LINGUIST List 30.1679

Wed Apr 17 2019

Review: Discourse Analysis; Pragmatics; Sociolinguistics: Beeching, Ghezzi, Molinelli (2018)

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Date: 23-Jan-2019
From: Barbara Soukup <>
Subject: Positioning the Self and Others
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Book announced at

EDITOR: Kate Beeching
EDITOR: Chiara Ghezzi
EDITOR: Piera Molinelli
TITLE: Positioning the Self and Others
SUBTITLE: Linguistic perspectives
SERIES TITLE: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 292
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2018

REVIEWER: Barbara Soukup, Austrian Academy of Sciences


The book ''Positioning the Self and Others: Linguistic Perspectives'' is an edited volume published in John Benjamin's 'Pragmatics and Beyond New Series' (installment #292; series editor: Anita Fetzer, University of Augsburg). Consisting of thirteen chapters, the volume covers a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches to the concept and phenomenon of 'positioning' (defined programmatically in Chapter 1), whose manifestations are analyzed in the general linguistic contexts of (varieties of) English, French, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. As the editors indicate, the contributions to the volume developed out of a thematic panel at the 14th International Pragmatics Conference (IPrA) in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2015.

In Chapter 1 (''Introduction''), the volume editors Kate Beeching, Chiara Ghezzi, and Piera Molinelli provide an overview of the book, which they begin by positing as the book's central unifying theme and scholarly contribution a focus on the concrete linguistic devices that participants use in interactional activities of positioning themselves and others (hence also the book's subtitle). The editors identify four types of such linguistic devices as centrally featured in the volume: terms of address, pragmatic/discourse markers, code choice, and orthography. For the purposes of the book's joint venture, which the editors place in the nexus of pragmatics and sociolinguistics, they furthermore explicate the concepts of 'positioning', 'identity', 'indexicality', '(inter)subjectivity/ '(inter)subjectification', and 'ideology'. The foundation of these explications is the social constructionist view that selves are produced in and through situated discourse in interaction. 'Positioning' refers to this activity, in which selves and others (and their relationships) are equally implicated. 'Identity', as a closely related concept, is said to refer to 'work' on the broader contextual level of 'social positioning' (with reference to Bucholtz & Hall 2005), with an eye on categorizations and (group) memberships. 'Indexicality' is primarily used to capture how certain linguistic forms 'point to' certain social identities. 'Subjectivity' refers to speakers' expression of their personal perspective, and 'intersubjectivity' to relationality between participants. 'Ideologies' are systems of beliefs that constitute interactional context on the societal level. Following this set-up, the chapter closes with summaries and syntheses of the ensuing contributions.

In Chapter 2 (''Positioning through address practice in Finland-Swedish and Sweden-Swedish service encounters''), Catrin Norrby, Camilla Wide, Jenny Nilsson, and Jan Lindström analyze variation in the use of pronouns of address (T/V, plural, or no address) by Swedish-speaking staff and customers in a set of audio- and video-recorded interactions at event ticket outlets in Sweden and Finland, under a 'variational pragmatics' approach, combining quantitative and qualitative analyses. They find differences in address usage relating to participant role, cultural setting, participant age, and situational setting. Thus, staff exhibit greater variety than customers, and Finland-Swedes more than Sweden-Swedes. Younger customers eschew address pronouns more often than older ones. More direct address is used in situations involving some transactional complexity or problems, than in ones that follow an expected script. These patterns are said to reflect different priorities and foci in the positioning activities interactants engage in, such as a focus on the business at hand vs. on rapport.

In Chapter 3 (''Sociocultural and linguistic constraints in address choice from Latin to Italian''), volume co-editor Piera Molinelli traces the historical development of the present-day Italian address system for social positioning, in written texts held to be close to spoken language, such as letters, public presentations, and stage pieces. She shows how the expression of deference mostly relied on titles/nouns in Latin. Latin pluralization strategies to project inclusiveness and message attenuation later came to encode deference in plural pronouns (leading to the use of 'Voi'). In addition, anaphoric reference to title nouns gave rise to third-person deferring forms ('Ella' and 'Lei'), a phenomenon the author also links to Spanish cultural contact. Today, 'Lei' is the unmarked pronoun of deference in mainstream Italian, after 'Voi' gradually lost the ability to express social distance (except in certain regional varieties).

