Tuesday, 17 September 2019

You are what you Tweet!

In the time that it takes you to read this article, millions of users will have sent a Snapchat, uploaded an Insta Story and updated their Twitter profile. The age of digital culture is very much upon us. For Linguists, the contemporary networked society offers a way to explore language use beyond the traditional method of recording and interviewing speakers. This includes those studies which examine the dialectal distribution of words and features across different parts of the country. One such paper is Grieve and colleagues’ recent Twitter-based analysis of lexical variation in British English.

Traditionally, linguists interested in researching dialectal variation (i.e., linguistic features specific to a particular geographic region or group) have set about researching this topic by conducting surveys and interviews with speakers of a particular variety. For instance, a linguist might ask someone to name the “a narrow passageway between or behind buildings”. If you’re from the south, you might say ‘alleyway’ but northern speakers might call it a ‘snicket’ or a ‘ginnel’.

With the advent of social media, however, linguists no longer have to elicit these words directly. Rather, they can extract massive datasets of social media data to examine where in the country these words are used most.

In their 2019 paper, Grieve and colleagues used a corpus (i.e., dataset) of 180 million Tweets to examine lexical variation in British English. Helpfully, since tweets include what is known as ‘metadata’ that relates to the location in which the tweet was sent, Grieve and colleagues were able to plot these tweets on maps to identify where these words were most frequent. They compared their analysis with the more traditional approach taken in the BBC Voices project.

Their analysis very convincingly shows that the lexical variation observed in the Twitter data mirrors that identified in more traditional analyses! This finding is shown in the graphic below, where for all of the 8 words, the Twitter maps look comparable to those created for the BBC Voices project. For instance, consider the maps for the word ‘bairn’ – a word that means ‘child’ is typically heard in northern UK dialects (second row, right). The BBC Voices project map and the Twitter map are virtually indistinguishable. Across both maps, this word appears largely confined to the north/north-east of the UK – as expected.

Whilst, for the most part, the traditional dialect maps and the Twitter dialect maps look very similar, Grieve and colleagues note some differences. For instance, in the Twitter dataset, ‘bairn’ is observed to account for a maximum of 7.2% instances of the word ‘child’, even in the areas where it is stereotypically associated with that dialect. This is in comparison to the BBC Voices dataset, which reports a maximum of 100% of instances of ‘bairn’ for ‘child’ in some areas. Discussing the reasons for this difference, Grieve and colleagues explore several possibilities. First, they suggest that the differences may be related to a decline in usage of this word. It is possible that 'bairn' has simply become less popular over time. However, the decline in the use of this word also might have something to do with the type of data we get from Twitter and the way it's analysed in large-scale studies such as this. In particular, the authors note that it is impossible to examine the conversational context of the tweet. A such, it’s possible that’s there’s some contexts where users would use ‘child’ for ‘bairn’ even if they use the dialectal term ‘bairn’ in speech. For instance, if a user is reporting someone else’s speech.

Nevertheless, with these issues aside, Grieve and colleagues’ analysis suggests that the findings observed in large-scale dialectal surveys are largely mirrored in the Twitter data. As such, we can expect more and more sociolinguistic research to examine data from social media sites, such as Twitter in the future! So, it seems, you really are what you tweet!


Grieve, Jack; Chris Montgomery; Andrea Nini; Akira Murakami & Diansheng Guo (2019) Mapping Lexical Dialect Variation in British English Using Twitter. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence

This summary was written by Christian Ilbury


Thursday, 11 July 2019

The Queen’s Speech

Picture this: it’s Christmas day, you’re overloaded with turkey, surrounded by the remnants of wrapping paper and you’ve just settled down to watch the Queen’s annual speech. It’s a tradition for many at Christmas. But, what if I told you that the Queen’s speech isn’t the same as it was in more recent decades than, say, in the 1950’s. Of course, here I’m not talking about the content of her speech (of course that changes year by year!), but rather her pronunciation of what is sometimes referred to as ‘the Queen’s English’. 

