LINGUIST List 29.3406

Wed Sep 05 2018

Review: General Linguistics; Language Acquisition; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Fägersten (2016)

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Date: 02-Jan-2018
From: Sabina Tabacaru <>
Subject: Watching TV with a Linguist
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Kristy Beers Fägersten
TITLE: Watching TV with a Linguist
SERIES TITLE: Television and Popular Culture
PUBLISHER: Syracuse University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Sabina Tabacaru, Université Paris 8, France


This volume, edited by Kristy Beers Fägersten, is divided into thirteen articles related to the use of language in different television series. The volume is, more specifically, “an introduction to the study of English linguistics based on English-language television series” (p. 8) and “a testament to the relevance and applicability of all linguistic fields to the analysis of television dialogue” (p.11). Every chapter explores a specific field of linguistics (for instance, pragmatics, corpus linguistics, syntax, etc.), and is followed by “Suggestions for further viewing and analysis”, encouraging and engaging the reader to try different exercises from similar perspectives.


Chapter 1, “Watching the Detective. Sherlock and Spoken Television Discourse” by Kay Richardson, explores three main approaches to the analysis of spoken discourse in the BBC television drama “Sherlock”: spoken discourse in context (taking into consideration the ethnography of communication), Goffman’s (1955, 1974, 1981) model of social interaction (including impression management, the frame concept and footing), and conversation analysis.

In Chapter 2, “Dealers and Discourse. Sociolinguistic Variation in ‘The Wire’”, Joe Trotta investigates language use in “The Wire” from a sociolinguistic perspective. Following comments and definitions of concepts such as accent and dialect, style and register, Standard English and African American Vernacular English, etc., the author gives examples of how they are shown in this particular television series. His examples and discussion highlight the depth of this variation in such types of discourse.

Chapter 3, “‘Back in St. Olaf…’ Regional Variation in The Golden Girls” by Jean Ann, analyzes regional dialects present in the television show “The Golden Girls” (1985-1992). These differences are analyzed in terms of grammar (the term “y’all” for instance), pronunciation (how two of the characters pronounce the same word differently), and lexis, since the four main characters come from different areas of the US (the South, the North Central part, and New York City). The last part deals with language contact in terms of borrowings, bilingualism and bidialectalism.

Chapter 4, entitled “SaMANtha. Language and Gender in Sex and the City” and written by Kristy Beers Fägersten and Hanna Sveen, questions issues related to identity, gender and use of language in the series “Sex and the City”. Comparing the language used by Samantha to that used by the other three female characters in the series, the authors investigate the deficit theory (Lakoff 1975), the dominance theory, the difference theory (Tannen, 1990), and the social constructionist theory related to gender and language.

In Chapter 5, entitled “The Pragmatics Explication. Making Sense of Nerds in The Big Bang Theory”, Matthias Eitelmann and Ulrike Stange examine different pragmatic approaches applied to the US sitcom “The Big Bang Theory”. The authors discuss inferencing, speech acts, felicity conditions (Searle 1969), the Cooperative Principle (Grice 1975), and politeness, following Sheldon’s communicative patterns in the series and discussing the complexity of human interactions.

Chapter 6, “Cunning Linguistics. The semantics of Word Play in South Park” by Michael Percillier, investigates different semantic processes that are at the heart of humorous meanings in “South Park” (1997-): lexical ambiguity (for instance homonymy, homophony, polysemy), semantic features, and shift of meaning. The author explores the creativity and complexity of such processes in resolving the humorous incongruities in discourse while highlighting that “understanding the mechanics of linguistic humor not only improves the viewing experience, but also enhances our own humorous creativity” (p. 157).

In Chapter 7, Jessie Sams presents “Word Formation in HIMYM”, an article on different strategies of word formation in the half-hour sitcom series “How I Met Your Mother”. Sams presents different techniques which range from additive processes (affixation for instance), subtractive processes (such as clipping or back-formation) to combinatory processes (blending, for example), and shifts (i.e., borrowings, etc.), highlighting the linguistic innovation of such television series.

Morphology is under investigation in Chapter 8, “What’s the Deal with Morphemes? Doing Morphology with Seinfeld” by Kristy Beers Fägersten, where the episode “The Label Maker” provides different examples to analyze (such as the terms “regifter” and “degifter”). The author first provides background information on morphology and the different processes involved and then proceeds to explain the complexity and the linguistic creativity at play in the series “Seinfeld”.

