Style (sociolinguistics)


sociolinguistics Sociolinguistics is the descriptive study of the effect of any and all aspects of society, including cultural Norm (sociology), norms, expectations, and context (language use), context, on the way language is used, and society's effect on languag ...
, a style is a set of linguistic variants with specific
social Social organisms, including humans, live collectively in interacting populations. This interaction is considered social whether they are aware of it or not, and whether the exchange is voluntary/involuntary. Etymology The word "Social" derives fr ...

meanings. In this context, social meanings can include group membership, personal attributes, or beliefs.
Linguistic variation Variation is a characteristic of language: there is more than one way of saying the same thing. Speakers may vary pronunciation ( accent), word choice ( lexicon), or morphology and syntax (sometimes called "grammar In linguistics, the grammar ( ...
is at the heart of the concept of linguistic style—without variation, there is no basis for distinguishing social meanings. Variation can occur
syntactically In linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of linguistic analysis includ ...

, and
phonologically Phonology is a branch of linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of ling ...

. Many approaches to interpreting and defining style incorporate the concepts of
indexicality In semiotics, linguistics Linguistics is the science, scientific study of language. It encompasses the analysis of every aspect of language, as well as the methods for studying and modeling them. The traditional areas of linguistic analysi ...
, indexical order, stance-taking, and linguistic ideology. Note that a style is not a fixed attribute of a speaker. Rather, a speaker may use different styles depending on
context Context may refer to: * Context (language use), the relevant constraints of the communicative situation that influence language use, language variation, and discourse summary. Computing * Context (computing), the virtual environment required to ...
. Additionally, speakers often incorporate elements of multiple styles into their speech, either consciously or subconsciously, thereby creating a new style.


William Labov William Labov ( ; born December 4, 1927) is an United States, American linguist, widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics. He has been described as "an enormously original and influential figure who has c ...
first introduced the concept of style in the context of sociolinguistics in the 1960s, though he did not explicitly define the term.Labov, W. (1966). The social stratification of English in New York City.
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Center for Applied Linguistics.
Labov primarily studied individual linguistic variables, and how they were associated with various social groups (e.g. social classes). He summed up his ideas about style in five principles: ;"There are no single style speakers." :
Style-shifting In sociolinguistics, a style is a set of linguistic variants with specific social meanings. In this context, social meanings can include group membership, personal attributes, or beliefs. Variation (linguistics), Linguistic variation is at the he ...
occurs in all speakers to a different degree; interlocutors regularly and consistently change their linguistic forms according to context. ;"Styles can be ranged along a single dimension, measured by the amount of attention paid to speech." : Style-shifting correlates strongly with the amount of attention paid to speech. According to studies conducted by Labov, this was one of the single most important factors that determined whether or not an interlocutor would make a style-shift. ;"The vernacular, in which the minimum attention is paid to speech, provides the most systematic data for linguistic analysis." : Labov characterized the vernacular as the original base mode of speech, learned at a very young age, on which more complex styles build later in life. This "basic" style has the least variation, and provides the most general account of the style of a given group. ;"Any systematic observation of a speaker defines a formal context where more than the minimum attention is paid to speech." : In other words, even formal face-to-face interviews severely limit a speaker's use of their vernacular style. An interlocutor's vernacular style is most likely displayed if they do not perceive outside observers, and are not paying immediate attention to their own speech. ;"Face-to-face interviews are the only means of obtaining the volume and quality of recorded speech that is needed for quantitative analysis." : Quantitative analysis requires the kind of data that must be obtained in a very obvious, formal way. Labov's work primarily attempted to linked linguistic variants as a function of formality (a proxy for attention to speech) to specific social groups. In his study of /r/-variation in New York Department stores, he observed that those with a lower social class are less likely to pronounce postvocalic in words like ''fourth'' and ''floor'', while those with a higher social class are more likely to pronounce postvocalic in their less careful speech. However, once forced to pay attention to language, they style-shift in a way indicative of their social aspirations. That is, those with a middle social class often alter their pronunciation of /r/ in a way that is generally indicative of a higher social standing, while those with a lower or higher social class more or less maintain their original pronunciation (presumably because they were either happy with their current position in the social hierarchy or resigned to it).