Jonathan Harrington along with colleagues set out to find out how changes in society have influenced the ‘Queen’s English’ by examining the Queen’s speech in her Annual Christmas broadcast over three time periods. This synopsis focusses on just one of these papers, Harrington, Palethorpe & Watson (2000).

The ‘Queen’s English’ or Received Pronunciation (RP) as linguists refer to it, is a variety of English spoken by some upper-class individuals and is often associated with power, money and privilege. It also happens to be the variety of English spoken by Queen Elizabeth II (hence the name!). Typically, RP is characterised by pronunciations such as ‘gep’ for ‘gap’ and ‘bottle’ where both of the t’s are still pronounced as t’s, as opposed to ‘bo’le’.

But, as sociolinguists know, language changes over time. This is particularly the case for RP, which has been influenced by the changing social class boundaries between upper-, middle- and working-class communities. These changes are likely to influence language use. As Harrington and colleagues observe, these changes have already influenced RP, such that the tendency to pronounce an ‘l’ in a word like milk as something like a ‘w’ – a feature that was once typical of working-class varieties, such as Cockney – is now regularly heard in the speech of many RP speakers. So, then, how do these changes relate to the ‘Queen’s English’?

By examining the Queen’s Christmas address across three different time periods (1950’s, late 1960/ early 70’s, 1980’s), Harrington and his colleagues examined how the changing social landscape related to the Queen’s English. They did this by looking at what linguists refer to as ‘acoustic properties’ of the Queen’s vowels. Vowels, like other sound forms (e.g., music) can be measured in Hz. These measurements are then plotted onto a graph and linguists are able to track changes in the way a particular vowel was pronounced over time or by speaker.

In Harrington and colleagues’ analysis, they measured the acoustic properties of 11 vowels, including those in the words: heed, hid, and hoard. They also compared the Queen’s pronunciation of these vowels with data from Standard Southern British English speaking females to see how the Queen’s speech related to more general patterns of speech.

What they find is that, over time, the Queen’s English appears to have moved towards the pronunciation typical of the Standard British English speaking females. Although she doesn’t mirror their speech, the English spoken by the Queen in the 1980’s appears to be dramatically different than the variety she spoke in the 50’s, sounding more like younger speakers who are lower on the social class hierarchy - in other words, the Queen has become less posh!

For instance, in the next two videos, compare how the Queen says ‘Happy Christmas’ in 1950 (0.31, in the first video), where happy is pronounced more like ‘heppy’ and in 1980, where it pronounced more like ‘happy’ (8.55, in the video below).

So, it seems that, whilst the Queen may have become less ‘posh’, it’s quite clear that she’s not part of the Royle family just yet.


Harrington, J., Palethorpe, S., and Watson, C. (2000). Monophthongal vowel changes in Received Pronunciation: an acoustic analysis of the Queen’s Christmas Broadcasts. Journal of the International Phonetic Association, 63-78.


See also: 
Harrington, J., Palethorpe, S., and Watson, C. (2000). Does the Queen speak the Queen's English? Nature, 408, 927-928
Harrington, J. (2006). An acoustic analysis of ‘happy-tensing’ in the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts, Journal of Phonetics, 34 439–457. 

This summary was written by Christian Ilbury

Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Pride Month Special: Language, Sexuality & Identity

Content note: this article contains some references to homophobia.

No one could argue that LGBT rights in the UK have not made progress over the last decade or two. With the introduction of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004 and the successful campaign for same-sex marriage in 2013, today LGBT people have more and more protection under UK law. However, there is still some way to go before those who identify as LGBT experience the same levels of equality afforded to the rest of the population. Given this struggle for total equality, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of these themes emerge in the way LGBT people present themselves, including how they use linguistic features to mark aspects of their identity.

Lucy Jones of the University of Nottingham did a study on a group of LGBT youths, looking particularly at the way that they used language to construct their own identity. Jones noted that, with many of the above advancements, came a culture of what is known as homonormativity – the belief that sexual and romantic attraction should be between man and woman, as opposed to those of the same sex. This belief influences the way LGBT people live their lives and members of the community feel that they are under pressure to assimilate (i.e., become more similar to) mainstream society and adopt heterosexual or cisgender social norms.  

