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Style: Language Variation and Identity


Nikolas Coupland


 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007

 $28.00. 210 pp. ISBN-13: 9780521618144


Reviewed by Graham Ranger

Université d'Avignon


Style: Language Variation and Identity is a compact, almost pocket-sized book, in Cambridge's Key Topics in Sociolinguistics series. At first sight the size, length and presentation of the work suggest a first level grounder in sociolinguistic theory, but, if Coupland does indeed look at early Labovian methods, the book seeks to move further and to open up new areas and methods of research in sociolinguistics, presenting stylistic variation in language as one specific means of realising the more general objective of styling social identities. After relating the development of his approach, and acknowledging help from fellow researchers, Coupland explains in his preface that Style: Language Variation and Identity [henceforth Style] can be read as a ‘critique of variationist sociolinguistics’ [xi], in that it endeavours to show ‘how classical forms of sociolinguistic variation – what most people call accent and dialect features – are worked into discursive social action’ [xi].

The book comprises seven balanced chapters preceded by an explanatory preface and acknowledgements, a sixteen-page bibliography and a well-compiled index. Chapter 1 is essentially an introduction and outline, setting the scene for the following discussion and mapping out Coupland's perspective on how the term of style has been used in sociolinguistics. He begins by stating his aim to look at what variationist sociolinguistics, in the tradition of Labov, has not achieved [4]. Such an approach often focuses on quantitative analyses of the regional and social distribution of linguistic features, dialect, in particular. The methods used often involve interviews, and, in the course of these, Labov has remarked upon ‘intra-individual’ stylistic variation. This insight has not however been the main focus of the survey methods of sociolinguistics which, in defining speech communities relative to linguistic standards, has tended to erase individual variation. Coupland quotes from Jakobson and Halliday who, in their work on the metalingual function of language and register, respectively, prepare the ground for his own approach. Bakhtin's work proves important, too, in its conceptualising of genre, a notion rarely present in variationist sociolinguistics. ‘Styling’, Coupland claims, ‘is part of the process of genre-making, but also part of the process of genre-breaking’ [16]. Through their active use of styles in situation, speakers create social meaning, a point made through an intriguing analysis of the stylistic features of the minimal pair : Adonis saw himself in the mirror and Adonis seen hisself in the mirror [19, quoted from Chambers 2004]. The methods for sociolinguistic analysis are traditionally empiricist, aiming at neutral observation and objective analysis of data [24]. Labov himself has, however, pointed out the observer's paradox [24, quoted from Labov 1972] according to which the very circumstances of the sociolinguistic interview contribute to undermine the authenticity of the data. The concept of authenticity is in danger of deliquescence in late-modernity, where, on the one hand, ‘public discourse is in many ways being conversationalised’ [28, quoting from Fairclough 1995] and, on the other, ‘'everyday talk' is taking on qualities of performance and reflexivity that we would formerly have associated with mass-media rather than interpersonal domains’ [28]. The period of late-modernity ‘makes social life more contingent and unpredictable’ and hence ‘more obviously amenable to being socially constructed’ [28], language being one major resource for constructing social worlds. The introduction ends with an outline of the chapter organisation. Chapter 2 offers further criticism and assessment of Labovian variationist linguistics, Chapter 3 looks at one response to this criticism in the form receiver or listener-oriented sociolinguistic approaches. Chapter 4 represents, in more than one way, the centre of Coupland's book. In it, he presents various ‘sociolinguistic resources for meaning-making through style’ [31]. Chapters 5 and 6 provide examples of the type of qualitative and interactional approach to style that Coupland advocates. Chapter 7, lastly, review the arguments developed in the preceding chapters, placing them in a broader theoretical perspective.

