In sociolinguistics, a style is a set of linguistic variants with specific social meanings. In this context, social meanings can include group membership, personal attributes, or beliefs. Linguistic variation is at the heart of the concept of linguistic style—without variation there is no basis for distinguishing social meanings. Variation can barbara johnstone discourse analysis pdf syntactically, lexically, and phonologically.
Many approaches to interpreting and defining style incorporate the concepts of indexicality, indexical order, stance-taking, and linguistic ideology. Note that a style is not a fixed attribute of a speaker.
Rather, a speaker may use different styles depending on context. Additionally, speakers often incorporate elements of multiple styles into their speech, either consciously or subconsciously, thereby creating a new style. William Labov first introduced the concept of style in the context of sociolinguistics in the 1960s, though he did not explicitly define the term.
There are no single style speakers. Styles can be ranged along a single dimension, measured by the amount of attention paid to speech. Style-shifting correlates strongly with the amount of attention paid to speech.
According to studies conducted by Labov, this was one of the single most important factors that determined whether or not an interlocutor would make a style-shift. The vernacular, in which the minimum attention is paid to speech, provides the most systematic data for linguistic analysis.
Labov characterized the vernacular as the original base mode of speech, learned at a very young age, on which more complex styles build later in life. This “basic” style has the least variation, and provides the most general account of the style of a given group. Any systematic observation of a speaker defines a formal context where more than the minimum attention is paid to speech.
In other words, even formal face-to-face interviews severely limit a speaker’s use of their vernacular style. Face-to-face interviews are the only means of obtaining the volume and quality of recorded speech that is needed for quantitative analysis.
Quantitative analysis requires the kind of data that must be obtained in a very obvious, formal way. However, once forced to pay attention to language, they style-shift in a way indicative of their social aspirations. Penny Eckert’s characterization of style as related to indexicality marked the beginning of a new approach to linguistic style.
She builds on Michael Silverstein’s notion of indexical order: the notion that linguistic variables index a social group, which by association leads to the indexing of certain traits stereotypically associated with members of that group. These indexical fields are fluid and often change depending on their usage in different contexts or in combination with other variables.