Linguistic Variation & Social Function” by Jenny Cheshire (1982)
This paper will show that the frequency with which adolescent speakers use many non-standard morphological and syntactic features of the variety of English spoken in Reading, in Berkshire, is correlated with the extent to which they adhere to the norms of the vernacular culture. It will also show that linguistic variables often fulfil different social and semantic functions for the speakers who use them.
The analysis is based on the spontaneous, natural speech of three groups of adolescents, recorded by the method of long-term participant-observation in adventure playgrounds and in school (in Reading). The aim was to record speech that was as close as possible to the vernacular of the speakers. Thirteen boys and twelve girls were recorded over an eight month period.
The Vernacular Culture Index
Labov (1966) maintains that the use of non-standard features is controlled by the norms of the vernacular subculture, whilst the use of standard English features is controlled by the overt norms of the mainstream culture in society. The speakers who were chosen for the study were children who met in adventure playgrounds when they should have been at school and were members of a very well defined subculture e.g. certain dress and hairstyles, career ambitions, use of swearwords etc.
The Labovian view of style shifting is that formality-informality can be considered as a linear continuum, reflecting the amount of attention that speakers give to their speech. As formality increases, the frequency of occurrence of some non-standard linguistic features decreases (Labov 1972). This approach has been questioned by a number of scholars L. Milroy (1980) and Romaine (1980), e.g. found that reading, where attention is directly focused on speech, does not consistently result in the use of fewer non-standard features. Cheshire’s study also found problems applying the Labovian approach. The recordings made at school were clearly made in a more formal setting than the recordings made in the playgrounds. The speakers knew that they were being recorded despite friends being present to stop the speakers ‘drying up.’ The school recordings consisted of only about half an hour of speech for each boy. This did not provide enough data for an analysis in terms of individual speakers/ a group analysis.
The Linguistic Behaviour of Adolescent Girls and Boys
Many surveys of non-standard English have found that female speakers use non-standard speech forms less frequently than male speakers do. The research by Cheshire showed that only the non-standard auxiliary ‘do’ was used by the girls more often than the boys. The other non-standard features were used less frequently by the girls than the boys. Non-standard ‘never’ and non-standard ‘what’ functioned only loosely as markers of vernacular loyalty for the boys. For girls, they did not appear to fulfil any symbolic function at all: the ‘good’ girls used them more often than the other girls.
Cheshire concluded that male and female speakers in Reading exploited the resources of the linguistic system in different ways. Some linguistic features were markers of vernacular loyalty for both sexes. Some features function in this way for boys/girls only.