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Review of  Teenage Talk

Reviewer: Carmen Ebner
Book Title: Teenage Talk
Book Author: Anna-Brita Stenström
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 26.2015

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


In Teenage Talk Anna-Brita Stenström investigates how Spanish and English teenagers use pragmatic markers by applying a comparative corpus analysis of two corpora. Taking her findings of pragmatic markers in the Corpus Oral de Lenguaje Adolescente de Madrid (COLAm) as a starting point, Stenström attempts to match these with the corresponding pragmatic markers in The Bergen Corpus of London Teenage Language (COLT). The increasing interest in Spanish and the global popularity of English have been named as the reason for choosing these two languages for a contrastive study. This reason is obviously supplemented by the existence of the comparatively similar corpora. The aim of the book, which consists of nine chapters and a brief conclusion, is to establish the characteristics of teenage talk and to investigate the roles the identified pragmatic markers play in conversations, which are analysed in-depth on three levels: the interactional, interpersonal and textual level. As all Spanish phrases included in the book are translated into English, no prior knowledge of Spanish is necessary.

In the introduction the author provides details about the two corpora and the speakers. As ten years lie between the collections of the two corpora, Stenström provides a summary of recent findings on teenage talk in London, which are discussed in Chapter 9, and assumes that this time difference will not have a negative effect on her results. She describes how the corpora were built and how the data was collected, which was done by teenagers volunteering to record their conversations with peers in their ordinary environment. The teenagers did not receive any instructions on what to talk about, which resulted in conversations filled with ‘an abundant use of contact-creating expressions, taboo and swearwords, and a frequent use of vague language in addition to youth-specific intensifiers and slang’ (Stenström 2013: 4). One of the main points in the introduction is the definition of pragmatic markers. Stenström draws on various previous studies to illustrate that definitions vary; however, she chooses to follow Carter and McCarthy’s definition (2006: 208) highlighting the functions of pragmatic markers on the three conversational levels which are incorporated in her analysis.

Chapter 2, “Teenage Talk in General”, looks at teenage talk from a general perspective and thus sets the scene for Stenström’s investigation. The author provides an insight into the characteristics of the phenomenon by describing teenagers’ conversational style, conversation topics as well as influential social variables identified in previous studies. These social variables – age, gender, and social class – constitute the main factors used in Stenström’s sociolinguistic analysis of pragmatic markers in a later chapter. Furthermore this chapter also includes a short discussion of typical language features, such as slang and grammatical issues, as well as an introduction of the most frequent pragmatic markers found in teenage talk.

Chapter 3, “Teenage Language = Bad Language?”, briefly illustrates the widespread belief that teenage talk is often considered as careless and sloppy. The author focuses on taboo words and provides a short analysis of the top five taboo and non-taboo words in both COLAm and COLT. The phenomenon of using taboo and slang words to create and maintain one’s bonds with other group members is described and argued to be ‘a sociological rather than a purely linguistic phenomenon’ (Stenström 2013: 22). Stenström briefly discusses phatic talk with the aid of an example taken from COLT, which aptly illustrates the function of pragmatic markers in this special type of conversation.

In Chapter 4, “Pragmatic Markers in the Corpora”, a theoretical look is taken at the development of pragmatic markers. Grammaticalization and pragmaticalization are two processes considered to be important in their development, with the latter being the crucial process in the making of pragmatic markers. This is exemplified by the author by using two pragmatic markers and their grammaticalization and pragmaticalization processes. In this chapter, the selection process of pragmatic markers from both corpora, COLAm and COLT, is described together with the frequency and distribution of both Spanish and English pragmatic markers; the chapter therefore provides the necessary background information on the data selection from the corpora.

Chapter 5, “Background”, gives a detailed overview of previous descriptions of the selected Spanish and English pragmatic markers. Stenström’s selection includes Spanish pragmatic markers such as ‘pues nada’, ‘en plan’ and ‘sabes’, and their English counterparts ‘anyway’, ‘like’ and ‘you know’. This chapter also contains a brief, but insightful section on previous contrastive studies of pragmatic markers in various languages, which illustrates their currency and increasing popularity.