Modern approaches

Indexical order

Penny Eckert'sEckert, Penelope. Variation and the indexical field. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 2008, 12: 453–476. characterization of style as related to indexicality marked the beginning of a new approach to linguistic style. She builds on Michael Silverstein's notion of
indexical In semiotics, linguistics, anthropology and philosophy of language, indexicality is the phenomenon of a ''sign'' pointing to (or ''indexing'') some object in the context (language use), context in which it occurs. A sign that signifies indexically i ...
order: the notion that linguistic variables index a social group, which by association leads to the indexing of certain traits stereotypically associated with members of that group. For example, in New York in the 1960s, a study by Labov showed that the clear articulation of postvocalic in words like "fourth" and "floor" indexed a higher class (in New York), whereas the absence of postvocalic indexed a lower class. However, the presence of lack of postvocalic can also function as a higher order indexical that points indirectly to traits stereotypically associated with members of the upper or lower class. In this way, not articulating the in the word "fourth" could index, for example, a lack of education (the trait) in addition to a lower social class (the group). According to this theory, any linguistic variable has its own indexical field spanning any number of potential meanings; the meanings actually associated with the variable are determined by social context and the style in which the variable is being used. These indexical fields are fluid and often change depending on their usage in different contexts or in combination with other variables. This view of style revolves around variation, and interpretation of variation as a purely indexical system built from
ideological An ideology () is a set of belief A belief is an Attitude (psychology), attitude that something is the case, or that some proposition about the world is truth, true. In epistemology, philosophers use the term "belief" to refer to attitudes abo ...


In Judith Irvine's conception of style she emphasizes the fact that a style is defined only within a social framework. Irvine, Judith. Style as distinctiveness: The culture and ideology of linguistic differentiation. In Penelope Eckert and John Rickford (eds.) Style and Sociolinguistic Variation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 21–43. A variant and the social meanings it indexes are not inherently linked, rather, the social meanings exist as ideologically mediated interpretations made by members of the social framework. She highlights the fact that social meanings such as group membership mean nothing without an
ideology An ideology () is a set of belief A belief is an Attitude (psychology), attitude that something is the case, or that some proposition about the world is truth, true. In epistemology, philosophers use the term "belief" to refer to attitudes abo ...
to interpret them. Mary Bucholtz's approach to style also relies heavily on ideology. She defines style as "a unidimensional continuum between vernacular and standard that varies based on the degree of speaker self-monitoring in a given speech context". This continuum depends on the ideology of the speaker, for they self-monitor depending on their ideologies concerning particular words. Bucholtz explains the ideology of gendered slang, in particular, the
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slang for "dude", guey. Guey indexes a stance of cool solidarity, and indirectly, asculinity Ochs's framework for stance dictates that stances are ideologically connected with social groups. Bucholtz argues that ideology connects the stylistic feature of using guey with particular groups of people based on age, gender (male), and race. She also defines the concept of stylization as a set of deviations from the style one would expect from a situation according to the ideology of the style and how it matches up to the situation at hand. This leads to the indexicality, indexing of groups with which the style is associated, and thus simplifies the indexical field at hand.


Other theories on style often incorporate the role of stance-taking. These theories maintain that style is best viewed as consisting of smaller, more variable units known as stances. In this view, a stance is essentially a form of contextualization (sociolinguistics), contextualization; it indicates the position of an interlocutor with respect to a particular utterance, conversation or other interlocutors.Johnstone, Barbara. "Stance, Style, and the Linguistic Individual" Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Stance,. Ed. Alexandra Jaffe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. An interlocutor's use of language could imply, for instance, that they feel a certain way about an issue at hand, or that they do not care for the subject, or the people around them; these positions with respect to the context are different stances. According to stance theory, a given interlocutor uses certain variations among linguistic variables to take a stance or stances in an interaction. The set of stances interlocutors tend to repeat or use the most often in certain contexts (or in general) comprise their style. This approach focuses more on interaction and reaction in a linguistic context, rather than a static identity or social group. Linguistic variables do not index specific social groups by themselves, but instead combine with other linguistic variables to index various stances and styles, which are in turn associated with social groups.Kiesling, Scott Fabius. A variable, a style, a stance: Word-final -er and ethnicity in Australian English. Kiesling writes: In this model of linguistic variation, stances are an important middle step between linguistic variables and a style or characteristic social group.