Chapter 4 (''Closeness at a distance: Positioning in Brazilian workplace emails'') by Carolin Debray and Sophie Reissner-Roubicek similarly analyses written language close to orality, in the form of emails exchanged in professional contexts in Brazil, a country where, as the authors posit, personal rapport is extra-highly valued in all settings. Their dataset consists of 77 emails in Brazilian Portuguese provided voluntarily by informants from various workplaces and regions. The focus of analysis are greetings and closings, under the assumption that these constitute central sites for positioning and relational work. Findings confirm this assumption in the dataset; furthermore, an influence of type of communication (internal or external to the organization) on level of formality was evident, with internal communication being less formal. Absence of greetings and/or closings was often attributable to urgency or to occurrence within a string of messages (with less need for address bracketing), but at times also served as a strategy to index discord.

Chapter 5 (''Beyond the notion of periphery: An account of polyfunctional discourse markers within the Val.Es.Co. model of discourse segmentation'') by Shima Salameh Jiménez, Maria Estellés Arguedas, and Salvador Pons Bordería takes up the notion of positioning in two notably different ways, relating an investigation of the functions of the Spanish discourse markers '¿no?' ('huh?'), 'mira' ('look'), 'oye' ('hey'), and '¡vaya!' ('wow!'), as expressing speakers' interactional positioning regarding inter/subjectivity, to a description of the markers' segmental positioning and scope. Their contribution proposes to amend a respective analysis under the 'Subjectivity, Intersubjectivity and Peripheries Hypothesis' (SIPH – e.g. Beeching, Degand, Detges, Traugott & Waltereit 2009) by application of the 'VAM' discourse segmentation model developed by the Val.Es.Co. (Valencia, Español Coloquial) research group (e.g. Briz & Grupo Val.Es.Co. 2003), which they describe in pertinent detail. Illustrating their proposal with examples mainly from the relevant literature (and also including English data), they conclude that the VAM, with its hierarchy of discourse units and incorporation of scope, is particularly apt to account for the functioning of discourse markers to project inter/subjectivity.

In Chapter 6 (''Metacommenting in English and French: A variational pragmatics approach''), volume co-editor Kate Beeching develops a quantitative and qualitative, cross-linguistic analysis of 'metacommenting' as a pragmatic function mainly expressing speakers' positions regarding utterances, here in the use of the English markers 'if you like', 'if you will', 'sort of', 'kind of', and 'like', and in the French markers 'si tu veux'/'si vous voulez', 'quoi', 'genre', and 'comme'. Data are drawn from the spoken language parts of three large corpora for (British, American, and Canadian) English, and five smaller corpora for (European and Canadian) French. Findings show different usage rates of the various forms across the different linguistic varieties, such that, for example, 'sort of' is more frequent in British than in American and Canadian English, where 'kind of' is attested more often. 'Quoi' has become more frequent in European French than in Canadian French, where 'genre' and 'comme' have higher rates. The author concludes that, while, on the whole, similar types of forms have been enlisted to express metacommenting cross-linguistically, regional and national usage stratification has also turned them into identificational indexes.

Chapter 7 (''Direct speech, subjectivity and speaker positioning in London English and Paris French'') by Maria Secova stays in the context of English and French, investigating the current usage of quotatives (such as 'be + like' or 'go' and 'être là' or 'faire genre') and extenders (such as 'and everything' or 'whatever' and 'et tout' or 'nanana') that are found to variably bracket direct speech performance in the linguistic varieties spoken in London and Paris. Her data consist of a contemporary corpus of informal adolescent peer-group recordings from the two capitals. Regarding form and function of the markers, a number of parallels are found cross-linguistically. For example, hedging and mitigation constitute a frequent realm of usage in both languages, recruiting similar forms (e.g. 'like' and 'genre'). The author amply illustrates these and additional forms and functions, with a particular focus on the development of innovations; ultimately, her report provides a round-up of the ways in which (bracketing of) direct speech plays a central role in speakers' interactional positioning activities.

In Chapter 8 (''Positioning of self in interaction: Adolescents' use of attention-getters''), Karin Aijmer reports on the use of the English imperatives 'look', 'listen', 'come on', and 'excuse me' as discourse markers for attention-getting in interaction. Her data come from a socially stratified corpus of recordings of London teenagers' informal interactions that was compiled in 1993. The author identifies different interactional functions of 'look', of which she highlights, for teenage speech in particular, the functions of managing topic shifting, playful arguing, quotation, and turn-taking (in descending order of frequency). She describes uses of 'listen' and 'come on' as particularly hearer-oriented and potentially confrontational, and 'excuse me' as typically used ironically. She concludes that attention-getters play an important role in adolescents' interactions to indexically serve purposes of bonding (e.g. via playful antagonism) and entertaining (e.g. via performances of direct reported speech).

