26.2015, Review: Discourse; Pragmatics; Socioling; Text/Corpus Ling: Stenström (2014)

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Subject: 26.2015, Review: Discourse; Pragmatics; Socioling; Text/Corpus Ling: Stenström (2014)

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Date: Wed, 15 Apr 2015 15:00:49
From: Carmen Ebner [c.ebner at hum.leidenuniv.nl]
Subject: Teenage Talk

Discuss this message:

Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/25/25-3101.html

AUTHOR: Anna-Brita  Stenström
TITLE: Teenage Talk
SUBTITLE: From General Characteristics to the Use of Pragmatic Markers in a Contrastive Perspective
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Carmen Ebner, Leiden University Centre for Linguistics

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


In Teenage Talk Anna-Brita Stenström investigates how Spanish and English
teenagers use pragmatic markers by applying a comparative corpus analysis of
two corpora. Taking her findings of pragmatic markers in the Corpus Oral de
Lenguaje Adolescente de Madrid (COLAm) as a starting point, Stenström attempts
to match these with the corresponding pragmatic markers in The Bergen Corpus
of London Teenage Language (COLT). The increasing interest in Spanish and the
global popularity of English have been named as the reason for choosing these
two languages for a contrastive study. This reason is obviously supplemented
by the existence of the comparatively similar corpora. The aim of the book,
which consists of nine chapters and a brief conclusion, is to establish the
characteristics of teenage talk and to investigate the roles the identified
pragmatic markers play in conversations, which are analysed in-depth on three
levels: the interactional, interpersonal and textual level. As all Spanish
phrases included in the book are translated into English, no prior knowledge
of Spanish is necessary. 

In the introduction the author provides details about the two corpora and the
speakers. As ten years lie between the collections of the two corpora,
Stenström provides a summary of recent findings on teenage talk in London,
which are discussed in Chapter 9, and assumes that this time difference will
not have a negative effect on her results. She describes how the corpora were
built and how the data was collected, which was done by teenagers volunteering
to record their conversations with peers in their ordinary environment. The
teenagers did not receive any instructions on what to talk about, which
resulted in conversations filled with ‘an abundant use of contact-creating
expressions, taboo and swearwords, and a frequent use of vague language in
addition to youth-specific intensifiers and slang’ (Stenström 2013: 4). One of
the main points in the introduction is the definition of pragmatic markers.
Stenström draws on various previous studies to illustrate that definitions
vary; however, she chooses to follow Carter and McCarthy’s definition (2006:
208) highlighting the functions of pragmatic markers on the three
conversational levels which are incorporated in her analysis.

Chapter 2, “Teenage Talk in General”, looks at teenage talk from a general
perspective and thus sets the scene for Stenström’s investigation. The author
provides an insight into the characteristics of the phenomenon by describing
teenagers’ conversational style, conversation topics as well as influential
social variables identified in previous studies. These social variables – age,
gender, and social class – constitute the main factors used in Stenström’s
sociolinguistic analysis of pragmatic markers in a later chapter. Furthermore
this chapter also includes a short discussion of typical language features,
such as slang and grammatical issues, as well as an introduction of the most
frequent pragmatic markers found in teenage talk.

Chapter 3, “Teenage Language = Bad Language?”, briefly illustrates the
widespread belief that teenage talk is often considered as careless and
sloppy. The author focuses on taboo words and provides a short analysis of the
top five taboo and non-taboo words in both COLAm and COLT. The phenomenon of
using taboo and slang words to create and maintain one’s bonds with other
group members is described and argued to be ‘a sociological rather than a
purely linguistic phenomenon’ (Stenström 2013: 22). Stenström briefly
discusses phatic talk with the aid of an example taken from COLT, which aptly
illustrates the function of pragmatic markers in this special type of

In Chapter 4, “Pragmatic Markers in the Corpora”, a theoretical look is taken
at the development of pragmatic markers. Grammaticalization and
pragmaticalization are two processes considered to be important in their
development, with the latter being the crucial process in the making of
pragmatic markers. This is exemplified by the author by using two pragmatic
markers and their grammaticalization and pragmaticalization processes. In this
chapter, the selection process of pragmatic markers from both corpora, COLAm
and COLT, is described together with the frequency and distribution of both
Spanish and English pragmatic markers; the chapter therefore provides the
necessary background information on the data selection from the corpora.

