LINGUIST List 28.1461

Thu Mar 23 2017

Review: English; Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics; Socioling: Pichler (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 12-Nov-2016
From: Nicole Holliday <>
Subject: Discourse-Pragmatic Variation and Change in English
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Heike Pichler
TITLE: Discourse-Pragmatic Variation and Change in English
SUBTITLE: New Methods and Insights
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Nicole Holliday, Pomona College

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


“Discourse-Pragmatic Variation and Change in English”, edited by Heike Pichler, is an excellent overview of methods, new discoveries, and insights related to the ways in which these types of variables may work in sociolinguistic variation. In this volume, Pichler assembles a wide variety of papers from linguists who work on several different varieties of English to provide the reader with a more comprehensive view of the study of discourse-pragmatic variables. The chapters deal with a number of these types of variables, from utterance final tags in varieties of Canadian English to intensifier usage in a number of Southeast Asian varieties. In particular, the volume is especially thorough in its treatment of quotative variation across spaces and groups, with data from Western Australia, New Zealand, and Ottawa. The stated purposes of the volume, from Pichler’s introduction, are to “introduce a range of contrasting yet complementary new methods specifically tailored to the requirements of studying discourse-pragmatic variation and change, and to provide new empirical and theoretical insights into the sociolinguistic dimensions of discourse-pragmatic variation and change in contemporary varieties of English” (2). Pichler and the contributors successfully achieve these goals and provide the reader with background, strategies, and future directions for the study of these types of variables. In her introduction, Pichler praises the recent upsurge of studies on discourse pragmatic features in variationist sociolinguistics as a result of methodological improvements as well as a change in theoretical stances towards these variables, and the chapters build on these recent studies as well as earlier works. The volume is divided into four parts, each of which contains two to three papers and deals with a different topic related to the analysis of discourse-pragmatic variation.

Part 1 begins with two papers that address methodological strategies and challenges related to the study of discourse-pragmatic variation. This section provides a necessary introduction to how this type of variation can be studied in ways that are both principled and systematic. In Chapter 1, “Using the corpus-driven method to chart discourse-pragmatic change”, Gisle Andersen addresses a major issue related to the use of corpora to study these features; corpus-based methods may overlook variation that could be captured by corpus-driven methods. She argues that corpus-based methods may be especially limiting for researchers studying discourse-pragmatic variables due to the fact that they require the researcher to have an a priori assumption about the type of variation that exists in the corpus. In contrast, corpus-driven methods allow the researcher to calculate the frequency of individual items and combinations in the data, which may aid the researcher in identifying innovations that they would have otherwise overlooked. In Andersen’s conceptualization, combining corpus-based and corpus-driven methods is the most effective way to capture nuanced variation.

In Chapter 2, “Practical strategies for elucidating discourse-pragmatic variation”, Cathleen Waters addresses ways of defining both the variable and the envelope of variation. She provides a thorough review of previous studies as well as challenges the ways in which earlier scholars determined what was a discourse-pragmatic variable via semantic and/or pragmatic functions. Instead of proposing a single unifying definition of the variables at hand, she argues that the category of discourse-pragmatic variables is heterogenous in nature. The chapter focuses specifically on the quantification of adverbs that can be classified as having discourse-pragmatic functions and interpretations and uses these variables as an illustration of how discourse-pragmatic variables require data-specific analyses.

Part 2, entitled “Innovations” details new ways of analyzing discourse-pragmatic variation, focusing on well-studied forms and novel ideas related to the nature of these types of innovations. In Chapter 3, “Uncovering discourse-pragmatic innovations: ‘innit’ in Multicultural London English”, Heike Pichler (also the editor of the volume), examines variable use of the form “innit” in Multicultural London English, and finds innovations related to both the syntactic position and the function of the form in this variety. Pichler argues that “innit” and related forms represent rapidly changing innovations that have the function of eliciting listener involvement. Building on the argument made by Waters in the previous chapter, Pichler also argues for flexibility and feature-specific methods of analysis (54). In Chapter 4, “Innovation, ‘right’? Change, ‘you know’? Utterance-final tags in Canadian English”, Derek Denis and Sali Tagliamonte examine variation in the use of utterance-final tags via a corpus based method. They find that “right” and “you know” are by far the most common variants, but that rates of “right” are increasing just as rates of “you know” are decreasing. By examining the use of these variants from a longitudinal perspective as well as in different discourse contexts, Denis and Tagliamonte conclude that “right” is replacing “you know” as the most common utterance-final tag in the variety of interest. They argue that their methods are also a useful tool in determining whether these types of variants are undergoing lexical replacement as opposed to grammaticalization.

