LINGUIST List 28.3356

Tue Aug 08 2017

Review: Sociolinguistics: Tagliamonte (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <clarelinguistlist.org>


Date: 18-Feb-2017
From: Katherine Morales <katherineravennagmail.com>
Subject: Teen Talk
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-2905.html

AUTHOR: Sali A. Tagliamonte
TITLE: Teen Talk
SUBTITLE: The Language of Adolescents
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Katherine Morales, Trinity College Dublin

REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry

SUMMARY

Sali Tagliamonte’s “Teen Talk” offers a one-of-a-kind, insightful analysis of
adolescent speech, with a wealth of data unparalleled by previous attempts in
youth language. The volume itself focuses on Toronto Teen English, but draws
on global trends of adolescent speech, such as the heightened presence of
Netspeak and virtual communication (Chapter 12), and the role of television
and the media in popularizing certain ways of speaking, such as quotative
“like” and the Valley Girl register (Chapter 4). Each chapter provides
thorough descriptions of interesting language features of youth language,
offering grand-scale evidence of multiple corpora on the subject, which
Tagliamonte has compiled herself throughout the years with the help of trained
undergraduate and graduate students. Each chapter is equipped with glossaries
and definitions of key concepts in sociolinguistics and corpus linguistics, as
well as practical exercises which emphasize the content of each chapter. This
volume is rich in content and comparative data; however, it is written in a
way that is accessible to both specialized and non-specialized audiences.

Chapter 1 contextualizes the subject of teen language to the general audience;
this may be a person who is interested in learning more about teen language, a
first-year linguist who has yet to come to terms with words like ‘variable’ or
‘variant’, an experienced scholar who is curious about the role of teen
language in language variation, or a graduate student taking a course on
adolescent speech. It provides the general audience and linguistics student
with the necessary information to understand the phenomenon of teen language
as it exists today: in a world where social media has revolutionized the norms
of our societal interactions, and the lives and representations of our youth
are increasingly virtualized. Tagliamonte rightfully raises questions of what
increased mobility and connectivity mean for variationist research, questions
such as: are fixed social factors, such as class and region, still helpful in
describing language variation and change? To what extent are social boundaries
upheld? More specifically, where does English variation fit into this complex
picture? After raising essential issues, the author proceeds to talk about
what is arguably one of the most recognized features associated with
adolescent speech – slang – and its enregistered negative values of
immaturity, laziness or irresponsible behavior. In discussing slang, she makes
reference to introductory concepts that define the study of sociolinguistics,
such as the notion of a variable. She describes slang as a purposeful act of
linguistic rebellion, whose main function is that of shock or “a flaunting of
an anti-thesis of the mundane” (2). Important questions answered in this
chapter include the durability of slang lexical variants, and how these words
may provide an insightful window into society at that time, and the role
teenagers possess as leaders and innovators of language change. Of critical
importance to the rest of the volume is the discussion of Labov’s (2001)
incrementation model, one that describes the rate at which a human being
acquires innovative forms across their lifespan. This model suggests that
adolescence is the stage at which innovative language use increases and
reaches its highest peak, the highest period of linguistic instability and the
one that boasts most opportunities for language change.

In Chapter 2 Tagliamonte provides specifics about the basis of her book: her
data. Here she explains step-by-step how she came to gain access to teen
language. Of importance for beginner sociolinguists are concepts such as
‘vernacular’ and the idea of collecting ‘authentic’ data , which she has
accomplished through the involvement of students closer to the age of the
target participants. She describes her role throughout the process as that of
“the scientist behind the scenes” (10). Data listed in this chapter include:
Storytelling Corpora (1995 - 2004), the Toronto Teen Corpus (2002 - 2006), The
Toronto Instant Messaging Corpus (2004 – 2006), and The Toronto Internet
Corpus (2009 – 2010) – which serve as the analytical basis of this book. Other
cited data include the Toronto English Corpus, a general corpus composed of
language data from people across different age groups and sociodemographic
backgrounds - amounting to a total of 267 participants. This corpus is of
great methodological importance because it plays the role of the control
group, or the benchmark, from which general trends are inferred. A second
source of comparison is ‘the Clara Corpus’, a longitudinal case study corpus
that follows the progressive variation of one individual’s speech, from the
age of sixteen to thirteen years later as an adult professional. The latter
corpus serves to answer questions about ‘age-graded’ phenomena, or language
that is tied to particular stages in life. In this way, Tagliamonte skillfully
navigates all potential gaps in the study of variation by providing various
sources of synchronic and diachronic change. Another methodological move
designed to give an accurate depiction of trends is what she labels as
‘small-within-larger’ studies: in this process Tagliamonte and her group of
student researchers measured each participant against group trends in case of
any anomalies. By implementing this move, she was able to take into account
the influence of social groups such as the GLBQ communities, Asian
populations, stutterers, snowboarders, etc. – thus incorporating a somewhat
identity-led approach and navigating essentialist gaps that remain in large
scale variationist approaches.

