Linguistics and English Language

Meaning and grammar seminar

Speaker: Heather Burnett (CRNS/Université de Paris 7-Denis Diderot)

Title: Signaling Games, Sociolinguistic Variation and the Construction of Style

Abstract: In this presentation, I introduce social meaning games (SMGs), which are developed for the analysis of the strategic aspect of sociolinguistic variation (in the sense of Labov 1963, Labov 1966, et seq.). While remarks have been made (eg. Goffman 1970, Dror et al. 2013, Clark 2014) about the potential usefulness of game theory in the analysis of the meaning of variable linguistic phenomena (for example, variable use of the English (ING) suffix (1)), a general framework uniting variationist sociolinguistics with game theoretic pragmatics has yet to be developed.

(1) I’m workin’ on it vs I’m working on it.

I propose that such a unification is possible through the integration of the *Third Wave* approach to the meaning of sociolinguistic variation (see Eckert 2000, 2008, 2012) with signalling games (Lewis 1969) and a Bayesian approach to speaker/listener reasoning (see Oaksford & Chater 2007 for a review). The combination of ‘signaling games + Bayesian reasoning’ has previously been argued to be particularly useful in the analysis of a large class of pragmatic phenomena, including scalar implicatures, manner implicatures and context-sensitive reference (see Franke & Jäger 2016 for an overview).

I define the games and then show the predictions of this framework for both linguistic production and interpretation, as exemplified by the modeling of six empirical studies:


1. Labov (1966)’s study of the social stratification of (ING, i.e -in’ vs -ing) in New York City.

2. Labov (2012)’s study of President Obama and Sara Palin’s use of (ING) in formal vs informal settings.

3. Gratton (2015)’s study of the use of (ING) by non-binary individuals (i.e., individuals whose gender identity does not respect the male/female binary) in their home vs a public coffee shop.


4. Campbell-Kibler (2007)'s experimental study of the interpretation of (ING) in the United States.

5. Podesva et al. (2015)'s experimental study of the interpretation of /t/ release in the speech of 6 American politicians.

6. Levon (2014)'s experimental study of the relationship between gender stereotypes and the interpretation of high/low pitch by men in the UK.

Based on these examples, I argue that SMGs have potential to provide a new, precise understanding of how we use our linguistic resources to communicate information and carve out our place in the social world.


If you'd like more information on dates and venues this semester, or if you'd like to present, please email E Jamieson, or subscribe to our mailing list.

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Jan 25 2018 -

Meaning and grammar seminar

2018-01-25: Signaling Games, Sociolinguistic Variation and the Construction of Style

Room M2, Appleton Tower, 11 Crichton Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9LE