Chapter 2, Style and meaning in sociolinguistic structure, focusses on the achievements of variationist sociolinguistics and, as Coupland puts it, ‘what is left unaddressed in a structural model of style’ [32]. Firstly, he presents Labov's classic studies of linguistic variation in New York [1966 and 1972], made according to various parameters of phonetic realisation. Labov shows that linguistic orderliness is not the preserve of elites and that non-standard speech also has its own forms of social-orderliness. The results are described as social stratification [33], a vertical metaphor linking modes of speech and social roles. It is, Coupland considers, ‘reductive to limit a theory of style in speaking to speakers playing with class identities’ [38]. His main criticism, though, bears on the linearisation of data [degrees of class, degrees of formality], which are not inherently linear. Much of this linear presentation of data is determined by the notion of a 'standard' speech. Standardness, however, Coupland tells us, ‘does not simply refer to a completed history of linguistic standardisation. It refers to an ideologicial contest and articulates a position or point of view in relation to that contest’ [42]. One nice illustration of this, given by Coupland, is the way in which Liverpool English has a  [~=] onset to the [~=Y] phonetic variable which is very close to Received Pronunciation. In isolation, one might be tempted to consider this feature as 'standard', while in fact it is a specific feature of 'non-standard' Liverpool English which just happens to coincide with the same RP feature. Another common link is that between non regional forms and standardness. This is belied by the glottal stop which has become supraregional but is still recognisably 'non-standard'. Variationist sociolinguistics is concerned with defining speech communities, in which speakers, it is implied ‘'know their place' in social and linguistic systems’ [47]. Coupland argues instead in favour of the idea of community of practice rather than speech community, the point being that what links people sociolinguistically is not structural being, but social doing [49]. He quotes Eckert's (2000) analysis of the speech of ‘jocks’ and 'burnouts’ in Detroit, and her claim that ‘both individual and group identities are in continual construction, continual change, continual refinement [] Variation does not simply reflect a ready-made social meaning; it is part of the means by which that meaning emerges’ [Eckert 2000].

Variations in style have often been assumed, within classic variationist sociolinguistics, to be meaning-neutral. Chapter 3 looks at how we can refine our ideas of meaning when we taken into account the social relationships involved in speech. In particular, it presents the audience design paradigm of Allan Bell and the speech accommodation theory of Howard Giles, each of which considers stylistic variation as a function of speakers designing their discourse for audiences. Research on forms of address is one simple example of how speakers adopt linguistic forms according to their audience. Goffman's faces and Brown and Levinson's politeness research address similar questions. Coupland gives more complete examples, firstly in the form of Allan Bell's research on New Zealand broadcasting English. Bell has shown how intervocalic /t/, has been realized either as the 'standard' [t] or as the 'non-standard' flap [4], by the same New Zealand newsreaders, according to whether they were broadcasting for national radio [t] or community radio [4]. Bell's claims for style analysis are quoted from and commented upon extensively, one particular point being the balance between initiative style-shifts [i.e. speaker-instigated shifts] and responsive style-shifts [i.e. shifts made according to audience].

After a brief outline of Giles' speech accommodation theory, which shares features with Bell's approach, Coupland returns to a 2001 study by Bell involving analysis of conversation between two Maori and two pakeha [white New Zealand] speakers in which the usage of certain features varies as a function of speaker-addressee relationships. A further case study, by Rickford and McNair-Knox, of Foxy Boston, interestingly provides ‘a cautionary tale for quantitative variationists who use sociolinguistic interviews as their data collection medium’ [68]. As Coupland states: ‘interviewers' effects on the speech style of interviewees can be enormous’ [68]. One last example, which Coupland will return to later, is based on his own research in a Cardiff travel agency, and the analysis of one speaker's style-shifts by audience. In the last long section this chapter, the author looks at some of the limits of audience-focused perspectives, his main point being that, when one models audience-motivated variation according to the number of occurrences of one or several linguistic variables, one nevertheless remains within the quantitative paradigm he had earlier criticised, maintaining the debatable assumption that the shifts in meaning vehicled by shifts in style are regular. He argues, finally, that ‘audience design and accommodation theory [] have weighted the scales too heavily in favour of recipiency. The general concept of identity has been relatively rare in discussions of sociolinguistic style, although it is surely impossible to separate issues of social relationships from issues of self-identity’ [80].