In her study, Jones wanted to see if this had an impact on the way that the youths discussed their identities.

Her research took place in a youth group that specifically supported those who identified as LGBT or who questioned their gender or sexual identity. Jones spent four months with the group, and did several interviews with members. She ended up taking data from five members, all of whom were white and cisgender, and identified either as lesbians or gay men.

Jones identified three ways in which these young people negotiated their identity. The first way was through the rejection of stereotypes – one participant deliberately distanced himself from the idea of a “stereotypical gay camp man”, rejecting the idea of “flaunting around the place”. The participant also compared being gay to horse-riding, saying that it would be silly to define people by their hobbies. Jones argued that this creates a disconnect between being gay and performing a gay identity, and hence deliberately distancing themselves from it.

The second way was through the discussion of “othering” by their heterosexual counterparts. When discussing the importance of Gay Pride Marches, the teenagers aligned themselves with gay people, and positioned themselves in opposition to heterosexuals by using the pronouns “we” and “they”. When quoting heterosexual acquaintances, one teenager repeatedly used the second person pronoun, but in the plural, such as “why do you have Pride?”. By reporting their speech in this way, the respondents show how they become ‘othered’ by heterosexual peers.

Finally, as might be expected following the above, negotiating the homophobia that they experienced formed a considerable part of how they constructed their identity. The teenagers reported that they had experience multiple homophobic incidents. Jones interprets this as a possible cause of why these individuals sought to distance themselves from overtly gay stereotypes.

Ultimately, what Jones’ paper shows is that, despite the advances that legislation has made, LGBT youth still have very difficult experiences that lead them to construct their identity in ways that adhere to mainstream norms and make themselves more like their heterosexual peers. Through an analysis of language, we can see that we have a long way to go to help LGBT peers feel accepted. 

Glossary - Cisgender: Someone whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth


Jones, L. (2018) ‘I’m not proud, I’m just gay’: Lesbian and gay youths’ discursive negotiation of otherness. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 22(1), 55-76.


This summary was written by Marina Merryweather

Wednesday, 5 June 2019

Does Gaga ‘live for the applause’? Or, is it more of a ‘Poker Face’?

As one of the best-selling pop artists of our time, Lady Gaga is a name few would fail to recognise. From ‘Poker Face’ to ‘Telephone’, her artistry has earned her a level of notoriety comparable only to a few other music legends. Along with her success, she’s built a loyal fanbase that she affectionately refers to as the ‘Little Monsters’. At shows, she often invites her ‘Little Monsters’ on stage, whilst at other times, she’s surprised her fans by appearing at a movie premier. Here, Lady Gaga appears to navigate between her identity as an international superstar whilst simultaneously appealing to her fans to recognise her as an ‘ordinary person’. But, how does Gaga manage these apparently conflicting identities and what linguistic devices does she use to achieve this? In her 2018 paper, Mary-Caitlyn Valentinsson decided to find out:

To examine the ways in which Gaga navigates the ‘ordinary person’ and ‘celebrity superstar’ identities, Valentinsson examines tweets sent by Gaga aimed at her fans and transcripts taken from media interviews with Gaga.

A group of Lady Gaga's superfans - her 'Little Monsters'
Central to Valentinsson’s analysis are the concepts of stance and stance-taking. These two terms describe two aspects of communication. The term ‘stance’ refers to the way that people align or position themselves in relation to some object, person or idea. So when a speaker expresses their attitude towards something, that speaker is taking a stance. The notion of stance-taking refers to the actual process of making that alignment, which is usually achieved through communication. For instance, if you said, ‘I don’t like cheese’, you'd be taking a stance that you ‘don’t like the dairy goodness of cheese’. The Stance-taking bit would be you actually saying those words.