While Chapter 2 appeals to the scientific audience, by focusing on reliability
of data , Chapter 3 serves as a resource for undergraduate and graduate
students who are trying to come to grips with the fundamentals of variationist
research. It discusses basic concepts such as ‘the linguistic variable’,
arguments revolving the role of frequency in data, the implementation of
statistical tests, quantitative principles, and hallmark principles of
variation proposed by William Labov (1963), such as the idea of ‘change from
below’ (55). In addition to answering methodological questions to do with
research design, Tagliamonte discusses examples of different types of
variation in language and then situates her study as being primarily involved
with describing lexical and syntactic change. In this sense Tagliamonte makes
a significant contribution to the study of teen language, where other studies
have presented phonological accounts (cf. Mendoza-Denton, 2008; Eckert, 2000).

Chapters 4 to 13 detail some of the patterns that emerged from her
investigation of youth speech in online and offline interactions, across
numerous corpora, such as: quotatives, intensifiers, ‘sentence starters’,
‘sentence enders’, the frequent use of words like ‘stuff’ or ‘just’, peculiar
use of adjectives, frequent expressions, and internet language.

Chapter 4 contains interesting examples of quotatives – not only does it
present an in-depth discussion of perhaps the most iconic teen quotative
“like”, but it discusses other equally popular features – such as ‘think’,
‘say’, and ‘go’ – and showcases these along ‘like’ in a detailed diachronic
graph that demonstrates their increasing/decaying popularity (page 72).
Additionally, throughout this chapter Tagliamonte makes reference to some of
the findings by one of her previous Ph.D students, Alexandra D’Arcy, who
conducted a doctoral project on the quotative ‘like’. One of the interesting
findings of this chapter is that different generations of English speakers
in Toronto, quotatives appear to be used for different reasons: in older
speakers, quotatives are used to quote someone else’s speech, whereas younger
generations tend to use quotatives more to introduce their own internal
thoughts.

Chapter 5, ‘Intensifiers’, details the author’s detection of a
change-in-progress in adjectives that intensify or boost the meaning of an
utterance. This chapter includes a discussion of the susceptibility of lexical
items, such as adjectives, to language change; however, it notes the
difficulty of tracing these changes – particularly intensifiers – as they do
not occur often in spoken data. That is, intensifiers are seldom used in order
to preserve their power and to ‘intensify’ a message. This chapter includes
discussions of intensifiers ‘so’, ‘like’, ‘I don’t know’, and ‘of course’ and
their staying power. After a detailed discussion of their behavior, the
chapter suggests that these intensifiers are most used by females. This
chapter also features an enlightening discussion of the use of intensifiers in
popular television shows such as “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

Chapters 6 & 7 describes the use of discourse markers (DM) labelled ‘sentence
starters’ and ‘sentence enders’. Chapter 6 details the use of ‘and’, ‘well’,
‘yeah’, and ‘so’ at the beginning of a sentence. This chapter contains
examples from interview and storytelling data, and includes methodological
insights as to how the author differentiated between socially meaningful
‘sentence starters’ and idiosyncratic occurrences. Findings are compared
against diachronic data from the Toronto English corpus, which allows us to
conclude that sentences starters like ‘like’ and ‘so’ are most popular among
current generations, while others such as ‘you know’ are prevalent among those
born in 1975 – 89 . Chapter 7 looks at the opposite phenomenon – discourse
markers that occur at the end of a sentence, i.e. sentence enders. Here
Tagliamonte discusses ‘whatever’, ‘right’, ‘you know’, ‘so’, ‘yeah’, ‘I don’t
know’.