Chapter 5, “Background”, gives a detailed overview of previous descriptions of
the selected Spanish and English pragmatic markers. Stenström’s selection
includes Spanish pragmatic markers such as ‘pues nada’, ‘en plan’ and ‘sabes’,
and their English counterparts ‘anyway’, ‘like’ and ‘you know’. This chapter
also contains a brief, but insightful section on previous contrastive studies
of pragmatic markers in various languages, which illustrates their currency
and increasing popularity. 

Chapter 6, “How the Pragmatic Markers are Used”, constitutes the main part and
aim of Stenström’s analysis of pragmatic markers on the three conversational
levels.  Stenström describes her findings on the use of the Spanish pragmatic
markers on the interactional, interpersonal and textual levels; she then
attempts to match the Spanish marker with the corresponding English pragmatic
marker. The analysis of pragmatic markers on three levels of conversation is
based on Carter and McCarthy’s definition of pragmatic markers, which asserts
that the purpose of pragmatic markers differs on each level. At the
interactional level pragmatic markers can be used for the opening,
continuation and closing of conversations, while at the interpersonal level
pragmatic markers are used, for example, as hedges or to check whether the
hearer is still following the conversation. The use of pragmatic markers at
the textual level serves the purpose of structuring the conversation by
dividing utterances into chunks or giving someone time to think of what to say
next. As pragmatic markers are, however, multifunctional, the same ones can be
found on more than one level; a summary of their different functions is
provided in Chapter 7, “Summing Up the Three Levels”. Stenström compares the
pragmatic markers according to their function and the number of levels they
can occur on and provides numerous examples from the corpora to illustrate the
roles of pragmatic markers. 

In Chapter 8, “The Sociolinguistic Aspect”, the use of pragmatic markers is
analysed according to three social variables, age, gender and social class.
Despite the sometimes sparse and incomplete information on the backgrounds of
the speakers, Stenström provides a brief analysis of the sociolinguistic
variation of pragmatic markers and argues that for example Spanish girls make
use of pragmatic markers more frequently than Spanish boys. Her findings are
then compared to the use of English markers in COLT, thus providing a
contrastive insight into sociolinguistic variation of pragmatic markers in
Spanish and English teenage talk.

Chapter 9, “Recent Tendencies in London Teenage Talk”, serves as an update on
current research done in the field of teenage talk in London such as Cheshire
et al.’s (2008) Multicultural London English Corpus (MLE). Thus, Stenström
tries to compensate for the ten year time difference between the collection of
COLT and COLAm. A very brief conclusion emphasizes Stenström’s most important
findings at the end, such as the multiple roles pragmatic markers can play in
creating a relationship between the conversation partners.


Stenström’s Teenage Talk provides a useful and well-exemplified insight into
the under-researched and somewhat neglected area of teenage talk. It provides
a concise introduction to some general characteristics of teenage talk, which
also makes the topic accessible for novices in the field. The in-depth study
of pragmatic markers makes this work a worthwhile contribution in its own
right, while at the same time the contrastive analysis of pragmatic markers in
Spanish and English bears great potential for further research and illustrates
the fertility as well as the disadvantages of a cross-linguistic comparison of
pragmatic markers. 

The author provides references to previously conducted research in the use of
pragmatic markers in the separate language systems analysed. Additionally, 
Stenström provides an overview of other contrastive studies such as Hasund’s
(2003) comparison of the pragmatic marker ‘like’ in English and its Norwegian
counterpart ‘liksom’ and two anthologies containing various cross-linguistic
studies (Aijmer and Simon-Vandenbergen 2006, Stenström and Jørgensen 2009). In
this way, the field of contrastive studies of pragmatic markers is
consolidated and this current investigation contextualises a field which is
highly topical, as evidenced by the number of recent publications about it.
Teenage Talk raises a question concerning further possibilities of contrastive
studies as well as the comparability of other linguistic features.

The main analysis shows the multifunctionality of pragmatic markers, which
Stenström decided to analyse at three conversational levels, thus highlighting
the different purposes of pragmatic markers. As this constitutes the major
part of the analysis, more background information on the three levels of
conversation would have been helpful. The analysis discussed in Chapter 6,
“How the Pragmatic Markers Are Used”, can be somewhat overwhelming, as all
pragmatic markers investigated are analysed on all three levels in both
Spanish and English. Despite using numerous examples to support Stenström’s
findings, this chapter proves to be very complex, which is, however,
acknowledged by the author, who provides a concise and useful summary of the
main analysis in the following chapter. 

