Style-shifting (language)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

African woman playing piano


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In sociolinguistics, the use of more than one style of speech during the course of a single conversation or written text.

Two common theories that account for style-shifting are the accommodation model and the ​audience design model, both of which are discussed below.

Examples and Observations

  • "[H]e struck a few chords, then, to impress her, he awkwardly played a short passage. . . .
    "'Schubert's Quartet number fourteen. Right?' she asked. 'Also known as Death and the Maiden.'
    "Astonished, he slowly pulled back. 'I don't believe it! How did you know that?' he asked.
    "She got up and straightened her jumpsuit. 'Black magic. What else?' she said, pointing at the fetishes.
    "It occurred to him that she could have heard the passage played by the Julliard student. He started to play another piece.
    "'Debussy. Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,' she said, and he stopped. 'You play it well, boy!'
    "He stood up and closed the piano, suddenly glad that throughout the evening he had spoken to her only in his altered voice, for her musical ear might have unmasked him.
    'Where did you learn music?' he asked.
    "Speaking in a Southern drawl again, she replied, 'Why? Ain't it right for a little ol' black girl to know what the white folks play?'
    "'You told me you were--'
    "'I told you the pianist who lives here is out on a date with a stranger,' she said in a firm voice. 'Well, you're the stranger. And this is where I play.' She sat down at the piano and began to play . . .."
    (Jerzy Kosinski, Pinball. Arcade, 1983)
  • "[S]tyle-shifting cannot be defined as shifting from one dialect of English or level of formality to another, but rather as the selective production of certain features of a dialect and the exclusion of others. The focus of attention is on creating a projected linguistic identity."
    (Catherine Evans Davies, "Language and Identity in Discourse in the American South: Sociolinguistic Repertoire as Expressive Resource in the Presentation of Self." Selves and Identities in Narrative and Discourse, ed. by Michael Bamberg, Anna De Fina, and Deborah Schiffrin. John Benjamins, 2007)
  • "Successful style-shifting is possible if speakers know what the forms of the vernacular spoken in their area are and can use them in appropriate contexts. Style-shifting (downwards) is not normally stigmatized as long as one's interlocutors know the vernacular is not one's only mode of speech. The term can also be used in a more general sense to refer to shifting from any one style to another, and not just to a vernacular mode."
    (Raymond Hickey, A Dictionary of Varieties of English. Wiley, 2014)

Downward and Upward Style-Shifting

"The concept of style-shifting is generally used to refer to a change in language varieties which involves only the code-markers, i.e. variable features associated with social and cultural dimensions, such as age, sex, social class, and the relationship between speakers. [Muriel] Saville-Troike (1989) makes a further sub-classification between downward and upward style-shifting to indicate shifts to a lower or higher level, respectively. In addition, Saville-Troike (1989: 67) introduces the notion of intra-sentential style-shifting, which is said to occur when the variety of language used changes within a sentence, for example, as when an informal greeting is followed by a formal address, or even more extreme when there is a shift in formality involving grammar and lexicon. She observes that this sort of style-shifting should only be used intentionally for humorous purposes in English, as behavior of this kind is likely to be frowned upon by teachers, especially in writing.

"However, Smith (1986: 108-109) noted that textbook instruction clearly differs from actual practice."
(Katja Lochtman and Jenny Kappel, The World a Global Village: Intercultural Competence in English Foreign Language Teaching. VUB Press, 2008)

Style-Shifting and the Speech Accommodation Model

"The accommodation model ascribes style shifts to the speaker's evaluation of the addressee's social identity. A positive evaluation results in 'convergence,' where a speaker begins to sound more like the addressee (conversely, a negative evaluation results in 'divergence,' where the speaker marks social distance by sounding less like the addressee)."
(Michael Pearce, The Routledge Dictionary of English Language Studies. Routledge, 2007)

Style-Shifting and Audience Design Theory

"[Allan] Bell's (1977, 1984) Audience Design Theory (AD) states that people engage in style-shifting normally in response to audience members rather than to shifts of attention paid to speech. In this way, 'intra-speaker [within speaker] variation is a response to interspeaker [between speakers] variation, chiefly as manifested in one's interlocutors' (Bell 1984:158). In fact, intra-speaker variation derives from the variability that differentiates social groups (inter-speaker variation) and, therefore, its range of variation will never be greater than that of the latter. This theory is based on the socio psychological model developed by Howard Giles (speech accommodation theory: SAT; see Giles & Powesland 1975, Giles & Smith 1979, or Giles & Coupland 1991) to explain the causes of styling, especially in the consideration of the effects of addressees as audience members in terms of accent convergence or divergence (see also Auer & Hinskens 2005).

"The Audience Design Model provides a fuller account of stylistic variation than the Attention to Speech one because (i) it goes beyond speech styles in the sociolinguistic interview by trying to be applicable to natural conversational interaction; (ii) it aims at explaining the interrelation of intra-speaker and inter-speaker variation and its quantitative patterning; and (iii) it introduces an element of speaker agency into stylistic variation, i.e. it includes responsive as well as initiative dimensions to account for the fact that (a) speakers respond to audience members in shaping their speech and (b) they sometimes engage in style shifts that do not correspond with the sociolinguistic characteristics of the present audience . . .. [V]ariationists are now becoming more increasingly interested in incorporating social constructionist (creative) approaches into style-shifting that view speakers actively taking part in shaping and re-shaping interactional norms and social structures, rather than simply accommodating to them."
(J.M. Hernández Campoy and J.A. Cutillas-Espinosa, "Introduction: Style-Shifting Revisited." Style-Shifting in Public: New Perspectives on Stylistic Variation, ed. by Juan Manuel Hernández Campoy and Juan Antonio Cutillas-Espinosa. John Benjamins, 2012)

Audience design applies to all codes and levels of a language repertoire, monolingual and multilingual.

"Audience design does not refer only to style-shift. Within a language, it involves features such as choice of personal pronouns or address terms (Brown and Gilman 1960, Ervin-Tripp 1972), politeness strategies (Brown and Levinson 1987), use of pragmatic particles (Holmes 1995), as well as quantitative style-shift (Coupland 1980, 1984).

"Audience design applies to all codes and repertoires within a speech community, including the switch from one language to another in bilingual situations (Gal 1979, Dorian 1981). It has long been recognized that the processes which make a monolingual shift styles are the same as those that which make bilingual switch languages (e.g. Gumperz 1967). Any theory of style needs to encompass both monolingual and multilingual repertoires--that is, all the shifts a speaker may make within her linguistic repertoire."​
(Allan Bell, "Back in Style: Reworking Audience Design." Style and Sociolinguistic Variation, ed. by Penelope Eckert and John R. Rickford. Cambridge University Press, 2001)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Style-shifting (language)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Style-shifting (language). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Style-shifting (language)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).