To examine Lady Gaga’s stances in relation to her fans and journalists, Valentinsson first turns to Gaga’s Twitter account where she observes that Gaga often creates a stance of alignment with the ‘ordinary people’. She does this through a number of linguistic strategies. For instance, in one tweet aimed at her fans, Gaga uses terms usually associated with the family (‘mommy’, ‘kids’, ‘mother’) to take a stance of intimacy that allows her to align with her fans. In another tweet, which references the two awards that Gaga won at the People’s Choice Awards, she uses the third-person pronoun ‘we’ in the sentence: ‘we won two people’s choice awards’ to include her fans as recipients of the awards. In other contexts, Gaga uses the @ function of Twitter to ‘speak’ to her fans directly, referencing an awareness of issues effecting her fans in real life. Together, these ‘strategies’ allow Lady Gaga to create a stance of alignment with her fans, rejecting her celebrity status, therefore presenting herself as an ‘ordinary person’. 

In interviews with journalists, however, Valentinsson observes an altogether different set of strategies used by Gaga. In these contexts, Gaga adopts a relatively confrontational stance. She does this by refusing to answer questions she deems inappropriate or correcting journalists’ comments about her stage performance. For instance, in one interview, asked whether the sexual references in her songs would negatively influence her record sales, Gaga responds by confronting the interviewer with her achievement of selling 4 million records. Valentinsson argues that, by taking these stances, Gaga explicitly creates a stance of disalignment with the ‘media enterprise’ and reinforces her earlier identity as an ‘ordinary person’.

Concluding, Valentinsson argues that Gaga maintains an ‘ordinary persona’ by engaging in stance taking moves that emphasise her alignment with her fans above all other audiences. So, it seems, at least Gaga is not a ‘Judas’ afterall and she’s certainly not as ‘Shallow’ as the media would like you to believe…


Valentinsson, Mary-Caitlyn (2018). Stance and the construction of authentic celebrity persona. Language in Society 47, 715–740.


This summary was written by Christian Ilbury

Thursday, 30 May 2019

Like, it's just like a joke, no?

If you’ve spent even a day casually browsing the Internet, you’re probably aware of the stereotypes of a 'typical white girl'. She goes to Starbucks, she wears Uggs, she dyes her hair blonde and straightens it... it’s a similar concept across Anglophone spheres.

Not pictured: the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

There are, of course, language features associated with the stereotypical white girl too. And in this paper, Tyanna Slobe, a linguistic anthropologist, wanted to investigate how three different online performances utilised these resources to create their mock white girl characters. This relies on a concept known as indexicality – when certain groups use a particular feature more often, it can become associated with that group. For example, the use of the word like is often indexed with young people, as they have led the trend for it being used as a discourse marker.

Slobe also situated her work in the context of two different ideological perspectives. One is that of how mocking certain linguistic resources can perpetuate stigma against them: the language associated with white girls is often used to dismiss them as vacuous or unintelligent, and exploiting those resources can perpetuate that stereotype. On the other hand, they can be knowingly exploited in order to critique hegemonic identities in society. In the case of the stereotypical white girl, the identity can be satirised in order to point out the glaring omission of women of colour in cultural notions of femininity, and the problematic opinions that white women often hold.

Slobe looked at three different performances. One is a genre she describes as Saviour, a form of performance to encourage superficial notions of gender equality. One comes from the popular Sh*t white girls say Youtube series, looking specifically at two videos that discuss what white girls say to black and Latina girls. The third is from the social media platform Vine’s series  Teenage girl problems, where the white girl character is performed in a way that mocks her stereotypical concerns.
Two of these performances contribute to further stigmatisation of the character. One example that Slobe gives of the Saviour genre is an interview with Lake Bell, who adopts creaky voice – where the vocal cords are compressed so that less air passes through them and they vibrate less frequently – to discuss what she calls a “sexy baby virus”. Through performing this voice and indexing it in such a way, she means to imply that young white girls performing these stereotypically feminine vocal traits are responsible for the sexism they encounter in the work place, and the attitudes towards such language. Similarly, in the Teenage girl problems Vine, his performance of the white girl uses exaggerated gestures, eye rolling, and creaky voice to contrast the slow and carefully articulated male character, whilst performing trivial and irrational concerns. By indexing the communicative cues with the concerns, the Vine star portrays an ideological stance that ultimately stigmatises girlhood.

