Monday, 18 June 2012

Linguistic tails

Language has tails too!

Tails are grammatical structures added to the end of a clause, like wilt ref (‘will the referee’ in the Bolton English dialect) in example (1) in the box, this pub in (2), you are in (3) and that in (4).  


(1) He’ll watch, wilt ref (he’ll watch, will the referee)

(2) You’re a nice set of buggers you are

(3) It holds the record, this pub, for growing celery, hard to believe

(4) It’s a serious picture that

Ivor Timmis analysed tails in the English spoken 70 years ago in Bolton, Lancashire (northeast England). He points out that although some of the tail structures – like wilt ref, where the verb comes before the subject – may be more common in northern English dialects, overall tails are common in all varieties of spoken English, and were just as common in the late 1930s as they are today. They are also typical of the spoken varieties of many other languages.

Why should tails be so long-lasting and so widespread? Timmis argues that the reason lies in the two main functions that they have in speech.

First, they have a psycholinguistic function. Tails help people to cope with the pressures of spontaneous speech, when they don’t have much time to plan ahead what they are going to say. As a result speakers may decide in the middle of an utterance that something they have just referred to needs to be explained better. Adding a tail allows them to add a clarification. Timmis illustrates this with an example from a spectator at a Bolton Wanderers football match (example (5) below. The speaker was first struck by the age of one of the players (33). Then in his enthusiasm the speaker reaches for a non-specific noun to refer to the player (feller), and eventually realises that he needs to make it clear exactly who he is talking about (this right back). As the examples in the box show, the pronoun or noun in the tail always refer to something or someone the speaker has already mentioned in the main clause.

(5) This feller must be well in the 33s, this right back

The other main function of tails is to convey the speaker’s evaluation of what they are saying, or to add emphasis. In (5) the speaker clearly thinks that the football player is doing well for his age. And tails often occur after clauses with evaluative adjectives like awful, shocking or nice (as in (2)), evaluative nouns like outrage, shame or nuisance or with swear words. Showing how they feel about what they are talking about helps speakers to relate well to each other. An additional social function comes from the fact that we recognise tails as markers of informality, so they can help us strike the right note in a conversation.

Timmis suggests that it is their combined psycholinguistic and social functions that have made tails so long-lasting in English. In his words, they are a “linguistic survival of the fittest”. As a result, he says, they deserve a proper place in the linguistic description of English and they should be included in the English Language teaching syllabus.
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Timmis, Ivor (2009) ‘Tails’ of linguistic survival. Applied Linguistics 31: 325-345.

doi: 10.1093/applin/amp028

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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