Emergence of new styles

Performative creation of new styles

The Performativity, performative creation of style is the result of a desire to project a certain social image or #Style and stance, stance. Interlocutor (linguistics), Interlocutors who wish to present in a certain manner may consciously alter their linguistic style to affect how they appear to others. An example of this performative style is exemplified by non-linguistic situations. In one study, Eckert interviewed several female students at Palo Alto High School in California. "New-wave" teens who wished to be distinctive adapted a more rebellious fashion style, wearing mostly dark clothes and pegged jeans, whereas popular, "preppy" girls tended towards light pastel colors and straight designer jeans. However, a couple girls wished to portray themselves as unique without losing their popular Conformity, conformist Social identity theory, social identity. The table below compares resulting styles: As Eckert demonstrates, the "preppy" girls who wished to maintain a slightly distinctive style combined certain aspects of the "preppy" style with the "new-wave" style. They maintained their color choices and shied away from dark eye-makeup—but wore blue pegged jeans instead of the standard designer jeans of their group. This is because they perceive that the eye makeup indexes an "adult" or "slutty" characteristic, while the all-black color scheme is "scary". In the same way, interlocutors often choose to performatively create their own linguistic style to suit the self-image they desire. In a #Gay styles, case study conducted by Podesva, he studies the style of a gay lawyer, who combines certain aspects of common professional and gay linguistic features to create his own style, indexing both a "professional lawyer" characteristic and a unique "gay" characteristic with his speech.

Nonperformative emergence of new styles

Styles are not necessarily consciously created; there are a number of processes that contribute to the construction of meaning for both individual speech variants and styles. Obviously, individual variants can be adopted by multiple styles. When a variant is newly adopted by a style, it changes both the perception of the variant and the perception of the style. In the Eckertian view, a person's linguistic style identifies their position in an indexical field of social meanings. These social meanings are created by a continual analysis and interpretation of the linguistic variants that are observed based on who uses them.


Style shifting refers to a single speaker changing style in response to context. As noted by Eckert and Rickford, in sociolinguistic literature terms style and register sometimes have been used interchangeably. Also, various connotations of style are a subject of study in Stylistics (linguistics), stylistics. Style-shifting is a manifestation of intraspeaker (within-speaker) variation, in contrast with interspeaker (between-speakers) variation. It is a voluntary act which an individual effects in order to respond to or initiate changes in sociolinguistic situation (e.g., interlocutor-related, setting-related, topic-related).
William Labov William Labov ( ; born December 4, 1927) is an United States, American linguist, widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics. He has been described as "an enormously original and influential figure who has c ...
, while conducting Sociolinguistics#Traditional sociolinguistic interview, sociolinguistic interviews, designated two types of spoken style, casual and formal, and three types of reading style (a reading passage, a word list, and a minimal pair list). Analysing style-shifting Labov postulated that "styles can be arranged along a single dimension, measured by the amount of attention paid to speech" (1972, as quoted in), casual style requiring the least amount of conscious self-monitoring. Such style-shifting is often referred to as responsive (produced in response to normative pressures). In recent developments of stylistic variation analysis, scholars such as Allan Bell (Sociolinguist), Allan Bell, Barbara Johnstone, and Natalie Schilling-Estes have been focusing on the initiative dimension of style-shifting, which occurs when speakers proactively choose between various linguistic resources (e.g. dialectal, archaic or vernacular forms) in order to present themselves in a specific way. In initiative style-shifting, speakers actively engage in social practices to construct social meaning. There have been a large number of suggested motivations for this phenomenon: ;Attention to speech model : In the attention to speech model it is proposed that the style a speaker uses is dependent on how much attention the speaker is paying to their own speech, which in turn is dependent on the formality of the situation.Labov, William. Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.Labov, William.. Some principles of linguistic methodology. Language in Society,1972, 1.97-120. Additionally, each speaker has one most natural style, which is defined as the style the speaker uses when paying the least attention (i.e. in the most casual situations). Criticisms of this model include that it is difficult to quantify attention paid to speechKiesling, Scott Fabius. 1998. Men’s identities and sociolinguistic variation: The case of fraternity men. Journal of Sociolinguistics 2/1.69-99 and the model suggests that a speaker has only one style for a given level of formality.Hindle, D. The social and situational conditioning of phonetic variation. Dissertation. University of Pennsylvania, 1979. ;Communication accommodation theory : Communication accommodation theory (CAT) seeks to explain style-shifting in terms of two processes: convergence, in which the speaker attempts to shift their speech to match that of the interlocuter to gain social approval, and divergence, in which the speaker attempts to distance themselves from the interlocuter by shifting their speech away from that of the interlocuter.Kiesling, S. F., and Schilling-Estes, N. Language Style as Identity Construction: A Footing and Framing Approach. Poster presented at NWAVE 27, 1998. Two specific shortcomings of this basic form of CAT include its inability to explain situations in which convergence occurs when the motivation is clearly not social approval (e.g. in arguments) and the fact that non-convergent speech is often used to maintain social distance in asymmetric relationships (e.g. employer-employee). ;Audience design model : The audience design model is very similar to communication accommodation theory with an added component: the audience design model proposes the existence of nonpresent reference groups, with which a speaker may converge or diverge.Bell, Allan. Language style as audience design. Language in Society, 1984 13.145-204. In this theory, speakers constantly negotiating their relationship, not only with the audience, but also with other nonpresent people or groups that come up in the discourse.Bell, Allan, and Johnson, Gary. Towards a sociolinguistics of style. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 4.1: A Selection of Papers from NWAVE, 1997, 25. 1-21. ;Style-shifting as an act of identity: This theory proposes that speakers shape their speech to associate or disassociate themselves with specific social groups. It further proposes that a speaker does not have an underlying fundamental style which they use in casual speech, but rather all styles are equally fundamental.LePage, R.B., and Andrée Tabouret-Keller. Acts of identity: Creole-based approaches to language and ethnicity. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press,1985 ;Footing and framing model : A footing is a role that a speaker occupies and may be described as follows: :By style shifting speakers are able to cast themselves in different footings. Also central to this model is the frame of the discourse, which is the feeling of the interactants about what kind of interaction is occurring (e.g. formal interview, casual conversation, political discussion). Different frames are being continuously foregrounded and backgrounded relative to one another throughout the discourse. The footings that speakers adopt through style-shifting are dependent on which frames are most prominent at any given time.

