Corpus and sociolinguistics

Corpus and sociolinguistics: Investigating age and gender in female talk. By Bróna Murphy. (Studies in corpus linguistics 38.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2010. Pp. xviii, 231. ISBN 9789027223128. $143 (Hb).

Reviewed by Irene Theodoropoulou, Qatar University

This book is about sociolinguistic variation in a corpus of casual Irish English conversations among adults. Ch. 1 discusses age as an under-researched sociolinguistic variable, relative to other identities such as gender and ethnicity, and argues for a corpus-based approach based on the following two criteria: (i) reliability of corpora, given that they contain real language used by real people in natural settings, and (ii) a combination of quantitative and qualitative treatment of data, translated into running concordance searches, identifying the frequency of use of specific items, and exploring the associations between language and social contexts.

Ch. 2 contextualizes age-related research by reviewing key studies in the fields of discourse analysis, conversation analysis, variationist sociolinguistics, and variational pragmatics. Ch. 3 focuses on how to build and use a corpus for age-related research by attending to issues, including the size of the corpus, descriptive and interpretative issues, and transcription issues. This chapter contains a thorough description of the corpus and its methodology. Chs. 4 and 5 focus on variation at the level of discourse: Ch. 4 illustrates that variation in hedging (i.e. a linguistic strategy used to mitigate assertiveness) is constrained by conversation type (e.g. sensitive issues versus neutral topics), relationship, and life stage rather than chronological age. Ch. 5 argues that vague category markers, namely assumed categories due to shared social space, are multifunctional forms with interpersonally defined roles, whose variation is constrained by life stage.

Chs. 6 and 7 delve into variation at the level of grammar. Ch. 6 shows that the sociolinguistic variation in amplifiers, such as very, really, and so, is explained on the basis of the participants’ life stage. Moreover, very is seen as a marker for older ages, while really marks younger adults, and so is used before adjectives by all groups of adults. Ch. 7 argues that boosters (i.e. lexical items that assertively express a viewpoint) are used primarily by an older female population as an index of their empowerment, stemming from worldly knowledge and life experience they have acquired throughout their lifespan.

Ch. 8, dealing with lexis, establishes that there is a qualitative difference in the use of taboo language by adults. While older groups prefer religious references whose pragmatic meaning has eclipsed their original meaning, younger groups prefer stronger expression found in expletives, and middle-aged people tend to avoid the use of taboo language. Ch. 9 summarizes the findings of this study, states its limitations, and makes a case for treating age as an important macro-sociolinguistic factor in variationist pragmatics studies.

Overall, the basic asset of this book is its robust methodology, which has yielded useful patterns for sociolinguistically interpreting different phases of one’s adult life. Nonetheless, there seems to be a mismatch between what the book claims to do and what it actually does. Despite its explicit focus on a synchronic sample of Irish English, and thus its claim to describe language variation only, the discussion especially in the otherwise well-written Ch. 8 implies that there is semantic drift in taboo language, a claim that implies language change.