Sociolinguist Vera Regan on What Your Speaking Style, Like, Says About You at TEDxDublin – Transcript
Vera Regan – Sociolinguist
As John said, I’m a sociolinguist. What does that mean? Sociolinguists study the role of language in society.
Yeah, but what does it mean? What do they do? Sociolinguists are professional eavesdroppers. But unlike other eavesdroppers, they’re not so much interested in what the people are saying, but how they’re saying it. For sociolinguists, language is neither good nor bad. It’s meaningful.
I was on the bus the other day, and I heard two young girls chatting behind me. So I was eavesdropping as usual. And this is what I heard.
“And I was like, ‘No way!’
And he was like, ‘Well, it’s only, like, two miles.”
And the other one said, “OMG. In your killer heels! Amazeballs!”
And the first one goes, “Yeah, like, totes.”
There was an elderly lady sitting nearby, and she was looking very disapproving indeed. Us, linguists however, we don’t bother disapproving about language. There are two reasons for this. First of all, we can’t stop language changing. Language has a life of its own. New stuff comes in, it moves. Nothing to be done.
The second reason is that lady, when she was a young woman, she was very likely the young woman who was using the new cool stuff coming in. Because research has shown that young women are the movers and shakers when it comes to language. They’re the innovators. They’re the ones we should be listening to.
So, language is always changing. However, not everything is variable. Some things are invariant. And word order is one of those things.
So, this baby, there, let’s say he’s an English-speaking baby. He comes wired. His little brain is wired, with an idea of word order in his language, whatever that is. In this case, it’s English. Let’s say he’s an English-speaking baby. So, he knows that it’s subject, verb, object. So, as English speakers, if we see something like this or like that, or like that. Not good. Something’s wrong. Because we know that the word order should be subject, verb, object. We don’t have a choice here.
However, there are many aspects of language where we do have a choice. These are the variable aspects. And these are the fun bits for the sociolinguists. Just take two ways of saying the same thing. So if you see a sentence like this, [I have not the pleasure of understanding it ]
You could also say it like this, [Ya wha’?]
It means the same. You could say that means the same. Well, some of the meaning is the same. The referential meaning is what’s similar. The social significance is different. And it’s that social significance that makes such a difference and gives us such knowledge of the speaker, on the one hand, the hearer, on the other, the social context they’re living in, on the third. And we really need to tune in to this stuff.
When I was studying at the University of Pennsylvania, with William Labov, who’s the founder of the field, I was excited to think what we could do when we came back to Ireland and looked at what we use here in terms of language.
So with my group of postgraduate students, we decided to study the little word “like”. So, with a bunch of PhD students, we sat round the table, and we said, “Okay, we’re going to do ‘like’. We’re going to bring a little magnifying glass down on this and we’re going to see what it’s like. Not this ‘like’, “She was like her sister,” which is standard ‘like’. But this ‘like’, “She was like, ‘Cheers’.” They’re the “likes” of the young women on the bus.
You might say that nonstandard “like” is all over the place. That it’s got no rules, it’s lazy, it’s chaotic, it’s disorderly. However, in fact, there are rules. And there are very strict rules, in fact, around how nonstandard “like” is used.
Where it comes in the sentence, – syntactic constraints, as we call it – the social context in which it’s used, all of that is very strictly controlled.
Now, these variable bits of language are the stuff that actually does a lot of work for us. So just as accessories, clothes, handbags, body language even, is able to project an identity, so language variation patterns do the same thing. And they’re very powerful tools, in fact, in our identikit, as we call it.
One group for whom identity is very important is the group of migrants or transnationals. Transnationals work very hard at identity because they’re moving from place to place throughout the globe. So we wanted to see what transnationals or migrants do with this little word “like”. And we thought we’d look at the group in Ireland, which are Polish speakers. We’ve lots of Polish speakers here, I’m sure there are some in the audience.