Chapters 8 & 9 are dedicated to the analysis of specific words, such as
‘stuff’ and ‘just’, both of which occurred frequently in the teenage data.
Chapter 8 traces the different uses of “stuff”, a word which fulfills a
“generic” function among teens and may serve as a conceptual abstraction, i.e.
“loosely…denote(s) any collection of things about which one is not able or
willing to particularize” (140). Other generics discussed in this chapter
include “thing”, which is the most frequently used generic across speakers in
Toronto. This chapter features comparative evidence from Google NGrams.

Chapter 9 describes the functions of adverbial ‘just’ as an alternative to
‘simply’ or ‘only’; she provides evidence that suggests that this
colloquialism may be replacing the original function of ‘just’ as an adjective
(e.g.“a just society”). Different types of “just” are discussed alongside
other uses of this word, in order to discern which form is most frequent among
adolescents and across different demographics. In this chapter the use of
Google NGrams was particularly helpful, as it offered a one-of-a-kind look
into the semantic behavior of “just” from the 1880s to the 2000s. Page 153
provides this historical progression of ‘just’ morphing from a word that
signaled the degree of something into its use as a verb modifier.

Chapter 10 discusses the role of adjectives in teen talk and the presence or
absence of non-standard adjectival use that is often thought to belong to teen
talk. The author compares the use of the adjective ‘weird’ to its standard
equivalent ‘strange’, and the use of ‘odd’ versus ‘creepy’, and how these
occur overall across Toronto Teen Corpus and Toronto English Corpus from 2002
– 2004. Perhaps the most enlightening piece of information, against all the
ideologies of non-standard language, is what is suggested by her graph in page
176: that those born from 1950s on increasingly use the adjective ‘weird’
versus its opponent ‘strange’. There are also graphs that display differences
according to gender. Perhaps the most interesting trend is the one described
on page 177 (Figure 10.2) which suggests that there may be a
change-in-progress for the functions of ‘weird’, or an age-graded phenomenon
at play. This figure demonstrates a preference for the attributive use of
‘weird’ for the younger cohorts, and an inclination towards predicative uses
from older generations. Interestingly, she demonstrates how these lexical
items behave alongside data from other corpora from other parts of the world
(beyond her Toronto English corpora), e.g. corpora from Helsinki, from North
and South UK dialect regions, from York, and from South Eastern Ontario, among
others.

Chapter 11 details other unusual language patterns which she describes as
unique or ‘funky’. These include ‘you know what?’, ‘I don’t know’, and
‘whatever’. Among these perhaps the most popular was ‘you know (what I mean)’
with a total of 400 counts in her corpus; here Tagliamonte includes an
in-depth discussion of how it behaves across several examples: as a tag (or
general extender), literal question, rhetorical question, etc. An interesting
finding was that females use more general extender “you know what” than males,
who use more rhetorical question ‘you know what’.

The last chapter that discusses findings focuses on Internet language, Chapter
12, although, arguably this chapter has enough data to create a book of its
own . This chapter is composed of some brief discussion of seminal work in the
area (such as Androutsopolous 2014, Kiesler et al. 1994, Crystal, 2006), and
goes on to discuss Internet language as we find it today. She walks the
speaker through her Internet corpus, entitled the Toronto Instant Messaging
Corpus (TIMC). In this chapter the author includes a comparative discussion of
spoken and internet corpora, whereby she attempts to arrive at an
understanding of the nature of language in technological mediums, particularly
whether they follow/do not follow the characteristics of Netspeak (e.g.
brevity) established by previous literature (cf. Crystal, 2006). She
accomplishes this by providing comparative discussions of both spoken and
written-text corpora. Interesting findings include the suggestion that IM
messages contain words of greater length than found in spoken data.

