Talk That Counts: Age, Gender, and Social Class Differences in Discourse

Talk That Counts: Age, Gender, and Social Class Differences in Discourse

Talk That Counts: Age, Gender, and Social Class Differences in Discourse

Talk That Counts: Age, Gender, and Social Class Differences in Discourse

Synopsis

Talk That Countsis a sociolinguistic study of variation in discourse employing quantitative methods to explore age, gender, and social class differences in the use of features such asyou know, I mean,adverbs, and pronouns.

Unlike many studies of discourse variation that focus on a single social factor,Talk That Countsexamines age, gender, and social class differences in a gender-balanced sample of middle-class and working-class adolescents and adults, recorded under the same conditions. Differences between adults and adolescents provided the greatest number of statistically significant results, followed by differences between males and females. The smallest number of statistically significant differences were related to social class. The range of variation underlines the need to look at more than a single extra-linguistic variable when examining discourse. It also shows the dangers of generalizing about social class, for example, on the basis of a limited sample (e.g., adolescent boys).

InTalk That Counts, distinguished sociolinguist Ronald Macaulay presents an important new approach to the sociolinguistic investigation of discourse variation.

Excerpt

Quantitative methods have been employed in sociolinguistic investigations ever since Labov's pioneering work on Martha's Vineyard (Labov 1963) and in New York (Labov 1966). For the most part, quantitative methods have been used to investigate phonological variation (e.g., Trudgill 1974; Macaulay 1977; Milroy 1980; Eckert 2000), but there have also been studies of morphological and syntactic variation (e.g. Wolfram 1969; Feagin 1979; Cheshire 1982). It is only recently, however, that quantitative methods have been used to investigate variation in the use of discourse features. Usually these have been focused on gender differences (e.g., Holmes 1986).

Schiffrin was the first to use quantitative measures of discourse markers in a corpus of recorded speech showing how they often [bracket units of talk] (1987: 31) and help speakers to produce coherent discourse. The discourse markers she examines include oh, well, you know, and I mean. Schiffrin, however, does not examine the differential use of the discourse markers by speakers of different social categories. This would have been difficult given the restricted nature of the sample, which was recorded as part of the Philadelphia Neighborhood Study (Labov 2001b) where the speakers were from similar backgrounds.

To investigate social variation in the use of discourse features, it is necessary to have extended samples of speech recorded under similar circumstances from individuals belonging to different social categories, such as age, gender, or social class. The materials examined in this work come from two sets of recordings. In a study of interviews with 12 speakers in the town of Ayr in southwest Scotland (Macaulay 1991b), I tabulated the use of 12 discourse features, showing some social class variation in their use. Because of the nature of the sample, it was impossible to make gen-

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