Chapter 4, Sociolinguistic resources for styling, begins with the concept of speech repertoires, the freedom, which Labovian sociolinguistics plays down, that speakers enjoy in styling their discourse. The speech repertoire can be seen as ‘a closet containing a specified number of clothing items [] speakers select items [] either to match particular situations [] or to deviate to some extent from normative expectations’ [82-83]. Coupland offers criticism of this model as too static [styles do not necessarily represent fixed meanings] and insensitive to the contextualisation of discourse. This fourth chapter assesses the degree of freedom speakers have in choosing and using these speech repertoires, the opposition between constraint and openness. The debate opens with a quote from Bourdieu on ‘the symbolic and cultural value of language varieties’ [85]. Linguistic variation is not ideologically neutral  even ideas such as contextual appropriateness may be criticised as vehicles for ideologically loaded notions of what is appropriate and where [Fairclough 1992]. Coupland quotes from Lippi-Green's 1997 study of ‘the ideology of linguistic standardisation in the USA’ [87] and the association, in particular, in Disney films of positive characters with ‘speakers of socially mainstream varieties of English’ [87].

The argument then moves on to Bourdieu's concept of linguistic habitus, a concept which undermines the notion that the speaker's choice of speech style is as free as the closet metaphor would have it. Language varieties appear on the contrary as both socially constrained and constraining, as speakers make choices which, because of our linguistic habitus, appear obvious but are in fact practically socially conditioned  ‘a matter of learned predisposition’ [90, from Bernstein 1971-1990]. In this way, Hasan argues that ‘the predominant semantic style for the educated middle-class English speaker is the explicit one’ [91, from Hasan 1996], showing how use of unspecified exophoric reference is characteristic of shared knowledge and dense social networks. Coupland moves on to show that meanings attached to sociolinguistic variation are multidimensional: an RP accent may be at the same time prestigious but socially unattractive, as Coupland shows, quoting from a study he was involved in which a variety of accent samples was judged for prestige and social attractiveness, providing confirmation of what Mugglestone [2003] calls ‘the rise of the regional’ in British English. Bourdieu's sociolinguistic determinism is undermined by the metalingual function of language, which enables speaker's to adopt a certain critical distance with regard to their own use of language, reshaping meanings in their speech performances, in Butler's [1997] politicised rereading of the Austinian concept of performativity. This complex chapter ends with a number of concluding propositions which prepare the ground for the final case study chapters. Social meanings are qualified by Coupland as ‘multi-dimensional evaluative constructs built up around language varieties’ and dependent on ‘dialectical relationships between people, practices and language varieties or features’ [104]. Controversially, Coupland claims that ‘the hierarchical social world evoked by social class dialects is anachronistic’ [104] in late modernity. Chapters 5 and 6 seek to illustrate the resource and contextualisation framework outlined in Chapter 4 with case studies of ‘the identity-making potential of style’ [105].

Chapter 5, Styling Social Identities, begins with a series of quotes aimed to support the claim that identities are not to be seen as fixed categories: 'cultural belonging is itself an active, iterative, reconstructive process [] not simply the perpetuation of an identity state’ [107]. The line adopted is that individuals display identities rather than one essential identity. ‘The styling of social identities against a backdrop of social norms and 'collective social memories' is the heart of the process’ [108]. Coupland adheres to Le Page and Tabouret-Keller's definition of linguistic behaviour as ‘a series of acts of identity in which people reveal both their personal identity and their search for social roles’ [108]. Before looking at specific examples of this process, Coupland  defines a number of processes which he considers particular important in social contextualisation, including targeting [ascribing identity], framing [making certain linguistic features more or less relevant: Coupland distinguishes between socio-cultural framing, genre framing and interpersonal framing], voicing [the issue here is of how speakers impose 'ownership of an utterance or a way of speaking’ [114], keying (relating to ‘the tone, manner or spirit of the act’ [114, quoting Downes (1998)] ) and loading ('the level of a speaker's investment in an identity being negotiated’ [114]).  With these concepts in mind, Coupland goes back to the Cardiff travel agency text to consider the acts of identity the speaker Sue is performing in the course of a given extract. A detailed analysis of a short extract, involving personal conversation with fellow employees at the travel agency and a professional phonecall with another agency allows Coupland to conclude that ‘there is always a cache of potential identities that are deactivated or made non-relevant by discursive frames’ [121].