Style matching

Style matching is defined as the matching of behaviors between a speaker and an interlocutor (linguistics), interlocutor.Niederhoffer, Kate G. Pennebaker, James W. Linguistic Style Matching in Social Interaction. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, Vol.21No.4, December 2002. 337-360 2002 Sage Publications. The premise of the theory is that individuals have the ability to strategically negotiate the social distance between themselves and their interaction partners. This can be done linguistically, paralinguistically, and non-verbally, for example, by varying speech style, rate, pitch, and gaze. One theory behind linguistic style matching suggests that the words one speaker uses prime the listener to respond in a specific way. In this fashion, an interlocutor is influenced by her partner's language at the word level in natural conversation in the same way that one's non-verbal behavior can be influenced by another's movement. Additionally, Kate G. Niederhoffer proposes a coordination-engagement hypothesis, which suggests that the degree of engagement should be predictive of both linguistic and nonverbal coordination. There exists an interactional complexity whereby people can converge on some communicative features to meet social needs, but diverge on others for identity management. For example, one can diverge in accent but converge in lexical diversity. Individuals in two-person interactions exhibit linguistic style matching on both the conversational level and on a turn-by-turn level. This coordinated use of language occurs at a remarkably basic level (e.g., classes of words) and appears to occur independently of the perceived quality of an interaction, the length of the interaction, whether the interaction is face-to-face or on an Internet-like chat, etc. Socially, two people appear to fall into this coordinated way of interacting almost immediately even if they have never spoken to one another before. The listener is influenced by many linguistic primes set up by the speaker. All of this occurs on an unconscious level and is sensitive to the power differential between the participants, with less dominant participants generally being more attentive to more dominant participants’ words.