EVALUATION

With this volume Sali Tagliamonte establishes herself as a force to be
reckoned with in the study of youth language. Over the past two decades, the
study of teen language has taken off, and this is largely to do with the
voices of well-established sociolinguists, such as Penelope Eckert (1989,
2000) and Mary Bucholtz (1999, 2010), who have advocated for the importance of
adolescence as an essential period for language variation and change. Nowadays
more sociolinguists are concerned with the role adolescents play as the
trendsetters and innovators of language. Most attempts to define youth
language have taken place in English-speaking settings, many of these across
large cities in the United States. A lot of these include large-scale studies
that observe speech across different demographic categories, while some of
these represent smaller scale ethnographic studies of adolescent peer groups.
Both are necessary because one cannot exist without the other: you cannot make
inferences about smaller scale studies without an understanding of large scale
trends, and vice versa. In this way, Tagliamonte cements her position as the
provider of “the bigger picture” for Canadian English, in particular, Toronto
Teen English. Consequently, this volume will be a great resource for Canadian
linguists who are curious to see how large-scale trends (as demonstrated by
this volume) manifest themselves locally, in day-to-day interactions. This is
also important because of its global implications, as teen talk is
increasingly situated in virtual settings, with participants from all across
the world. This volume is a valuable resource not only because of its rich
data, but also because of its sociological implications. Tagliamonte
repeatedly refers to the existing negative ideologies presenting teens and
their way of speaking as an uncultured or ineloquent language; and she uses
examples from sociolinguistic interviews and evidence from Google Ngram
searches (and other diachronic resources) to demonstrate the different
functions of teen talk, who it belongs to, and where certain forms of speaking
originated. In this way, Tagliamonte has produced a volume unique for its
inclusion of various diachronic sources on teen language.

Methodologically, “Teen Talk” is groundbreaking in its attempt at gathering
youth language through different means. It does not fall short in methodology
and use of comparative data, and it is able arrive at several conclusions
about large-scale trends. What is perhaps lacking from her book is a
description of the students involved in these projects – those who aided
Tagliamonte in her quest to acquire a large corpus of teen language. We know
who Tagliamonte is, we hear her voice throughout the volume, yet we know very
little of the students who conducted the interviews and collected a large
portion of her online data. Other than a brief mention of their ages (20 – to
late-20-something year olds), they are treated as irrelevant to the findings.
Neither do we know anything about their own linguistic background and what
language they used throughout the interviews. Information about the
interviewers could potentially provide an alternative analytical lens by which
the corpora could be investigated, particularly in terms of discussing
sociolinguistic phenomena such as accommodation theory (Giles & Coupland,
1991). However, I do acknowledge that reporting this information is more
feasible in smaller scale studies than larger ones – indeed, this book was the
product of multiple efforts and years of data compilation. Perhaps in a future
follow-up volume, Tagliamonte will consider including more information on the
interviewers’ identities, in terms of interests, peer group identities and
other enlightening sociodemographic information.

Stylistically Tagliamonte has created a volume that is accessible to language
specialists and non-specialists. Throughout her book, the author utilizes a
captivating voice that invites the speaker to think critically about issues
that are central to variationist research and the field of sociolinguistics.
Even chapters that would typically be difficult to understand, or filled with
technical terminology, are presented in a clear, well-organized manner. Each
chapter is equipped with excerpts of interviews and practical exercises that
invite the reader to apply knowledge discussed in the chapter. Undoubtedly,
this book lends itself to being used as a primary source for classes on youth
language.

REFERENCES

Bucholtz, Mary. 2010. White Kids: Language, Race, and Styles of Youth Identity.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert, Penelope. 2000. Language Variation as Social Practice: The Linguistic
Construction of Identity in Belten High. Wiley Blackwell.


ABOUT THE REVIEWER

Katherine Morales is a doctoral researcher in Sociolinguistics at the Department of Linguistic, Speech, and Communication Sciences in Trinity College Dublin. Her research specializes in language and identity, with a particular focus on code-switching and translanguaging practices. She is interested in observing language variation in Latino adolescent communities, as well as the ideological implications of speaking a non-local variety (English) in a primarily Spanish-speaking community (Puerto Rico). Other areas of interests include sociophonetics and World Englishes in postcolonial contexts.

Page Updated: 08-Aug-2017