On the other hand, the Sh*t white girls say videos use the persona in a critical way. Franchesca Ramsay, the creator of Sh*t white girls say to black girls, also uses creaky voice to highlight parts of the white girl’s dialogue, but particularly to draw attention to the character’s racism, such as when she describes hair texture that feels like a “Brillo pad”. Similarly, she uses the right? tag question associated with white girl speech to highlight the affirmation the character wants for a racist statement. By specifically parodying the racist elements of the character, these resources satirise the white girl’s behaviour as an embodiment of na├»ve racism.

Ultimately, there are a number of ideological stances that the white girl character can be used for. So next time you see a meme featuring the character, you could think to yourself about what stance is being adopted, and what ideologies are being perpetuated or criticised as a result.


Slobe, Tanyanna (2018). Style, stance, and social meaning in mock white girl. Language in Society 47(4): 541-567.


This summary was written by Marina Merryweather

Friday, 15 March 2019

"I'm so Fancy"

Remember Iggy Azalea? Well, if you were just about anywhere in 2014, you might recall her smash hit song 'Fancy' featuring Charli XCX. In fact, that song was so popular that it earnt Iggy Ig's a Billboard award for the 'biggest ever hit for a female rapper'. But whilst she might be one of the most recognisable Hip-Hop artists of the current period, you might also recall that she's faced quite a lot of criticism too with many referencing the difference between her ethnicity (as a White Australian) and her distinctive rapping-style which has been referred to as a 'Blaccent' (literally a 'black accent'). 

But, why does Iggy sound 'Black'? And why do people perceive Iggy to have a 'Blaccent'? These are two questions that Maeve Eberhardt  & Kara Freeman decided to investigate in their 2015 paper.

By transcribing Iggy's entire back catalogue of albums, EPs and mixtapes, Eberhardt & Freeman set about analysing her distinctive rapping style. With newspaper articles referring to Iggy's 'Blaccent', the authors examined her use of features typically found in African American English (AAE) in her rap music. As a speech variety, AAE is typically spoken by Black individuals (i.e., African American) speakers who live in parts of Northern America.

One feature that the authors decided to explore is 'copula absence' which describes the tendency for speakers to pronounce the sentence "he's in here" as "he in here" - in other words, the verb 'be' (is/are) is absent from the sentence.

Whilst this feature occurs in many varieties (including some varieties of British English), in AAE, researchers have found certain patterns that seem unique to the variety. In particular, they have found that speakers tend to use higher amounts of copula absence before certain types of words and that this feature is more likely when the verb occurs before gonna as in "she gonna go home" and least likely before noun-phrases "Marie's in there".

Remarkably, by analysing Iggy's rapping style, Eberhardt & Freeman found good evidence to suggest that she wasn't just using copula deletion randomly but, rather, her use of this feature mirrored the same patterns that native AAE speakers exhibit! However, when they analysed Iggy's interviews, they found that she rarely uses copula deletion.

Iggy in an interview - sounds Australian, huh? 

So, why does Iggy use a variety that's typically spoken by Black African Americans in her rap but not in interviews? One such explanation has to do with the music industry and genre that she's working in: Hip-Hop. As an art-form that originated in Black communities in the U.S., many of these artists come from this community and typically those who speak AAE - think of Jay Z or Lil Wayne. As such, the language associated with this genre of music - the 'Hip-Hop Nation Language' (HHNL; Alim, 2004) - is largely based in AAE and shares many features of this variety.

In order to get by and sell records, it seems then that you need to use the 'code' that's typical of the genre and rap in HHNL. But, as a White Australian, Iggy doesn't really look or sound like a Hip-Hop artist... Hip-Hop in an Australian accent doesn't seem to work! Herein lies the explanation for her performance of AAE.