Case studies

Urban styles

An opposition between urban and suburban linguistic variables is common to all metropolitan regions of the United States. Although the particular variables distinguishing urban and suburban styles may differ from place to place, the trend is for urban styles to lead in the use of nonstandard forms and negative concord. In Penny Eckert's study of Belten High in the Detroit suburbs, she noted a stylistic difference between two groups that she identified: school-oriented jocks and urban-oriented, school-alienated burnouts. The variables she analyzed were the usage of negative concord and the mid and low vowels involved in the Northern Cities Shift, which consists of the following changes: æ > ea, a > æ, ə > a, ʌ > ə, ay > oy, and ɛ > ʌ ([y] here is equivalent to the International Phonetic Alphabet, IPA symbol [j]). All of these changes are urban-led, as is the use of negative concord. The older, mostly stabilized changes, æ > ea, a > æ, and ə > a, were used the most by women, while the newer changes, ʌ > ə, ay > oy, and ɛ > ʌ were used the most by burnouts. Eckert theorizes that by using an urban variant such as [foyt], they were not associating themselves with urban youth. Rather, they were trying to indexicality, index traits that were associated with urban youth, such as "tough" and "street-smart". This theory is further supported by evidence from a subgroup within the burnout girls, which Eckert refers to as ‘burned-out’ burnout girls. She characterizes this group as being even more anti-establishment than the ‘regular’ burnout girls. This subgroup led overall in the use of negative concord as well as in female-led changes. This is unusual because negative concord is generally used the most by males. ‘Burned-out’ burnout girls were not indexing masculinity — this is shown by their use of female-led variants and the fact that they were found to express femininity in non-linguistic ways. This shows that linguistic variables may have different meanings in the context of different styles.

Gay styles

There is some debate about what makes a style "gay." In stereotypically flamboyant gay speech, the phonemes /s/ and /l/ have a greater duration.Crist, Sean. 1997. Duration of Onset Consonants in Gay Male Stereotyped Speech. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 4.3.53-70. People are also more likely to identify those with higher frequency ranges as gay.Rogers, Henry, Ron Smyth, and Greg Jacobs. 2000. Vowel and Sibilant Duration in Gay- and Straight-sounding Male Speech. Paper presented at the International Gender and Language Association Conference 1, Stanford. On the other hand, there are many different styles represented within the gay community. There is much linguistic variation (linguistics), variation in the gay community, and each subculture appears to have its own distinct feature (linguistics), features. According to Podesva et al., "gay culture encompasses reified categories such as leather daddies, clones, drag queens, circuit boys, guppies (gay yuppies), gay prostitutes, and activists both mainstream and radical, as well as more local communities of practice which may not even have names."Podesva, Robert J., Sarah J. Roberts and Kathryn Campbell-Kibler. 2002. Sharing resources and indexing meanings in the production of gay styles. In Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, Robert J. Podesva, Sarah J. Roberts and Andrew Wong (eds.) Language and Sexuality: Contesting Meaning in Theory and Practice. Stanford, California : CSLI Press. 175–190. Thus, each of these sub-cultures speaks with a different style than all the other sub-cultures. There are also many features that are fairly prevalent in all of society but can index homosexuality in particular contexts. "Cooperative discourse" is often considered a feature of gay linguistic style, but is also used by some straight men, as well as by women.Leap, William L. 1996. Word’s Out: Gay Men’s English. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. This is in line with an approach to style that emphasizes stance. Podesva et al. performed a study describing a sub-style within gay culture that some gay activists, lawyers, or other professionals use. The gay lawyer in their study does not want to appear "too gay," lest he also convey frivolity or other characteristics that he deemed unprofessional. It was important to him that he appear rational, educated, and competent as a lawyer. This is in line with the audience approach to style in which styles receive their meaning as a result of their opposition to other styles in their social sphere (in this case other gay styles). The lawyer's high release of word final stops, a variable also often found in the language of geek-girls and Orthodox Jews, indexes a desire to appear educated and not "too gay." This actually indexes his gay identity (social science), identity because he is tailoring his gay style (or lack thereof).

See also

*Allan Bell (sociolinguist), Allan Bell *Audience design *Code-switching *Indexicality *Register (sociolinguistics) *Sociolinguistics *Sociolinguistics#Traditional sociolinguistic interview, Sociolinguistic interview *Style (manner of address) *Stylistics (linguistics), Stylistics *Variation (linguistics) *
William Labov William Labov ( ; born December 4, 1927) is an United States, American linguist, widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics. He has been described as "an enormously original and influential figure who has c ...
*Writing style


Further reading

* * * * * {{Authority control Stylistics, Sociolinguistics Style