In Chapter 9 (''Constellations of indexicalities and social meaning: The evolution of 'cioè' in Contemporary Italian''), volume co-editor Chiara Ghezzi provides a corpus-based analysis of the development over time of the Italian discourse marker 'cioè' ('that is (to say)'). Drawing on radio phone-in data from the late 1970s and 2010 that capture different age cohorts, the author shows that the use of 'cioè', a discourse marker with a range of functions (signaling e.g. non/paraphrastic reformulation, hedging, or claiming the floor), stratifies according to age: younger speakers use it more, though its use has declined over time and become functionally limited (to the reformulation function). Thus, heightened use of 'cioè' stylistically indexes, and projects social reference to, both a particular cohort (adolescents and young adults, who use 'cioè' more than older cohorts) as well as a generation (those who were young in the 1970s and 80s, who used 'cioè' in a greater variety of functions than contemporary youths, and who still use it now, though at lower frequency).

Chapter 10 ('''Proper is whatever people make it': Stance, positionality, and ideological packaging in a dinnertime conversation'') by Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson analyzes a dinner conversation recorded in the western U.S., featuring a family with parents of Spanish-speaking origin. The author focuses on the interactional function of stance-taking, which she conceptualizes in terms of speakers' momentary expression of their standing towards their utterance. Stances and their implications, as the author argues, may accrue over the course of a conversation to form ideologically inflected 'positionalities'. She shows how this plays out in the conversation under study, where the main interactants (the parents) engage in activities of stance-taking that project, for example, disbelief, dis-alignment, combativeness, or scientific authority, and include strategies of code choice. Ultimately, their accrued stances amount to a contest of language ideologies negotiating the value of English vs. Spanish and, in particular, Ecuadorian vs. Dominican Spanish, which reflects and reproduces broader societal discourses.

In Chapter 11 (''Representations of self and other in narratives of return migration''), Alexander Nikolaou and Jennifer Sclafani discuss interactional constructions of non/Greek ethnic identities by Greek return migrants, who, having grown up elsewhere, returned to live in their Greek parents' country of origin as adults. The data the authors draw on are extracts from semi-structured topical interviews with three Greek Americans, an Australian Greek, and a British Greek (out of a larger dataset). In these data, the authors illustrate how indexicals such as discourse markers ('you know'), pronouns ('us'/'them'), imperatives, code choice (Greek vs. English), and direct reported speech ('constructed dialogue' – Tannen 1986) are used by narrators for their self- and other-positioning moves regarding issues of Greek-ness, ethnic hybridity, in- or outsider status, migration, but also to manage the interview situation itself. Complex constellations of both alliance and dis-alliance with the target community are the result.

Chapter 12 (''Orthography as an identity marker: The case of bilingual road signs in the province of Bergamo'') by Federica Guerini returns to an investigation of written language, in the form of public signage in Bergamo, a province in northern Italy. On the basis of digital-photography records of the boundary signage of all 244 provincial municipalities, the author provides a quantitative and qualitative account of the presence or absence of bilingualism involving Italian and Bergamasco (the regional Romance variety). She finds that the bilingual signs encountered, including their featured orthographic choices, cater to the local audience rather than to outsiders, and as such have a predominantly symbolic purpose and identity function (indexing solidarity and ingroup-ness) for the communities. This argument seems further supported by the fact that bilingual signs appear more in areas with higher immigrant populations, where the projection and assertion of a local identity may be of increased importance to community members.

Finally, in Chapter 13 (''Positioning the self in talk about groups: Linguistic means emphasizing veracity used by members of the Georgian Greek community''), Concha Maria Höfler presents an analysis centering on the use of the discourse marker 'chestno govorya' ('honestly speaking') in interviews with members of the Greek community in the country of Georgia. Drawing on extracts from two semi-structured interviews, out of a larger dataset, the author shows how 'chestno govorya' functions as a set-up for a sequence of 'very frank talk', particularly in the context of circumscribing social group boundaries (regarding ethnic, national, or religious groups). She argues that such flagged 'honest speech' about social categorizations is a way for the interviewees to manage unexpected and even perhaps socially less desirable comments, and thus to draw in the interviewer and enhance intimacy. By the same token, the author suggests that looking for the very flagging of such sequences may lead the analyst to particularly interesting 'hot spots' of social positioning.