Eberhardt & Freeman argue that she uses AAE to sound like a 'real' Hip-Hop artist in order to sell records. And she does this quite well- as we've seen she uses the same features in the right 'slots' as a native speaker. But, whilst she might be able to speak AAE like a native speaker, it seems that her performance is still pretty problematic. In fact, there are virtually hundreds of articles on Iggy's 'cultural appropriation' of AAE, with many referencing her use of this variety and her lack of authenticity as a White Australian.

So whilst Iggy may be claiming to be a "a white girl with a flow ain't been seen before" it seems that she's not the "realest" after all...


Eberhardt, Maeve & Kara Freeman (2015) ‘First things first, I'm the realest’: Linguistic appropriation, white privilege, and the hip‐hop persona of Iggy Azalea. Journal of Sociolinguistics. 19(3):303-327.

This summary was written by Christian Ilbury


Friday, 1 March 2019

Authenticity in the Hood

Whether it’s in friends, designer handbags, or website security, one quality people always want is authenticity. Their fake counterparts are shoddy at best and damaging at worst, whether that be for your emotional health, your belongings, or the contents of your bank account.

The music is real, even if the wool on the collar is not.
In a recent paper, Pia Pichler and Nathanael Williams look specifically at the way identity is authenticated by four young men from South London. Nathanael was one of these four men, and he recorded over five hours of conversation between him and the three others. The conversation covered a range of topics, including class, race, language, fatherhood, and the US; however, the focus of this research specifically covered their discussion of hip-hop.

In order to investigate the links between identity and authenticity, Pichler and Williams draw on Silverstein’s “cultural concepts”, which describe people’s use of linguistic elements that do not have a straightforward interpretation. In order to access the meaning of those elements, you need to be part of a shared cultural sphere with the person who is using them. One example they give is that of a wine connoisseur, who uses certain terms to describe wine which might otherwise mean something different. Using these terms to convey these cultural meanings is therefore a way to indicate your affiliation with that sphere, and make it a part of your identity.

In the conversation that Nathaniel analysed, the four men frequently positioned authentic aspects of hip-hop culture against inauthentic intruders. One example is during a discussion of World Star Hip Hop, a website which features regular content about the genre, from both contributors and users. One of the men, Les, was complaining about some girls fighting on the website, specifically referring to them as “white girls from The Hills”. “The Hills” was a series that focused on the lives of white, upper-middle class women in Los Angeles; by referencing them, Les positions them against the working class and non-white culture of the website. The men also reference cultural concepts within the UK to position things. For example, Les also complains about white kids from Oxford or Cambridge proffering extended opinions on hip-hop. Given the reputation of Oxford and Cambridge as wealthy university towns, this indexes the white person he is complaining about to a middle-class background that is at odds with his supposed knowledge about a predominantly black and working-class genre. This therefore renders the person and their opinions on the best hip-hop artists as inauthentic.

Pichler and Williams also note linguistic features used by the men that are just as important to the construction of their identities. For example, when discussing his brother’s membership in a South London gang, Les says dey and dem as opposed to they and them – a feature known as DH-stopping. He also uses yout and bruv; while the use of such lexical items is not specific to the Englishes typically spoken in hip-hop, they still index an authentic background, as they are features of MLE, or Multicultural London English. As a dialect usually spoken by working class people, often of colour, in inner-city London, it is not at odds with hip-hop culture, which often draws on local dialects.

These are just some of the ways in which the participants authenticated themselves. Now consider the conversations that you have – how do you position things against one another, and what features do you use if and when you do so? You may be doing the exact same thing.


Pichler, P., & Williams, N. (2016). Hipsters in the hood: Authenticating indexicalities in young men's hip-hop talk. Language in Society 45(4): 557-581.

This summary was written by Marina Merryweather

Monday, 28 January 2019

Bringing Research into the Classroom: New Resources for Teaching A-Level English Language

We're really excited to announce that we will be holding a half-term event to introduce our new A-Level English Language Resources! If you're a keen reader and are interested in making the most of our resources, click here to register. 