Chapter 6, “How the Pragmatic Markers are Used”, constitutes the main part and aim of Stenström’s analysis of pragmatic markers on the three conversational levels. Stenström describes her findings on the use of the Spanish pragmatic markers on the interactional, interpersonal and textual levels; she then attempts to match the Spanish marker with the corresponding English pragmatic marker. The analysis of pragmatic markers on three levels of conversation is based on Carter and McCarthy’s definition of pragmatic markers, which asserts that the purpose of pragmatic markers differs on each level. At the interactional level pragmatic markers can be used for the opening, continuation and closing of conversations, while at the interpersonal level pragmatic markers are used, for example, as hedges or to check whether the hearer is still following the conversation. The use of pragmatic markers at the textual level serves the purpose of structuring the conversation by dividing utterances into chunks or giving someone time to think of what to say next. As pragmatic markers are, however, multifunctional, the same ones can be found on more than one level; a summary of their different functions is provided in Chapter 7, “Summing Up the Three Levels”. Stenström compares the pragmatic markers according to their function and the number of levels they can occur on and provides numerous examples from the corpora to illustrate the roles of pragmatic markers.

In Chapter 8, “The Sociolinguistic Aspect”, the use of pragmatic markers is analysed according to three social variables, age, gender and social class. Despite the sometimes sparse and incomplete information on the backgrounds of the speakers, Stenström provides a brief analysis of the sociolinguistic variation of pragmatic markers and argues that for example Spanish girls make use of pragmatic markers more frequently than Spanish boys. Her findings are then compared to the use of English markers in COLT, thus providing a contrastive insight into sociolinguistic variation of pragmatic markers in Spanish and English teenage talk.

Chapter 9, “Recent Tendencies in London Teenage Talk”, serves as an update on current research done in the field of teenage talk in London such as Cheshire et al.’s (2008) Multicultural London English Corpus (MLE). Thus, Stenström tries to compensate for the ten year time difference between the collection of COLT and COLAm. A very brief conclusion emphasizes Stenström’s most important findings at the end, such as the multiple roles pragmatic markers can play in creating a relationship between the conversation partners.


Stenström’s Teenage Talk provides a useful and well-exemplified insight into the under-researched and somewhat neglected area of teenage talk. It provides a concise introduction to some general characteristics of teenage talk, which also makes the topic accessible for novices in the field. The in-depth study of pragmatic markers makes this work a worthwhile contribution in its own right, while at the same time the contrastive analysis of pragmatic markers in Spanish and English bears great potential for further research and illustrates the fertility as well as the disadvantages of a cross-linguistic comparison of pragmatic markers.

The author provides references to previously conducted research in the use of pragmatic markers in the separate language systems analysed. Additionally, Stenström provides an overview of other contrastive studies such as Hasund’s (2003) comparison of the pragmatic marker ‘like’ in English and its Norwegian counterpart ‘liksom’ and two anthologies containing various cross-linguistic studies (Aijmer and Simon-Vandenbergen 2006, Stenström and Jørgensen 2009). In this way, the field of contrastive studies of pragmatic markers is consolidated and this current investigation contextualises a field which is highly topical, as evidenced by the number of recent publications about it. Teenage Talk raises a question concerning further possibilities of contrastive studies as well as the comparability of other linguistic features.

The main analysis shows the multifunctionality of pragmatic markers, which Stenström decided to analyse at three conversational levels, thus highlighting the different purposes of pragmatic markers. As this constitutes the major part of the analysis, more background information on the three levels of conversation would have been helpful. The analysis discussed in Chapter 6, “How the Pragmatic Markers Are Used”, can be somewhat overwhelming, as all pragmatic markers investigated are analysed on all three levels in both Spanish and English. Despite using numerous examples to support Stenström’s findings, this chapter proves to be very complex, which is, however, acknowledged by the author, who provides a concise and useful summary of the main analysis in the following chapter.

