Studies in Variation, Contacts and Change in English

Volume 17 – The Pragmatics and Stylistics of Identity Construction and Characterisation



From fact to fiction: Exploring the potential of pragmatic and stylistic analyses in the history of English

Ursula Lutzky, Gabriella Mazzon, Minna Nevala & Carla Suhr

Both pragmatics and stylistics are fairly new areas of linguistic research, especially when applied to historical texts, as is the case with the contributions to this volume. Concerning Present Day English (PDE) data, pragmatic approaches have been traditionally applied to non-literary texts, whereas stylistics is traditionally associated with the linguistic study of fictional texts. However, when it comes to studying historical materials, there has been fruitful crossing over between the fields - from fact to fiction and vice versa (see e.g. Taavitsainen & Jucker 2015).

This volume discusses approaches to characterization and identity construction in a variety of fictional and authentic text types from different periods in the history of the English language. The focus is specifically on the way pragmatic and stylistic meanings are encoded in texts to establish interpersonal relationships and to pursue certain communicative goals in fictional, private and public settings. Consequently, the contributions to this volume draw on the fields of (historical) pragmatics, sociopragmatics, stylistics and in methodological terms on the field of corpus linguistics. We begin by giving a brief overview of these areas of linguistic study  and describe ways in which they overlap and encourage cross-disciplinary research, especially when it comes to the two main themes of this volume, identity construction and characterization. Subsequently,  we will discuss how the articles in this volume investigate these two themes in a variety of texts that range from Early Modern English (EModE) to the PDE period, and thus provide new insights into the development of linguistic means of constructing identities and characters in different genres over time.

The field of historical and diachronic pragmatics has been one of the most successful branches of English historical linguistics in the last decades (Jucker & Taavitsainen 2010, Taavitsainen & Jucker 2015, Mazzon 2016). In search of ways in which the encoding of pragmatic functions has changed over time, or of ways in which specific language forms have acquired (or lost) pragmatic strength through the centuries, diachronic/historical pragmatics focusses on the negotiation of meaning within different contexts; the latter may in turn be associated with different time spans, text types, and sets of macro speech acts or intentions. Like other branches of pragmatics, historical pragmatics is sensitive to the conveying of discourse-organizing strategies, as well as of subjective and intersubjective values, and therefore it is particularly attentive to the linguistic construction and expression of text types and of identity (including fictional identity, i.e. characterization) as well as of social and relational factors in communication. The latter generate more or less systematic language uses that allow speakers to deal with relational or “face” issues, i.e. mainly – though not only – Politeness/Impoliteness systems (Culpeper 2011a). Although such factors are most visible, and have been most frequently studied, in dialogic texts (Mazzon & Fodde 2012), many interactive elements can also be traced in texts that do not, strictly speaking, qualify as dialogic. In this sense, historical pragmatics profits from the connection with historical discourse analysis (Brinton 2001, Skaffari et al. 2005), while those studies that focus more on specifically dialogic elements profit from cross-fertilization from interactional (historical) sociolinguistics (Palander-Collin et al. 2009).

Historical/diachronic pragmatics has highly benefitted from the development of historical and diachronic corpora of English, and indeed most of the articles in this volume make use of corpus-linguistic methods. The extent to which corpora can be used for pragmatic analysis with any degree of reliability is still a controversial point (Claridge 2008, Rissanen 2008, Oster 2010), and this, of course, holds even more for studies referring to distant times, where assumptions of “common ground” between text producers and modern observers have to be necessarily more tentative and where no verification through acceptability-felicity tests is possible. Nevertheless, historical pragmatics not only profitably employs corpora, but has also spurred initiative towards the (socio)pragmatic tagging of corpora (e.g. Archer & Culpeper 2003, Lutzky 2012), precisely with a view to the inclusion of contextual elements in the description in order to facilitate (socio)pragmatic analyses (see also Csulich and Lutzky this volume). Among the research strands that are relevant to this collection of articles, we can mention the study of dramatic texts, in which conventions of interaction that must have been familiar to the audience were enacted (see Lutzky and Froehlich this volume), and that of court trial proceedings (see Csulich this volume), in which the practice of (semi-)verbatim transcription has enabled the preservation of some pragmatically sensitive items such as discourse markers and vocatives.