Part 3, “Change”, focuses on change in the use of discourse-pragmatic variants over time. Chapter 5, “Antecedents of innovation: exploring general extenders in conservative dialects”, by Sali Tagliamonte, examines variation in four relic dialects of English in the northern U.K. to understand the use of general extenders, such as “and stuff” and “something like that”. Tagliamonte argues that these forms work not only as extenders but also serve important interpersonal and intertextual functions. Related to her work with Denis in the previous chapter, Tagliamonte uses forms in these relic dialects to address controversy related to grammaticalization of forms, and she argues that the pattern of shorter general extenders in synchronic data is due to the retention of conservative forms as opposed to grammaticalization in these varieties. Chapter 6, “Quotatives across time: West Australian English then and now”, by Celeste Rodriguez Louro, is the first of three chapters in the volume that deals with quotative variation. Rodriguez Louro’s data comes from spontaneous narratives of adults in Western Australia who were born over the 110-year period between 1870 and 1980, in order to address diachronic variation in quotatives. Rodriguez Louro finds dramatic changes over time, and especially observes a high degree of variation in the late 20th century, with the formerly dominant quotative “say”, being replaced by zero, as well as forms like “think”, and “go”. Finally, she also argues that the variation in these quotative forms is related to an increase in internal thought encoding. Rodriguez Louro’s argument that quotative variants are changing due to content was also recently echoed by Labov in a talk at New Ways of Analyzing Variation 45 about quotatives in Philadelphia over time (2016). Labov makes the same internal thought encoding argument for “be like” that Rodiguez Louro applies to “think” and “go” for her West Australian speakers, showing a cross-dialectal longitudinal pattern related to quotative variation.

Chapter 7, “The role of children in the propagation of discourse-pragmatic change: insights from the acquisition of quotative variation”, by Stephen Levey, also addresses the role of quotatives, this time from an acquisition perspective. Specifically, Levey examines how preadolescent youth acquire the quotative form “be like” in a variety of Ottawa English and compares their usage with a slightly older age cohort as well as recordings of adults from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. Levey argues that preadolescent youth not only participate in changes in the quotative system, but that they also advance change. Levey does find differences between the eight-nine year old cohort and the eleven-twelve year old cohort such that the younger group’s usage is less adult-like than the older group’s, and he uses this data to argue that acquisition of discourse-pragmatic variation may occur later than the acquisition of phonological variation, building on earlier theories on the acquisition of the sociolinguistic variation by Labov (2012) and others. Levey’s contribution provides a smooth segue into Part 4, “Variation”, which contains three chapters that address differences related to register, style, and variable realization. In Chapter 8, “Register variation in intensifier usage across Asian Englishes”, Robert Fuchs and Ulrike Gut use cluster analysis as well as phenograms to look for patterns of variation in the use of intensifiers across a number of varieties and registers. They find that register and variety have notable effects on the use of intensifiers such that several South Asian English varieties differ in terms of intensifier use and distribution, but also that within varieties there are also substantial differences related to register, and that the observed variation is linked with different social and political contexts. Chapter 9, “The use of referential general extenders across registers”, by Suzanne Evans Wagner, Ashley Hesson, and Heidi M. Little compares both the frequencies and functions of general extenders in corpora across data from two varieties of U.S. English that they state are demographically similar but different in register. The authors find that the functionality of the general extenders of interest does not appear to change by register and style. Their results also highlight potential methodological issues with earlier studies on the use of general extenders across registers related to differences in corpora construction and analysis. In Chapter 10, “Constructing style: phonetic variation in quotative and discourse particle ‘like’”, Katie Drager examines phonetic and discourse variation in the two uses of “like” in the speech of adolescent girls in New Zealand. Harkening back to similar ethnographic work by Bucholtz (1999), Drager observes that the girls alter both the frequency and production of the two “like”s by social group membership and stance, as well as topic. Drager argues that a careful combination of variationist techniques and acoustic analyses can be especially illuminating when studying discourse-pragmatic variables, particularly in examining the construction of style and stance. In her epilogue, “The future of discourse-pragmatic variation and change research”, Jenny Cheshire responds to the papers in the volume with four directions for further research. She proposes that future work address whether different variants are involved in different types of linguistic change, how the position of variants affects functionality of markers, the ways in which these variables are acquired, and variation in the phonetic realization of these forms especially as they relate to stance (11). In contrast with several of the earlier papers, Cheshire argues that a traditional conceptualization of the linguistic variable may not always be the most appropriate framework for analyzing discourse-pragmatic variation.


