Personal frame of reference and social meaning in heterogeneous contact

Thematic Section: The development of social meaning in heterogeneous speech communities
social meaning, contact-induced variation and change, developmental sociolinguistics, language policy, language ideology

Devyani Sharma, Queen Mary University of London

In this talk, I suggest that a focus on social group dynamics in sociolinguistics has tended to overshadow biographical frame of reference as a key site for the generation of systematic social meaning. Biographical or ‘frame of reference’ indexicality becomes evident in social contact involving spatial (migration) and temporal (generational) heterogeneity. The first example comes from London. First generation South Asians make little use of the classic British glottal stop, but they often use it more in formal speech, at odds with its usual vernacular status. I suggest that this shared inverted meaning does not arise out of group consensus, but rather a systematic inference made by individuals with limited exposure to subtle, local class indexicalities: the more salient association for them is ‘Britishness’, linked to formality and prestige. I note other examples of migrants re-interpreting working class forms as prestigious and urban, extending usage and propelling change (Modaressi-Tehrani 1978; Kerswill 1994; Cheshire et al. 2011). This dynamic can be straightforwardly extended to the case of ‘temporal’ (inter-generational) heterogeneity. A form may index subtle meanings for adult speakers, but can simply sound ‘old’ to younger speakers. In this case, an incoming generation resets the social meaning of a form (‘stylistic reinterpretation’, Labov 2001), again not due to group consensus but individual inferencing on a mass scale. In closing, I note that even at the micro-level of interaction, a speaker’s history of speech styles (D1, D2,… Dn) can be a key source of social meaning, e.g. use of D1 to convey ‘real me’ frankness (Sharma 2018). When evaluating, listeners factor in this biographical profile, not just group norms (Podesva et al. 2015). Together, these cases argue for a focus not just on social group membership for the acquisition and development of social meaning, but also systematic properties of individual frame of reference.