The term ‘sociopragmatics’ was originally coined by Leech (1983), who used it to describe how pragmatic meanings are influenced by specific local conditions of language use or, more precisely, everyday social practices. Linguistic phenomena which fall under these local conditions are, for example, the politeness and the co-operative principles. The meaning of sociopragmatics depends, of course, on the way in which pragmatics itself is defined. If we follow the broad understanding of what pragmatics is, the notion of ‘social’ is already embedded in its description (e.g. Verschueren’s (1999) view of pragmatics as a cognitive, social, and cultural perspective on language). If we use the narrower understanding, i.e. Leech’s approach, pragmatics is an interface of language, the sociological part of which is sociopragmatics.

As a later development, historical sociopragmatics has focused on historical language use in its situational contexts, in which different norms are at work. Speakers may comply with these norms and/or exploit them for various pragmatic purposes (see e.g. Culpeper 2010, 2011b). According to this view, sociopragmatics is close to the notion of pragmaphilology, introduced by Jacobs and Jucker (1995), which relates it to discourse analysis, focusing on language use as a situated activity.

In (historical) sociopragmatics, interdisciplinary research efforts include, for example, relying on social and cultural history. Both the correlational and the interactional branches of linguistic research can make use of this successfully. Correlational pertains to the dependence of linguistic phenomena on extralinguistic factors which are traditionally looked for in sociolinguistics, such as social status, gender and age (see Evans, Csulich, Lutzky or Froehlich this volume). The interactional approach, on the other hand, is more concerned with communicative situations and speaker-hearer interaction (see e.g. Virdis, Nevala or Tyrkkö this volume). While Romaine’s (1982) seminal study on historical sociolinguistics shifted the focus of historical linguistic study increasingly to language-external factors, historical sociopragmatics has introduced further contextual variables on an interactional level into the analysis of language variation and change.

As several contributions to this volume demonstrate, the disciplines of (historical) pragmatics and sociopragmatics are closely aligned to the study of style and stylistics. This was also emphasised in the review of “The Year’s Work in stylistics 2014”, where Montoro (2015) notes that “[p]ragmatics is a discipline with which stylistics shares crucial common ground”. In particular, the collection Pragmatic Literary Stylistics by Chapman and Clark (2014) stresses this common ground and showcases how different pragmatic principles can be used in the study of literature. The current volume, on the other hand, takes a slightly broader approach in that the study of style is not restricted to literary texts, such as Early Modern English drama (see e.g. Froehlich and Lutzky this volume), but also comprises text types that have been classed as ‘authentic’ rather than fictional, such as newspapers (see Nevala this volume), political discourse (see Tyrkkö this volume) or academic discourse (see Virdis this volume).

This broader conception of the field is also reflected in many definitions of the discipline of stylistics. Thus, Verdonk (2002) claims that stylistics “is concerned with the study of style in language”, while Short (1996) regards it as “an approach to the analysis of (literary) texts using linguistic description”, implying the option of non-literary data through the use of brackets. The difference entailed by focusing on either fictional or non-fictional data lies in the effect of the specific stylistic features studied: they may contribute to the characterisation of fictional characters in literary texts or play a role in the construction of a speaker’s or writer’s identity in non-literary texts.

The interplay of style and characterisation has been the focus of several recent studies, both from a synchronic and diachronic perspective. Semino (2014), for instance, shows how different types of pragmatic failure contribute to characterisation through the projection of ‘autistic’ mind styles in three contemporary novels. Studying the nineteenth century novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Stockwell and Mahlberg (2015) explore the concept of mind-modelling and its role in the process of characterisation, focusing in particular on the character Mr. Dick. This study uses corpus linguistic tools “to identify textual features that contribute to the creation of a reader’s sense of character” (Stockwell & Mahlberg 2015: 131). Corpus stylistics is a growing field of research, with recent contributions engaging in the study of blockbuster movies (e.g. Mahlberg & McIntyre 2011, McIntyre 2012), Late Modern English novels (e.g. Fischer-Starcke 2010), or Shakespearean plays (e.g. Culpeper 2009, Murphy 2015). It is therefore not surprising that several contributions to the current volume also make use of a corpus linguistic methodology in the study of style (see e.g. Froehlich, Lutzky or Tyrkkö this volume).

At the same time, research on non-fictional data has produced new insights into the interaction between style and identity. Evans (2013), for instance, explores the language used by Queen Elizabeth I, adopting a sociolinguistic perspective in the study of royal style and identity and stressing the importance of style as a variable in investigations of language variation and change (see also Evans this volume). Bamman et al. (2014), on the other hand, approach the relationship between “gender, linguistic style, and social networks”, basing their analysis on a corpus of Twitter data and advocating the use of quantitative models in the study of gender construction in different contexts.

