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The social life of style1

The social life of style1

Abstract

Variationist sociolinguistics has provided essential information about community-wide patterns of language variation and change. However, as the field has developed, the need to provide coherent explanations for observed correlations has highlighted problems with the conceptualization of style, social meaning and the linguistic variable. Using data from two case studies, this article illustrates how a more nuanced account of stylistic practice provides a richer understanding of the social and cognitive basis of language use. In particular, it is argued that the linguistic analysis of social groups should be driven by the specific social concerns of the groups studied, not by the search for variable ways to ‘say the same thing’. This approach not only enables a fuller account of the social meaning of language features, it demonstrates that social meanings may be encoded at the intersection of components of the grammar (phonology, morphosyntax and discourse), and in more complex ways than has previously been assumed.
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