Several series and episodes are under investigation in Chapter 9, “Channel Surfing. Tuning into the Sounds of English” by Kristy Beers Fägersten, in which the author focuses on phonetics and phonology. Different sounds are analyzed in scenes from television series, underlining not only their complexity but also the ways in which various meanings and mispronunciations can be used in such contexts. The author concludes that such deliberate mispronunciations “convey particular emotions, states, or character traits” (p. 227).

Chapter 10, “Syntax in Seattle” by Gülşat Aygen, follows marked language use in the television series “Frasier”, following the theory of generative syntax proposed by Chomsky. The author proposes constituency tests and phrase structure rules (that is, set of rules that predict combinations of phrases that would form grammatical sentences; p. 245) in examples taken from the episode “The Gift Horse”.

Chapter 11, written by Kristy Beers Fägersten is called “I’m Learneding! First Language Acquisition in The Simpsons” and explores Brown’s (1973) stages of development regarding child language acquisition. Brown’s model includes five stages: the first three stages are centered on semantic roles and syntactic relations, the meaning of function words and inflectional morphology, and simple sentence word order, while Stages IV and V include complex sentences. For all these stages, the author discusses relevant examples drawn from different characters in “The Simpsons”.

Chapter 12, “Lost and Language Found” by Kristy Beers Fägersten and Ilaria Fiorentini, investigates second language acquisition in the series “Lost”. The authors explore concepts such as “motivation”, “competence”, “input” and “output” following the two Korean characters in the series Lost and their process of learning English throughout the six seasons of the series.

In Chapter 13, “The One Based on 738,032 Words. Language Use in Friends”, Paulo Quaglio explores words and uses in a corpus including all the episodes of the series “Friends”, showing step-by-step how to compile such a corpus and how different analyses can be conducted with a free concordancer such as “AntConc”. The author explains concepts such as “frequency lists”, “tokens”, “types”, etc., showing the various searches and examinations that a corpus provides (especially with large data).

The book also includes appendixes, a glossary, a presentation of the contributors, and an index.


This book presents a wide range of examples from television series, and many different linguistic perspectives to analyze and discuss. The similar format for each article (introduction to the series and to the topic under investigation, followed by the analysis, discussion, and suggestions for further reading and analysis) makes it accessible and familiar to the reader.

All the chapters end with “Suggestions for further viewing and analysis” which make different comparisons between the elements discussed and other elements in different series that could also be studied from similar perspectives. This could be very helpful and interesting (not to mention, entertaining!) for students considering doing research in the field of linguistics, as it shows the varieties of theories and approaches from which certain issues can be investigated. Another important point that the volume highlights is the frequent references to different chapters of the book, bringing these various fields together, making it easy to link and understand them.

The volume is highly recommended to students of linguistics, media studies, communication studies, and cultural studies that are surely going to find it pleasant to read and discuss. The authors all affirm the complexity and the relevance of studying language from the perspective of watching television, thinking and rethinking the role of writers and what they imagine is happening in the audience’s mind. The fact that all the shows presented here are successful only adds to the relevance of this volume. The book highlights the hands-on approach to studying the complexities of language, defining and presenting the diverse branches of linguistics with examples and scenes that the younger generation can only recognize and identify with. This volume can easily be used in a classroom, in terms of approaches and examples, enlarging the possibilities of research and debate.


Brown, Roger. 1973. A First Language: The Early Stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

Goffman, Erving. 1955. “On face-work: an analysis of the ritual elements in social interaction.” Psychiatry: Journal for the study of interpersonal processes 18: 213-231.

Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame analysis: an essay on the organization of experience. London: Harper & Row.

Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of talk. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Grice, H. Paul. 1975. “Logic and Conversation.” In Syntax and Semantics. Vol. 3: Speech Acts, edited by Peter Cole and Jerry L. Morgan, pp. 41-58. New York: Academic Press.

Lakoff, Robin. 1975. Language and Woman’s Place. New York: Harper and Row.

Searle, John R. 1969. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Tannen, Deborah. 1990. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. London: Virago


Sabina Tabacaru is Maître de Conférences in Linguistics at Université Paris 8. Part of TransCrit (EA 1569), she works in the field of cognitive linguistics; her research interests include gesture analysis, discourse analysis, multimodal interaction, applied to the study and the understanding of sarcasm (and humor, more generally) in interaction.

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