With its wide scope and range of theoretical and methodological perspectives on positioning, and its coverage of a great variety of languages as well as geographical and situational settings and contexts, the book ''Positioning the Self and Others'' provides a comprehensive, up-to-date overview of the current state of research on its topic and pivotal concept. The contributions are accessibly written, even in some more technical parts. Indeed, it may be in acknowledgment of the book's breadth of theoretical and methodological coverage that the uses of field-specific concepts and terminology are explained well throughout, even for non-specialists, making the volume ready and recommended reading for all scholars and (graduate) students of linguistics alike who are interested in the phenomenon of positioning. At the same time, though, due to the advanced nature of the topic itself and of discourse analysis as a methodological approach, which both arguably presuppose some background and foundation in pragmatics and sociolinguistics, the book may not be an obvious choice for undergraduates.

The breadth of scope and inclusiveness of approaches to positioning in the present book may actually seem surprising at first, from the perspective of the concept's foundations in social psychology (see notably the programmatic van Langenhove & Harré 1999), which operate with a much narrower focus on ''the assignment of fluid 'parts' or 'roles' to speakers in the discursive construction of personal stories that make a person's actions intelligible and relatively determinate as social acts'' (van Langenhove & Harré 1999: 17). Yet, in the introduction, the editors provide a very helpful synopsis and synthesis of the book and its individual contributions, by which they convincingly tie the venture together and nicely bring out its common denominator: a focus on how the discursive construction and presentation of self and other (and their relations) is enacted via the use of specific linguistic devices (of some variety).

As mentioned in the summary above, the introductory chapter also succeeds in making the book cohere by programmatically advancing definitions of some central concepts (positioning, identity, indexicality, (inter)subjectivity, and ideology). This is a very helpful feature and frame of reference for reader orientation. However, noticeably absent from this list is the concept of 'stance', which is notoriously difficult to differentiate from 'position(ing)', as evident also in the fact that, throughout the volume, the two concepts often seem to be applied interchangeably, as taking up a standpoint regarding oneself, the interlocutor(s), and/or relevant utterances. Of course, interchangeable use and conceptualization of 'stance' and 'position' is one possible and viable approach to take. At the same time, differentiations have been proposed in the literature – as evident in Chapter 10, in which Valentinsson (with reference notably to Jaffe 2009) reviews the two concepts separately, and eventually applies a differentiated and ordered hierarchy whereby 'stances' accrue into 'positionalities' during continued interaction. To exemplify another approach, Schiffrin (2006: 208) provides the contrasting definitions, ''whereas positioning deconstructs speaker's identity projection in relation to what is said, […] stance addresses the epistemic basis of the speaker/content relationship.'' Whether or not one finds it useful to equate the two terms 'stance' and 'position' or to differentiate them may be a matter of scholarly tradition, research focus, and terminological preference. The point to make here, though, is that providing an explicit take on the matter would have been helpful in the context of the present volume, to further enhance clarity and facilitate adoption in future research.

This is not to detract from the fact that, throughout, the book deals in high-quality, technically/linguistically solid discourse analysis, which is always difficult to pull off (while it is so much easier to veer into mere dissection of content). Therefore, one of the great achievements of the present volume is that its contributions, across the board, really tie their analyses down to particular, concrete linguistic features, devices, and resources, explicating the very mechanisms underlying interactional and social positioning. As already mentioned, the editors posited as one of the publication's goals to illuminate specifically ''the linguistic means used to index the relationship between self and other(s) in different types of communicative activity,'' (p.1), and the volume succeeds in this endeavor.


Beeching, Kate, Liesbeth Degand, Ulrich Detges, Elizabeth Closs Traugott & Richard Waltereit. 2009. Summary of the workshop on 'Meaning in Diachrony' at the First International Conference on Meaning in Interaction, University of the West of England, Bristol, UK, April 23-25, 2009.

Briz, Antonio & Grupo Val.Es.Co. 2003. Un sistema de unidades para el estudio del lenguaje coloquial. Oralia 6. 7-61.

Bucholtz, Mary & Kira Hall. 2005. Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach. Discourse Studies 7 (4-5). 585-614.

Jaffe, Alexandra (ed.). 2009. Stance: Sociolinguistic perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Langenhove, Luk van & Rom Harré. 1999. Introducing positioning theory. In Rom Harré & Luc van Langenhove (eds.), Positioning theory, 14-31. Oxford: Blackwell.

Schiffrin, Deborah. 2006. In other words: Variation in reference and narrative. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Tannen, Deborah. 1986. Introducing constructed dialogue in Greek and American conversational and literary narrative. In Florian Coulmas (ed.), Direct and indirect speech, 311-332. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


Barbara Soukup is an Elise Richter Research Fellow at the Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities (ACDH) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. As a sociolinguist who specializes in integrating a wide range of methodologies, she currently investigates the processes of meaning-making via the use of English vs. German in the linguistic landscape of Vienna, Austria ('ELLViA' - Austrian Science Fund project #V394-G23).

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