The workshop is designed to share the latest research as well as new teaching resources in the area of English Language (Sociolinguistics, Variation, and Language Change) with A-Level and other English Language teachers. The short talks will present recent research relevant to the national curriculum, helping teachers get a feel for where scholarship stands currently. The talks will also showcase a new free set of teaching resources -- English Language Teaching Resources -- with hands-on demonstrations. These resources package cutting-edge research into classroom-friendly content. This includes real audio clips, transcripts, background guidance for teaching, simple summaries of new research on hot topics, and guided student projects.

Date: Tuesday 19th February
Time: 2-5:30pm
Location: Queen Mary University of London (Mile End, East London)
Room: Graduate Centre (GC) 101

Provisional schedule and titles (subject to minor changes)

2:00 pm — 'Current trends in sociolinguistics, and new materials for A-Level English Language teaching' (Prof Devyani Sharma)

2:30 pm — 'Good or bad grammar? A practical approach to looking at changing attitudes' (Dr Carmen Ebner)

3:00 pm — 'Language use in social media' (Christian Ilbury, PhD student)

3:30pm — tea/coffee break

4:00 pm — 'Why don't we all speak Standard English?' (Prof Jenny Cheshire)

4:30 pm — Talk by Dan Clayton (AQA A-level senior examiner, co-author of the Nelson Thornes AQA A English Language AS textbook)

5:00 pm — Discussion and wrap-up

The discussion will reflect on the talks but also explore ways in which the new resources can support teachers, and identify areas of particular need. We hope to be able to follow up later with some of you on what has worked well or for any suggestions. Feedback via email or via the website is very welcome too!

Monday, 14 January 2019

Don't thank us for this post, it's really "no problem"

It’s probably not something you even think about. Someone asks you to pass salt or pepper at dinner, they say “thanks!” Someone is raising money for charity, and when you give a larger than expected donation, they say “thank you ever so much!” Or, maybe it’s Ariana Grande getting over Pete Davidson, and she says “thank you, next”. But what exactly would you say in response?

Aaron Dinkin of  San Diego State University decided to investigate exactly that. Aware that there is a perceived difference between older people using “you’re welcome” and younger people using “no problem”, and that prescriptivists are wringing their hands at the prospect of the latter replacing the former, he decided to take some results from an undergraduate sociolinguistic survey to see if this was really the case.

The methodology was quite simple. Students had to ask directions from people in the street or in shops, in and around Toronto. On receiving the directions they wanted, they had three levels of gratitude to give: “thanks”, “thank you”, and “thank you very much”. They were asked to note the response from a selection of categories, including a lack of response, “you’re welcome”, “no problem”, and other possible replies. They were also asked to note down demographic information about the person they asked, such as their ethnicity, rough estimates of their age, whether they were a native speaker, and whether they were someone in the street or a shop employee.

The results, not surprisingly, did not exactly match the stereotypes of “you’re welcome” versus “no problem”. While it was true that younger people were more likely to use “no problem” than their older counterparts, regardless of how they were thanked, there were more pertinent differences in the data. For one, 18% of the of the elicitations got no response at all, and this was found to correlate with using shorter forms – more people said nothing in response to “thank you”, and even more did not respond at all to “thanks”. However, if people did reply to “thanks”, they were more likely to use “no problem”. Meanwhile, when the students used “thank you” or “thank you very much”, all participants were more likely to say “you’re welcome” in response, irrespective of age.

There was also the response “no worries” – only younger participants used this, and they almost exclusively used it in response to “thanks” on its own. Dinkin concluded that in younger populations, “no problem” was beginning to lose its status as an informal response, and evolve as a broader reply while “no worries” was beginning to fill the informal gap left behind. However, “you’re welcome” still held its status as being pragmatically more polite to use with more elaborate forms of thanking.

He also wrote that more could be done to analyse the changes in response to thanks – for example, comparing the data here to responses in other communities, or even doing similar studies in the US to see how it compares to Canada. However, even the results as they stand leave a lot to consider. So how should we respond to “thank you, next”?


Dinkin, Aaron. J. (2018). It's no problem to be polite: Apparent‐time change in responses to thanks. Journal of Sociolinguistics 22(2): 190-215. https://doi.org/10.1111/josl.12278

This summary was written by Marina Merryweather