The following section, entitled Styling place, looks at how a local radio DJ, Frank Hennessy, gives a sense of Cardiffness to his programme through dialect styling. In Voicing ethnicities, Coupland quotes Labov's 1972 study of the speech of a pre-adolescent street gang in Harlem. Interestingly, the speech of Boot evinces variation between 'standard English' forms and African American Vernacular English. Labov awkwardly concludes that the variation is inherent to the system. In opposition with this approach, Cutler 1999 shows how a young white boy, Mike, moves ‘into [but eventually back out of] a black and hip-hop personal identity, partly through incorporating AAVE features into his speech’ [127]. Here, the orientation is seen not as part of the system, but as ‘a commodified life-style choice’ [128]. Coupland briefly considers how speakers might index gender and sexuality through linguistic styling. He rejects as anachronistic the argument that male speech is more likely to incorporate non-standard features and is generally, it would seem, less convinced that it might be possible to pin linguistic features to gender or sexual identities, including homosexuality [‘queerspeak’]. Crossing looks at Rampton's 1995 study of Stylised Asian English (SAE) in a Reading school, and particularly at Rampton's argument that teens often use SAE to cross boundaries, unsettling ‘etablished sociocultural frames and other, more local discursive arrangements that operated at school’ [140]. Despite a keen interest in Rampton's method, Coupland does concede that such studies pose ‘the familiar problem of ethnographic analyses being unreplicable’ while stressing that ‘the central argument – that social class and ethnic meanings are a resource available to be invoked and inflected in many different ways in relation to local interactional concerns – is entirely convincing’ [144]. The chapter ends by listing a number of omissions, including Coupland's own intriguing work on the construction of age-identities [1991].

Chapter 6, High performance and identity stylisation, continues with the case study approach of Chapter 5, only here the styling of identities appears in a more radical form. Here, we are dealing with performance not in the Chomskyan sense, but in the sense of a speaker putting on a show. 'Speakers perform identities’, Coupland claims, ‘when they have some awareness of how the relevant personas constructed are likely to be perceived through their designs’ [146]. He distinguishes further between mundane performance and the object of this chapter, high performance, which involves some degree of communicative focusing. In illustration, Coupland analyses a feature entitled today in history from a radio programme, The Roy Noble Show, in which ‘John self-presents as a quite camp male and “camps up” the gossip value of historical moments, while Roy generally plays the interested dupe who feigns to have limited knowledge of the historical facts but makes witty side-comments to John's accounts’ [151]. Such examples of styling are not merely trivial, Coupland argues: ‘High performance is important because of the gap it establishes between what we think of as real social practice and performed social practice and because of the critical reflexivity it encourages’ [155]

The chapter continues with an example from a 1950s speech by Aneurin [Nye] Bevan, a prominent member of the mid-century British Labour party and a product of the South Wales Valleys. Coupland analyses a short extract, focussing on the way in which Bevan varies between RP forms and Welsh English forms and how these variations contribute to styling identities. Next he looks at Drag and cross-dressing performances, firstly in examples quoted from Barrett's 1999 study of the speech of African American drag queens (!) 'Barrett finds that glam queens performing “white woman” keep to many of these stylistic characteristics (characteristics typically associated with women's speech). However they “interrupt” this persona with markers that they are nevertheless “really” African American gay men.’ [165]. A similarly burlesque illustration is given in the form of the speech of the Widow Twankey character in a Christmas pantomime of Aladdin staged in South Wales. Coupland concludes that ‘Although high performance and heavily stylised representations complicate the links between sociolinguistic practice and social meaning, they can also expose these links quite strikingly and make them available for critical reassessment’ [171] ??? The final section of this chapter looks at how regional stylistic variation has attained levels of 'decontextualisation and transportability’ through mass media exposure. Coupland gives several examples taken from British television [the use of bovvered, or the advertising slogan do you wanna flake in that, love?], which illustrate the claim that ‘As we have moved away from models of community-based speech variation into performative arenas of linguistic styling, it has become increasingly unsafe to read social meaning on the basis of distributional facts alone’ [176].

