s and 80s. In order to better understand differences in the use oflinguistic features among these groups, she compares the results of her work onFAC with the performance of the same age groups in a subcorpus of CAG referredto as the Male Adult Corpus (MAC).

Through the use of word frequency lists, cluster analysis and keyword searcheson the corpus as a whole and the subcorpora formed from the three different agegroups, Murphy was able to identify particular linguistic phenomena that seemedto 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, andthe results of these investigations are presented in Chapters 4 through 8.

As a model of how the chapters on particular linguistic phenomena are generallystructured in the text, I briefly summarize the contents of Chapter 4 here. Inthis chapter, Murphy focuses on hedges. The first ten pages are devoted to whathedges are, how they have been dealt with in the previous linguistic literature,particularly in their introduction to the field, views from the perspective ofdifferent linguistic subfields, and the role they have traditionally played, andcontinue to play, in discussions of language and power, formality and gender.Murphy then shows how hedges are used in CAG, using numerous tables to presentthe different distributional patterns that emerge from the corpus. Inparticular, 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 favoredby speakers in the two groups differ (with the informants in their 20spreferring to use adverb forms such as ''like'' and ''actually'', and the women intheir 40s verb forms such as ''you know'' and ''I think''). The frequency of hedgeuse 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 areflection of differences in the ages of informants but is also the product ofdifferent conversation types the speakers have at those ages, with participantsin their 20s and 40s using hedges to save face (following Brown & Levinson 1987)as they broach the sensitive issues that are often addressed in theirconversations. The older women in CAG, however, do not delve into such issues intheir conversations, perhaps because of the time or place in which they wereraised, and thus do not use hedges as often in their conversations. In comparingthe results of the female corpus with a parallel corpus comprising the speech ofmales in the same age groups, Murphy finds a similar decrease in the use ofhedges by males in the older age group, speculating further that it is not onlythe nature of the conversations that older informants have but the long time inwhich they have known one another that results in the low frequency of hedges intheir conversations.

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

EVALUATIONThis 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 byage does indeed shed light on some patterns that emerge in different life-stagesof adulthood and in various facets of the grammar, providing support for herthesis that adulthood is not as static as some linguists have suggested orassumed. Additionally, even though she is mainly interested in synchronicvariation, major differences in language use by women in the different agegroups that Murphy investigates would seem, as she suggests at different pointsin the book, to not be indicative only of language change, but of social changeas well.

There are several reasons that the book can be recommended to a range ofreaders. For those just learning to conduct linguistic analysis using text, thesections on how Murphy chose the areas to study that she did could shed somelight on how corpus tools can be used to approach large collections of data thatmight seem daunting otherwise. Students new to discourse analysis and pragmaticswill benefit from the theoretical discussions and literature reviews in each ofthe five areas presented in the book for, while relatively brief, they are alsohighly informative, adequately setting the stage for Murphy's analyses later inthe chapters. More advanced students will encounter familiar topics like hedgingand boosting but should appreciate finding them in what is probably unfamiliarterrain, viz. Irish English and age- and gender-related research. Numerousfigures are used in each chapter, clearly presenting results and allowing forsimple comparisons of group performance. In general, the coverage of each of thelinguistic phenomena under investigation is adequate for the purposes of thecurrent study, while also leaving ample room for future research to be conductedemploying similar methods in other sociolinguistic communities.

A shortcoming of the book is that although the author mentions statistics, theonly numbers presented are of the most basic kind, mainly in the form of rawcounts of features for each of the age groups. For some features, differences inthe frequency of their use among groups are great enough that statisticaltesting may not be necessary (a table on expletive use in the corpus, forinstance, shows the use of "fuck" and "feck" to be highest among women in their20s [3,461 uses], much lower among women in their 40s [1,311 uses], and absentin the speech of the women in the oldest group); however, differences in otherareas are not as great, and statistical testing might have provided somerationale for discussing some of these differences and ignoring others.Additionally, such testing might have provided greater insight into somecrossover patterns that emerge from the data but are not addressed by Murphy.Additionally, and perhaps not an altogether unrelated issue, the explanationsaccompanying some tables is rather vague and somewhat difficult to follow; forexample, a discussion of several tables in Chapter 6 appears to mischaracterizethe ranking of two features, viz. "very" and "so", when simply referring to themas being among the top performers would have more accurately expressed how theyare presented in the relevant tables.

Nevertheless, in "Corpus and Sociolinguistics: Investigating Age and Gender inFemale Talk", Bróna Murphy accomplishes a great deal, and among theseaccomplishments is providing evidence of the usefulness of small corpora toanswer big questions in linguistic research.

REFERENCESBrown, Penelope, & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals inlanguage use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERLamont Antieau works as an editor and as a research assistant in the areaof speech synthesis. His primary research interests are in languagevariation, corpus linguistics and pragmatics. Currently, he is working on atextbook on linguistic diversity in the United States with Susan Tamasi.

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