The volume is well-edited and organized, with smooth transitions and clear links between adjacent chapters. The volume also does an excellent job of laying out many of the challenges inherent in studying this type of variation, and is clear about its suggestions for how to address them. As Pichler notes, the very question of what constitutes a discourse-pragmatic variable can be difficult to address, as these variables do not necessarily share the same shapes or formal properties (3). Pichler addresses this ambiguity directly by defining the scope of variation as those features that perform discourse functions AND whose use is motivated by functionality. In this way, the reader is able focus on pragmatic variation as well morphosyntactic and lexical variation.

While the volume is strong in the breadth of issues that it addresses as well as in the sheer number of varieties discussed, its primary weakness is the fact that several of the authors rely too heavily on corpus data without addressing the limitations of these methodologies. While corpus methods are useful for studying discourse-pragmatic variables due to their relatively infrequent occurrences, corpus methods also make it difficult for researchers to have a clear picture of the social contexts in which the variation occurs. The volume situates itself firmly within the strict variationist tradition, but it should more thoroughly address the limitations of that framework for studying variation in the 21st century.

Relatedly, several of the papers neglect to mention the roles of social variables other than region or age, ignoring potential variation by class and especially by ethnicity. With the exception of the chapter by Fuchs and Gut, ethnicity is largely ignored as a potential contributor to variation in the papers presented in this volume. This is a serious weakness, as 21st century sociolinguistics largely recognizes that intersectionality is an important consideration for the thorough description of variation. This omission also has the effect of weakening papers where there is an argument related to regional variation, since there is no such thing as a unified “Canadian English” or “U.S. English” devoid of variation by ethnicity as well as class and gender. The oversight of ethnicity as a potential contributor to variation also further serves to reinforce the problematic ideology that local white dialects are the standard as well as the primary object of interest in variationist studies. Fortunately, one way to address these challenges is presented in the volume in the chapter by Drager, which uses ethnographic methods of data collection to specifically examine variation within a population of white adolescent girls, allowing for a fuller exploration of the individual as well as community-specific constraints on variation.

While this volume focuses on variation in English varieties and does a thorough job of including a number of varieties that have often been underrepresented in variationist studies, I would have also liked to have seen more discussion about how the methods and analyses presented here may apply cross-linguistically. It is clear that studies on English are overrepresented in the sociolinguist literature, and even though English may be the language of interest for this particular volume, explicitly laying out the ways in which these methods and analyses may be of interest for a researcher working on other languages would have been a positive step towards addressing that challenge.

Overall, however, the volume is a great resource for both students and researchers interested in studying variables that lie at the intersection of discourse and pragmatics. I anticipate that several of the papers contained in the book will act as an excellent starting point for future discussions on how to study discourse-pragmatic variation in a way that is both scientifically accountable as well as informed by ongoing advances in the ways that we approach both social and linguistic variation.


Bucholtz, M., 1999. “Why be normal?”: Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls. Language in society, 28(2), pp.203-223.

Labov, W., 2012. Dialect diversity in America: The politics of language change. University of Virginia Press.

Labov, William. “How did it happen? The new verb of quotation in Philadelphia.” Lecture, New Ways of Analyzing Variation 45, Vancouver, BC Canada, November 4, 2016.


Nicole Holliday is a Chau Mellon Postdoctoral Scholar in Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Pomona College. She received her Ph.D. in sociolinguistics in 2016 from New York University under the supervision of Renee Blake. Her research interests include sociophonetics, intonational variation, the intonation-pragmatics interface, African American Language, and identity construction and performance. She is currently working on research related to the ways in which young men with one black parent and one white parent use intonational variation to construct their identity across a variety of sociolinguistic contexts.

Page Updated: 23-Mar-2017