Thursday 20 October 2011

Young people’s language and stuff like that

                                     A: cos we made like a video
                                     B: yeah I saw it
                                     A: you remember, right?
                                     B: yeah
                                     A: so er we made her a video and stuff

Why do people use phrases like and stuff? Researchers Sali Tagliamonte and Derek Denis analysed phrases like and everything, and stuff, and things, or whatever and or something in a 1.2 million word corpus of Canadian English and compared their findings with previous research from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. Their research confirms that these little phrases, often known as ‘general extenders’, have important functions in spoken language.

            The reason for using the term ‘general extenders’ is that forms like and stuff, and things, or something and or whatever often indicate that the previous word is part of a set, so they extend its meaning but without having to specify all the members of the set. For example, or whatever in you can get a hamburger or whatever refers to a set of things that could be on a fast food menu, including, perhaps, a hot dog or French fries. Referring to a set is not necessarily their most important function though. Sometimes people use these little words to be purposely vague, to signal that they are not quite sure about something. However their most important function seems to be to create solidarity between speakers. By using a general extender the person speaking suggests that their interlocutor shares their knowledge or opinion, so there is no need to be explicit. Perhaps this is why speaker A uses and stuff in the exchange above, where the speakers are talking only about a video, not about a set of things that includes videos. And stuff also marks the end of speaker A’s turn, as well as indicating that the video could become a topic of the conversation.

            Tagliamonte and Denis show that different types of language change in the general extenders are taking place in the UK and in Toronto. In the UK, older speakers prefer longer forms such as and things like that whereas younger people tend to shorten the forms to and things or and stuff. Also, older people tend to use a general extender form that matches the word or phase that they are attached to. For example they use and stuff with a mass noun that matches the idea of ‘stuff’, such as water or fun, and and things with a count noun like cats or dogs. Younger people on the other hand use a general extender as an independent form that doesn’t have to match the word or phrase that it is attached to. In the UK, then, general extenders are losing their original meaning of ‘stuff’ or ‘things’ and are becoming independent discourse particles.

            In the Toronto corpus older speakers as well as younger people use general extenders as independent particles, so this language change (‘semantic bleaching’) must have happened earlier than in the UK. However, in Toronto people of all ages use both the long forms and the short forms of the general extenders with about the same frequency. There is no evidence, then, that short forms like and everything are taking over from longer forms such as and everything like that, as they seem to be in the UK. Instead, a different kind of change is taking place in Toronto. People aged 40 and above have two favourite general extender forms: one with things and one with stuff (so they use many forms such as and stuff, and stuff like that, and and that kind of stuff as well as and things, and things like that and all that kind of thing). As speakers get younger, though, things plummets in frequency and its place is taken by stuff. This is different from the UK, where previous research suggests that there are social class differences in the forms that young people use: both and stuff and and things are preferred by young people from the middle classes whereas and that is associated with working class speakers. In Toronto, and that is rarely heard.

            A search on Google for the and stuff general extender forms found about 24 million hits, leading Tagliamonte and Denis to conclude that stuff has “plainly surged in frequency”. What remains to be seen is whether this surge will affect the general extender forms that are used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Perhaps we will all eventually mostly say and stuff. Alternatively, a completely different new form may emerge. After all, new forms have continued to develop over the last 600 years. Whatever happens, these little words serve such important functions in conversation that general extenders in one form or another are bound to survive.

For English Language teaching resources and for a suggested English A level language investigation related to this topic click here.
Tagliamonte, S. and Denis, D. 2010 The stuff of change: General extenders in Toronto, Canada. Journal of English Linguistics 38 (4): 335-368.

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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