The final Chapter, Coda: Style and social reality, sums up a number of key arguments of the book. Coupland's main claim is that ‘Style has outgrown its conceptual origins […,] it has to encompass the whole field of making social meaning through deploying and recontextualising linguistic resources’ [177]. In defence of the often very local analyses, Coupland argues that ‘The interpretive world of social practice is messy, complex and contingent. It doesn't allow us to be satisfied with a generalised account of “what most people stylistically do” ’ [178]. He returns to two focal points of his work: authenticity and mediatisation. Coupland reiterates his doubts concerning the theoretical soundness of the concept of authenticity in linguistic style, given that, for him, language variation has ‘come to do rather different work in contemporary social life, by comparison with [its] function in the seemingly more ordered world that Labovian sociolinguistics encountered and modelled’ [179]. Correspondingly, he rejects the idea that the styling of discourse makes it less authentic and introduces the sophisticated idea that ‘in late-modernity, authenticity needs to be earned discursively rather than automatically credited’ [184]. Labov [2001] is apparently hostile to the idea that the mass media might exercise a systematic impact on linguistic usage. Coupland does not agree, citing the influence of speech patterns found in Friends on British English speakers and remarking, interestingly, that ‘some speech styles and styling, outside mass media use and borrowings from mass media, increasingly have the feel of mediated discourse’ [185]. Indeed, as he very pertinently points out, the classical sociolinguistic interview, aimed at producing 'casual speech' ‘might better be described as stage-building for narrative performance’ [185]. One final example of this is given in the use of quotative be+like. As Coupland remarks, be+like is not merely quotative, ‘the discursive frames in which be+like become stylistically active are mediated ones. Performative voicing is done by distancing oneself as an animator of voices from the voices animated’. [186].

Coupland's Style is a bold and stimulating work, a programmatic review of work in sociolinguistics taking the reader from Labov's original work on variation in Harlem to the contemporary resource and contextualisation approaches Coupland advocates for the future. The work contains very few typing mistakes and is generally written in an engaging style which does, however, become a little opaque within the difficult fourth chapter. Similarly I found the lists of processes for the analysis of social contextualisation given in chapters 5 and 6 confusing, insofar as these divert attention from the real methodological issues and seem to lead us more into the sort of classificatory considerations Coupland would, I imagine, reject. Coupland does not seem to want to spend much time on the notion of linguistic styling for gender or sexual identities. This is probably as much due to his theoretical framework as anything else. Indeed, if he were to bring to light features of speech attached to a particular gender or sexual orientation, he would be back with the essentialist perspective on identity that Coupland is seeking to reject. I also have doubts concerning Coupland's conclusion on high-performance speech. I would be very surprised if the heavily stylised representations, of the drag queen and Widow Twankey variety, really ‘expose the links [between sociolinguistic practice and social meaning ] making them available for critical reassessment’ for anyone other than the sociolinguist! I would suggest that such representations participate rather in the trivialisation and commodification of the real such that varieties which might  essentially   betoken identity are transformed discursively into cultural badges.

More generally, we might consider that the linguistic sophistication Coupland's methods presuppose is undoubtedly far more appropriate in contemporary urban westernised societies than elsewhere and, in this respect, the resource and contextualisation approach appears to be itself rather culture-dependent. Coupland's clothes-in-the-closet metaphor is all well and good for those of us who have the choice. In this respect, his affirmation that ‘Intellectual paradigms, like people, are products of their times’ [179] could be applied to his own approach which is very much linked to the types of discourse prevalent in the culture in which it is active. A more general criticism has to do with Coupland's admittedly qualified rejection of Labovian methods. His approach strikes me as somewhat paradoxical when it analyses portions of styled discourse containing linguistic features which mix varieties, highlighting in his analysis of the Bevan speech, for example, ‘variation between [e:] (the prototypically South Wales value) in invading [] and same [] and RP-like [ei] in Nations’ [161]. Surely the attribution of linguistic features to varieties relies on some pre-existing Labovian type analysis? If this is the case, then the approach Coupland advocates is not in fact the successor to variationism but simply a particularly insightful and stimulating complementary branch of sociolinguistic analysis which depends upon the probabilistic findings variationism for its own analyses. Despite these critical remarks I fully recommend this compelling study which has opened my eyes to a number of new angles on linguistic problems and encouraged me to read further in the domain.



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