Friday, 23 March 2012

Kids language and stuff

Even kids as young as 7 years old use expressions such as and stuff and and everything

Regular readers of this research digest will by now be familiar with the use of general extenders (GEs) in spoken discourse ( ; ); these are the use of phrase or clause-final tags such as and stuff, and everything and or something. They are commonly associated with a set-marking function, with the GE marking the element preceding the GE as an illustrative example of a more general superset. So in the example, I like pizza and stuff it’s assumed that and stuff refers to other foods in a similar category to pizza, perhaps burgers or chicken nuggets. Most consistently, studies have found that GEs are used more by younger people than older people. Some studies have also suggested that GEs may be grammaticalizing*. This is because it is believed that short forms such as and stuff may have derived from a longer form such as and stuff like that and also because GEs have developed functions other than a set-marking function.

Adding new insights into the use of these phenomena is a recent study by Stephen Levey. Unusually, his study analyses speech from pre-adolescents, 48 children aged between 7-11 years old who were recorded between 2000-2004 in a large primary school situated in a suburb east of London. For the purposes of the study, the children were divided into two age groups: 7-8 year-olds and 10-11 year-olds.

There are many variations of GEs and Levey found a total of 38 different kinds of GE used by the children but surprisingly just three variants accounted for over 50 per cent of all GE uses in the data: and everything, and all that and and that and the children nearly always used short forms rather than the longer forms such as and everything like that. The most popular variant used was and everything, perhaps not surprising given that it is one of the most commonly used among British teenagers. The children came mainly from working class backgrounds so the high rates of and that/and all that are also in line with previous studies that have shown high usage of these variants among British working class speakers. Another finding of the study was that girls in the higher age group used GEs much more often than boys, and Levey suggests (in line with other researchers) that pre-adolescence, around the age of 10, might be the time when gendered patterns in language start to emerge, as influence from the peer group increases and social distance between boys and girls becomes greater.

Summarising, Levey points to one of the most fascinating aspects of the study and that is that these constructions are not ‘random or ad hoc insertions’ in speech and that children as young as 7 years old have already acquired these features of spoken discourse and use them in socially meaningful ways. Pretty clever, eh?
*Grammaticalization: a term used for the process by which a lexical item (or construction) changes into one which serves a grammatical function, or when a grammatical item takes on a new grammatical function.

Levey, S. (2012). General Extenders and Grammaticalization: Insights from London Preadolescents. Applied Linguistics Advance Access published March 1, 2012: 1-26.

doi: 10.1093/applin/ams003

This summary was written by Sue Fox

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