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American Speech 79.1 (2004) 98-101

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The Complexity of Style

Eva Nuñez-Méndez
Portland State University

Style and Sociolinguistic Variation. Edited by Penelope Eckert and John R. Rickford. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xvi + 341.

Penelope Eckert and John R. Rickford introduce the reader to a broad perspective on style and variation from a sociolinguistic point of view, taking into account variables such as gender, ethnicity, age and social status. The editors bring together in this volume important contributions to the field of language variation. A total of 17 scholars contribute their opinion and philosophy about key issues in the analysis of style, varying from an anthropological approach, including questions of genre, style-shifting, and social identity, to a more theorizing linguistic approach, focusing on the study of speech per se, audience design, register variation, and so forth.

The volume is written for an audience well-read in the discipline of sociolinguistic variation. It takes speech variability as a way of observing linguistic change in progress and the configuration of styles. It is difficult to characterize a single approach for this book, as theoretical and methodological perspectives vary from contributor to contributor. As Eckert and Rickford describe it, the unifying element is the relation between variation and the speaker's place in the world, or in other words, the relation between social identity and ways of speaking. The goal is to stimulate discussions that will set new directions for research on style in variation. To present a wide range of social theories of variation, this collection includes four parts. The first focuses on anthropological approaches with essays by Judith T. Irvine ("'Style' as Distinctiveness: The Culture and Ideology of Linguistic Differentiation," 21-43), Susan Ervin-Tripp ("Variety, Style-Shifting, and Ideology," 44-56), Richard Bauman ("The Ethnography of Genre in a Mexican Market: Form, Function, Variation," 57-77), and Ronald Macaulay ("The Question of Genre," 78-82). The second part deals with attention paid to speech with contributions by William Labov ("The Anatomy of Style-Shifting," 85-108), John Baugh ("A Dissection of Style-Shifting," 109-118), Penelope Eckert ("Style and Social Meaning," 119-26), and Elizabeth Closs Traugott ("Zeroing In on Multifunctionality and Style," 127-36). [End Page 98] The third section examines audience design and self-identification with essays by Allan Bell ("Back in Style: Reworking Audience Design, 139-69), Malcah Yaeger-Dror ("Primitives of a System for 'Style' and 'Register,'" 170-84), Nikolas Coupland ("Languages, Situation, and the Relational Self: Theorizing Dialect-Style in Sociolinguistics," 185-210), Howard Giles ("Couplandia and Beyond," 211-19), and John R. Rickford ("Style and Stylizing from the Perspective of a Non-autonomous Sociolinguistics," 220-32). The fourth part studies functionally motivated situational variation based on the research of Edward Finegan and Douglas Biber ("Register Variation and Social Dialect Variation: The Register Axiom," 235-67), Leslie Milroy ("Conversation, Spoken Language, and Social Identity," 268-78), and Dennis R. Preston ("Style and the Psycholinguistics of Sociolinguistics: The Logical Problem of Language Variation," 279-304). Although every chapter is self-contained, each essay is followed by initial commentaries by those who are engaged in related stylistic work.

There seems to be two models of style, referring either to a function of attention paid to speech, as Labov would say, or to the use of variables in terms of "identity performances," as Rickford would put it. With focus on the speakers themselves, Coupland emphasizes style as a dynamic presentation of the self and, therefore, of the speaker's identity. In earlier stages of the study of variation, evaluation of style has involved three principal components: linguistic or internal constraints (both qualitative and quantitative); social or interspeaker constraints (as class, gender, ethnicity, social networks, identity, and ideology); and stylistic or intraspeaker constraints. In the new phase boundaries among linguistic, social, and stylistic constraints are not so delimiting, but highly permeable. Past studies of style have customarily selected variables on the basis of their interest to the study of linguistic structure and change, not so much on the basis of their social significance. It is becoming increasingly important...


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pp. 98-101
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Archived 2005
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