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Home » What Your Speaking Style, Like, Says About You by Vera Regan (Full Transcript)

What Your Speaking Style, Like, Says About You by Vera Regan (Full Transcript)

Vera Regan

Here is the full text of sociolinguist Vera Regan’s talk: What Your Speaking Style, Like, Says About You at TEDxDublin conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: What your speaking style, like, says about you by Vera Regan at TEDxDublin


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.

So, imagine you’re a Pole, you learn your English in Poland, you’re in classroom, you learn nice standard English, you come to Ireland and you hear this stuff. What is it? Well, it’s Irish English. What’s “like” like in Irish English? Well, first of all, it’s clause marginal, we said, in our best variation as voices.

What’s clause marginal? It’s at the beginning or at the end, like this, at the beginning [Sure these things happen like]

or like this, at the end [Like, he’s never there]

Okay, so, we do it different from the others. Of course, we do, we’re Irish. So in other Englishes, Australian, Canadian, British, American, they do something different. They do clause medial. Like this [He was, like, way tall]

like this [He was, like, never there]

or even like this [Her fake tan was, like, really messed-up?]

So now we’ve two sorts of “like”. We’ve this one, which is the global “like”, used by our valley girls all over the world, not just in California. And we have the local, which is the Irish “like”. At the beginning, at the end, “You know, like?” The picture is more complicated within Irelanders’ variation, and what we find is that the people who use a clause marginal, “You know, like?”, tend to be older, male, rural, and local in outlook, at times. Although, that we have to be careful about.

The global users, the ones in the middle, “She’d like a Gucci bag”, this is more female, East coast, young, Dublin, even south Dublin and, as well as that, it’s used as a tool to divide our city. And those of us who are Dubliners know that we have this imaginary line between the north side and the south side, need I say more.

So, our Polish speaker arrives. He wants to know what to do with all of this complexity. We decided that we would do as good variationists do. We would sit, we’d listen, we would record, and we would analyze. What did we find? Our quantitative results were very interesting.

First of all, we found the Polish people were using “like”. Now this was interesting because not only had they never heard “like” before in their classroom but there was no equivalent of “like” in Polish. So we found that they were looking at both. They were looking at the Irish use, that’s native Irish speakers, what are they doing, they’re doing Irish “like”, the green stuff on the left. And they’re doing a little bit of clause medial, the purple stuff.

And here are the Polish. So the Polish people were doing something very interesting. Not only were they using “like” but they were actually patterning like the native speakers.

Now, the story wasn’t quite as simple as that. Some of them were doing clause medial, and we wondered why this was. We dug down, we did qualitative analysis, we listened to their stories. And we discovered that those people who were using the clause medial “like” were more likely to have their eyes fixed on global worlds. They wanted perhaps to move to another world, an English speaking country outside. The local “like” users were people who were strongly identified with Irish people. They were locally focused and they had long term plans to stay in Ireland.

So by triangulating the two, we were getting an interesting picture of the people and their identity focus. In either case, whichever they used, language was reflecting their aspirations, their stances, their attitudes. This isn’t a one solved case.

We’re going to move from Ireland to France. In France, we looked also at some Polish people living in France. And this is the tale of two people. I call it the tale of the basketball player and the book seller.

First of all, when French people are relaxed and talking quickly, they tend to drop the first particle of negation. My hypothesis was when Polish people are relaxed, identifying with the French, they, too, will drop negation. I was right, our hypothesis was confirmed, the people were losing the “Ne”.

Here are the figures for the probabilities of people losing “Ne”. Two people stood out. One was Mariusz, and the other was Anna. Now Mariusz deleted very little. Well, so did other people. However, given his length of residence and given his proficiency, he should have been deleting more. Anna, given her length of residence and her proficiency, which was less, should’ve been deleting much less.

As natural scientists, the tendency is to forget these outliers. Just forget them and treat them as anomalies. But I didn’t want to do this, I was intrigued by the difference. I wanted to find out why these people were behaving linguistically in such a way so, qualitative analysis stood for again, we listened to their ethnographic details, their stories, and something very interesting emerged. Mariusz presented as a very well educated speaker. He was somebody who took language seriously, who took standards in language seriously, whether Polish or French. He ran a Polish bookshop, he was very standardsy, he liked good speech.

Anna, on the other hand, was the mother of two young children. She was very fixed on their future in France, and she had invested heavily in sports. Where Mariusz had invested in intellectual and cultural domains in his particular trajectory through migration, she had invested in basketball, in fact. She had, in fact, won a scholarship to the West.

Now the two people had very different, contrasting profiles. And it was those stories which told us why they were using language as they were using it. Their use of “Ne” was both reflecting their profiles, and it was also performing their profiles. They were using language to express their evolving identities.

The lesson we took from it was that people are not simply representatives of social, structural categories. And if you were a sociologist, no age, sex, social class, but agencies involved as well. Choices involved. People work on identity, on the place they are, on the plans they have. So these two little bits of speech that seem so unimportant is expressing a lot in terms of reflecting and performing.

So getting back to our young women in the bus. Instead of saying they’re lazy, or sloppy, or superficial, or whatever we tend to say about young users of speech, we need to know that these young women are using language to show lots of stuff about who they are, who they are becoming. And next time you hear somebody saying “like”, you can say, “Oh, it’s like here’re the movers and the shakers. They’re our future, like.”

Thank you.


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