Saturday 26 August 2017


One of comedian Adam Hill’s better-known skits is about the way it sounds like every sentence an Australian says sounds like they are asking a question – apparently, they have so little confidence in themselves, that they have to hedge their bets. You can see a clip here.

However, as funny as this observation is, is this really why people tend to use a higher pitch at the end of a sentence? This is just one question that Erez Levon decided to find out.

Known as High Rising Terminals, or HRTs, this rise in intonation that occurs at the end of phrases is well-documented across various dialects of English, including the aforementioned Australian English, as well as in Canada and the US. It is used to perform multiple functions in the discourse, including showing that the speaker has not yet finished their turn, and marking in-group solidarity. However, there has been considerably less documentation on its pragmatic function in UK dialects.

Using a mixture of qualitative and quantitative methods, Levon looked at recordings from forty-two of his undergraduate students, to see how often this feature was used, and in what contexts. The students were asked to do twenty to thirty minutes of recordings in small groups – some of which were mixed sex, some of which were not. The recordings were then transcribed, and the instances of HRT annotated and then coded by speaker.

There was a huge variation in how many HRTs participants used; some only used the feature as few as 64 times, some as many as 317. Across over 7,000 instances of HRTs, Levon found some interesting patterns. For one, contrary to stereotypes, everyone in the group used HRT, regardless of gender. While the usage rates ranged from 3.5% of phrases up to 41.2%, there was no one who never or always used it. Furthermore, whilst women regularly used them regardless of the gender composition of the group, men used them considerably more in mixed-sex settings. In fact, men used them more even than the women did in these groups – something that may surprise those who associate it with female speech.

Men and women were also significantly more likely to use the feature in the context of describing something or recounting a narrative when in these groups, as opposed to giving a fact or opinion. They were also both far more likely to use HRT on information that was new to a conversation, rather than going over something that was already a given.

So then I discovered a formula to figure out any prime number!

When Levon did his qualitative analysis, however, he found some even more fascinating data. There was definitely a gendered difference in the way that men and women employed HRTs in a narrative.  Women used HRT to lessen their threat to other people wanting to participate in the conversation, but they also used it to maintain control of the narrative. Men, meanwhile, used HRT to signal useful and interesting information in their narrative, and so control the spotlight on themselves, so to speak.

Of course, there were some omissions from the study – there were no non-white, lower class, or LGBT participants, who of course often differ from their straight white middle-class peers in the way they use such features.  Indeed, the gendered aspect of its use could be very different amongst LGBT participants, and hence worthy of further study. What is clear though, is that Adam Hills is wrong – people don’t use HRTs because they are uncertain. If anything, they indicate just how certain they are!

Levon, Erez (2016). Gender, interaction and intonational variation: The discourse functions of High Rising Terminals in London. Journal of Sociolinguistics 20 (2), 133-63.


This summary was written by Marina Merryweather

Thursday 10 August 2017

Buffy the very good Vampire Slayer

Sociolinguistics is all about how language is being used around us everyday, and where better to look than TV? Susan Reichelt and Mercedes Durham did just this, investigating how linguistic devices are used in Buffy The Vampire Slayer to strengthen characterisation.  Buffy is an American TV show that ran from 1997-2003 and which currently boasts over three million viewers on Netflix.  It has a huge and dedicated fanbase, some of whom have accurately transcribed every episode online.  Reichelt and Durham used these transcripts to research how the main characters used intensifiers (words like very, really, totally – also called ‘adverbs of degree’) to modify adjectives, as in ‘He’s really silly’ and ‘That’s so cool!’ 

Their research showed that intensifiers are sometimes used to indicate character ‘type’.  For example, the character Cordelia is initially portrayed as a popularity-seeking character who is opposed to Buffy.  She uses an extremely high rate of so, found in previous research to be a new ‘young’ choice of intensifier, and therefore indicating that she is a trendsetter. Cordelia could be regarded as the polar opposite to Willow, Buffy’s best friend, who is a brainy ‘nerd’.  However, as the series progress both characters undergo changes that can be charted through their use of intensifiers.  In the first series, Cordelia uses so much more than Willow, signalling her coolness. However, as the series develop, Willow begins to use so more whilst Cordelia uses it less.  Cordelia also stops using totally, a stereotypical ‘trendy’ intensifier.  These changes reflect changes in their characters, with Willow becoming more confident and assertive and Cordelia more serious as she moves away from the popular girls and closer to Buffy’s group.

                        Different characters, different intensifiers........

The male characters were found to be different to the females in their use of intensifiers.  They use very as opposed to so, with the English character, Giles, using very the most often, seemingly indicating his Britishness. He also frequently uses quite and this also seems to fit into his stereotypical Britishness:  he dresses in tweed, drinks a lot of tea and often comments on how incomprehensible American culture is to him!  Interestingly, Spike, who is also English, is presented as the opposite: a rebellious punk vampire, who wears leathers and has no manners.  However, a punk is still a British stereotype and sure enough, it is both Giles and Spike who use very, quite and bloody at a significantly higher rate than other characters.

Buffy herself shows no preference in her use of intensifiers, maybe deliberately so on the scriptwriters’ part.  By disassociating her character from the speech patterns of others, like Cordelia, Buffy is marked as ‘different’ and not helpless and ‘air-headed’.  Instead of using a particular intensifier, Buffy seems to be marked as innovative by ‘inventing’ the adjective following it, as in “It’s been a very slay-heavy summer.”

So, it seems that TV shows use linguistic devices creatively for characterisation.  In Buffy, intensifiers are used to mark where a character is from, their gender, their relationships with others and also how their personality develops. 

Wow! Isn’t language so totally interesting?

Reichelt, Susan and Mercedes Durham (2017) Adjective intensification as a means of characterization: Portraying in-group membership and Britishness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Journal of English Linguistics 45(1): 60-87.

DOI: 10.1177/0075424216669747

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle