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Saturday, October 12 • 5:30pm - 7:00pm
Sharma: Style in real time: Activation, control, and change

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Style in real time: Activation, control, and change
Theories of variation in speech style have moved from an early focus on attention to speech to more comprehensive models based on audience, identity, and indexicality, sometimes seen as having ‘very largely supplanted the attention to speech explanation’ (Coupland 2007:54). This interest in social constructivist processes has moved away from the cognitive underpinnings of Labov’s original (1972) model. In this talk I return to the cognitive reality of style shifting through an exploration of moment-to-moment fluctuations in speech style. The focus on real-time data and multilectal speakers forces us to consider cognitive factors such as style biography and acquisition, degrees of routinization, control, and attentional load, not as separate from social meaning but as a key part of it.

I examine several cases of real-time style control at the micro-interactional scale. I first show that increased attentional load can affect a vernacular speaker’s ability to consistently maintain formal variants, suggesting a basic processing cost that speakers must manage (Sharma and McCarthy 2018). I then show differences in how vernacular variants are reactivated when speakers revert to a casual style, also suggesting different degrees of inhibitory control (Green 1998) and a distinction between effortful and routinized style monitoring and production (Kahneman 2011; cf. Campbell-Kibler 2013 for perception). Such effects can subtly indicate a speaker’s more default, dominant, or practised style. Rather than being orthogonal to social meaning or identity, I suggest that these tiny signals of ease and effort in speech contribute to “assumed ‘real’ selves” (Giles et al. 1991: 11) during interaction. Thus, for example, where a simple group-oriented model of accommodation predicts that convergence builds rapport, I show that diverging towards one’s own default or dominant style can build credibility and trust (Sharma 2018).

Style production is thus infused with signals of lifetime style acquisition and use, as in bilinguals. These may correspond to non-agentive variation, but can also be central to interlocutors’ co-construction of credible selves. I suggest that game theoretic models (Goffman 1961; Dror et al. 2013; Burnett 2017) are well-placed to capture this expanded cognitive model of style, involving not only orientation to group and identity, but also trade-offs in processing costs (style dominance, linguistic constraints), multiple tactics for achieving a social goal, and real-time updates in interlocutors’ information. In closing, I discuss how micro-level dynamics may underpin patterns of long-term stability and change at the community level.


Devyani Sharma

Queen Mary University of London

Saturday October 12, 2019 5:30pm - 7:00pm PDT
Straub 156