Stenström’s analysis of pragmatic markers depends entirely on the corpora data which, however, comes with specific limitations of information on the speakers’ personal and economic backgrounds. Some points of criticism concerning the sociolinguistic analysis of the use of pragmatic markers in Chapter 8, “The Sociolinguistic Aspect”, need to be mentioned. Despite describing both corpora as well as the data collection process, the author fails to mention the actual number of speakers, but rather provides percentages, which could be problematic if she dealt with a small population. This also becomes apparent in the analysis of the use of pragmatic markers according to the speakers’ socioeconomic backgrounds (Stenström 2013: 116). Due to the low number of speakers or the data collection process, certain social classes were not represented in her data, which limits her analysis. Additionally, the social variable age, which was analysed by dividing the speakers into two age groups, with 14 to 15-year-olds and 15 to 16-year-olds in COLAm, and 14 to 16-year-olds and 17 to 19-year-olds in COLT, should be analysed with a greater number of speakers and a consistent age grouping. The author does acknowledge shortcomings in the sociolinguistic analysis, which, nevertheless, could prove fruitful if investigated systematically with a more balanced sample.

Despite mentioning the ten years difference in the data collection of the corpora, Stenström argues that no negative effects will show up in the findings. This remains, however, debatable since no direct comparison of data from the same time period can be made. Furthermore, Stenström questions her own assumption when discussing the higher number of slang expressions in COLAm in comparison to COLT which she argues could be due to the time difference in collecting the corpora data (Stenström 2013: 21-22). Another important remark needs to be made concerning the limitations of the comparability of pragmatic markers in two different language systems. This is demonstrated by Stenström’s findings of Spanish pragmatic markers which do not directly correspond with an English equivalent, such as the use of ‘eh’ in final position with rising intonation. ‘Eh’, which takes on the role of triggering a response, checking, or stalling, is found considerably more frequently in COLAm than in COLT. The reason for the lower frequency in COLT lies in the use of a different linguistic feature, namely the use of tag questions such as ‘don’t you think’ or ‘aren’t they’, to perform the same role as the Spanish pragmatic marker ‘eh’ (Stenström 2013: 59).

To conclude, the book Teenage Talk adds an essential piece to the investigation of the language used by teenagers. The author’s goal of introducing general characteristics of teenage talk and providing an overview of teenagers’ use of pragmatic markers has been achieved by providing a three-level analysis and including numerous examples from both corpora. Stenström’s investigation, which incorporates corpus analysis, discourse analysis and a general sociolinguistic approach, is suitable for linguists, and students as well as interested laypeople, as it provides a general overview as well as detailed linguistic research. The contrastive study of linguistic features, as in this case pragmatic markers, shows great potential, which seems to be met by growing interest and popularity deducible from the number of recent publications.


Aijmer, Karin and Simon-Vandenbergen, Anne-Marie (eds). 2006. Pragmatic Markers in Contrast. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Carter, Ron and McCarthy, Michael. 2006. A Comprehensive Guide to Spoken and Written Grammar and Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cheshire, J. et al. 2008. Ethnicity, Friendship Networks and Social Practices as the Motor of Language Change. Linguistic Innovation in London. Sociolinguistica 22. 1-23.

Hasund, I. Kristine. 2003. The Discourse Marker ‘Like’ in English and ‘Liksom’ in Norwegian. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Department of English, Bergen University.

Stenström, Anna-Brita and Jørgensen, Annette Myre. 2009. Youngspeak in a Multilingual Perspective. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Carmen Ebner is a Ph.D. candidate at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, (Leiden, the Netherlands), and obtained her M.Litt. in English Language Teaching at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. For her Ph.D. project she investigates attitudes towards usage problems in British English, which is part of the wider-research project Bridging the Unbridgeable: Linguists, Prescriptivists and the General Public, supervised by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Her main academic interests are sociolinguistics, language and identity, and language in the media.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9781137430373
Pages: 144
Prices: U.K. £ 47.00