Stenström’s analysis of pragmatic markers depends entirely on the corpora data
which, however, comes with specific limitations of information on the
speakers’ personal and economic backgrounds. Some points of criticism
concerning the sociolinguistic analysis of the use of pragmatic markers in
Chapter 8, “The Sociolinguistic Aspect”, need to be mentioned. Despite
describing both corpora as well as the data collection process, the author
fails to mention the actual number of speakers, but rather provides
percentages, which could be problematic if she dealt with a small population.
This also becomes apparent in the analysis of the use of pragmatic markers
according to the speakers’ socioeconomic backgrounds (Stenström 2013: 116).
Due to the low number of speakers or the data collection process, certain
social classes were not represented in her data, which limits her analysis.
Additionally, the social variable age, which was analysed by dividing the
speakers into two age groups, with 14 to 15-year-olds and 15 to 16-year-olds
in COLAm, and 14 to 16-year-olds and 17 to 19-year-olds in COLT, should be
analysed with a greater number of speakers and a consistent age grouping. The
author does acknowledge shortcomings in the sociolinguistic analysis, which,
nevertheless, could prove fruitful if investigated systematically with a more
balanced sample. 

Despite mentioning the ten years difference in the data collection of the
corpora, Stenström argues that no negative effects will show up in the
findings. This remains, however, debatable since no direct comparison of data
from the same time period can be made. Furthermore, Stenström questions her
own assumption when discussing the higher number of slang expressions in COLAm
in comparison to COLT which she argues could be due to the time difference in
collecting the corpora data (Stenström 2013: 21-22). Another important remark
needs to be made concerning the limitations of the comparability of pragmatic
markers in two different language systems. This is demonstrated by Stenström’s
findings of Spanish pragmatic markers which do not directly correspond with an
English equivalent, such as the use of ‘eh’ in final position with rising
intonation. ‘Eh’, which takes on the role of triggering a response, checking,
or stalling, is found considerably more frequently in COLAm than in COLT. The
reason for the lower frequency in COLT lies in the use of a different
linguistic feature, namely the use of tag questions such as ‘don’t you think’
or ‘aren’t they’, to perform the same role as the Spanish pragmatic marker
‘eh’ (Stenström 2013: 59).

To conclude, the book Teenage Talk adds an essential piece to the
investigation of the language used by teenagers. The author’s goal of
introducing general characteristics of teenage talk and providing an overview
of teenagers’ use of pragmatic markers has been achieved by providing a
three-level analysis and including numerous examples from both corpora.
Stenström’s investigation, which incorporates corpus analysis, discourse
analysis and a general sociolinguistic approach, is suitable for linguists,
and students as well as interested laypeople, as it provides a general
overview as well as detailed linguistic research. The contrastive study of
linguistic features, as in this case pragmatic markers, shows great potential,
which seems to be met by growing interest and popularity deducible from the
number of recent publications.


Aijmer, Karin and Simon-Vandenbergen, Anne-Marie (eds). 2006. Pragmatic
Markers in Contrast. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Carter, Ron and McCarthy, Michael. 2006. A Comprehensive Guide to Spoken and
Written Grammar and Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cheshire, J. et al. 2008. Ethnicity, Friendship Networks and Social Practices
as the Motor of Language Change. Linguistic Innovation in London.
Sociolinguistica 22. 1-23.

Hasund, I. Kristine. 2003. The Discourse Marker ‘Like’ in English and ‘Liksom’
in Norwegian. Unpublished PhD dissertation. Department of English, Bergen

Stenström, Anna-Brita and Jørgensen, Annette Myre. 2009. Youngspeak in a
Multilingual Perspective. Amsterdam: Benjamins.


Carmen Ebner is a Ph.D. candidate at the Leiden University Centre for
Linguistics, (Leiden, the Netherlands), and obtained her M.Litt. in English
Language Teaching at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. For her Ph.D.
project she investigates attitudes towards usage problems in British English,
which is part of the wider-research project Bridging the Unbridgeable:
Linguists, Prescriptivists and the General Public, supervised by Ingrid
Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Her main academic interests are sociolinguistics,
language and identity, and language in the media.

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