Not only in stylistics but in the humanities and social sciences more broadly the focus of much attention has been on identity construction, maintenance and variation during the last decade. In fact, linguistics has been one of those areas of research which have opened a gateway into the study of the relationship between identity and society (de Fina et al. 2006). A person’s social identity can be seen as something constructed by both self-concept and membership in a social group or groups. For example, an author’s or speaker’s manner of engaging with their audience shows whether or not they identify themselves as members of the same group, just as the choice of politeness features when interacting with others indicates whether they consider themselves to be of the same social standing as their interlocutors or not. In other words, identity involves both how we act as individuals and as parts of a collective (Tajfel 1974). By looking at how a single person behaves and uses language in social interaction with other members of a particular group, we can predict how the group itself behaves and uses language when it interacts with other groups. However, identity can also be assigned by others, as in the case of male characters describing female characters as “mad women” (see Froehlich this volume) or newspaper reporters evaluating the characters of murderers and their victims (see Nevala this volume). Diachronic change in the available linguistic and societal resources and the ways in which language, society, and individual are connected has become a central issue, and research into identities, roles, and networks has increased our understanding of language as part of social life and opened new ways in which language history could approach disciplines like sociology and social history (Bucholtz & Hall 2005, Omoniyi & White 2006).

The seven articles in this volume investigate the linguistic construction of identity and of fictional characters through pragmatic and stylistic means in a variety of text types, including personal correspondence, newspapers, trial proceedings, political speeches, as well as drama and prose lectures, from EModE to the present day. They thus demonstrate the combination of linguistic strands in the investigation of historical texts that draws on the study of language in use (pragmatics), the study of style (stylistics) and embeds the interpretation of results in a wider social, cultural and historical context (sociopragmatics). As both identity and characterisation, as constructed through language use, are contextually constrained by the spatial and temporal setting as well as the available linguistic means, the careful analysis of context is necessary in order to build a more comprehensive view of the fluidity and variation of these concepts in different periods. In the current collection of articles, the closely related pragmatic and stylistic approaches that form the backbone of the analyses are, furthermore, often combined with both corpus linguistic methods and other related frameworks, thus demonstrating how multi-faceted and fruitful the concepts of identity construction and characterization are for the contextualized study of language use.

Two contributions to this volume explore EModE drama, studying how certain stylistic and pragmatic features pertain to the process of characterisation in this constructed text type. Ursula Lutzky’s article focuses on the study of comedies included in the sociopragmatically annotated Drama Corpus, an extension of the Sociopragmatic Corpus (see Archer & Culpeper 2003), which comprises a range of plays by different authors from the period 1500-1760. Based on the annotation of this corpus, the analysis targets the representation of the upper and lower ranks in the fictional text type drama comedy by considering similarities and differences in their language use, thereby demonstrating the possibilities of combining the study of stylistics with that of sociopragmatics. By studying expressions that are ‘key’ and therefore significantly overused in the dialogue of EModE comedies, this paper offers new insights into the ways in which characters of upper and lower social descent were constructed through language and discusses variation in dramatic dialogue according to social rank.

Heather Froehlich’s contribution on the use of the phrase mad woman in EModE drama illustrates ways in which historical research may combine semantic, pragmatic and cultural elements through corpus analysis. The phrase mad woman is investigated both qualitatively and quantitatively, taking into account its connection with socio-cultural belief systems of EModE times, such as the theory of humours and the perception and evaluation of non-conformist female behaviour. The analysis features prominent examples from Shakespearean plays and compares his use of the phrase to that of his contemporaries. The results indicate that, contrary to what one may assume, the phrase does not always constitute or contribute to a face-threatening act, given its use as both a vocative and a reference deictic, although it seems to primarily enact politeness strategies rather than contribute to characterisation.

Mel Evans investigates how Queen Katharine Parr and Princess Elizabeth make stylistic choices in their religious and epistolary writing to construct their identities as educated woman authors of a certain social standing. The analysis considers both material constraints, such as layout, as well as morphosyntactic features, such as the choice of second-person pronouns and the use of auxiliary do, to show that both women were aware of the contemporary stylistic and linguistic conventions of these two genres, both of which were considered suitable for women writers of their social class at the time. Thus, the religious prose of both women contains conservative language forms, whereas the more speech-like letters exhibit more innovative language use, especially by Princess Elizabeth, the younger of the women. Evans concludes her study by a stylometric analysis to uncover possible stylistic models for the religious prose writings of the two women.

Gabriela Csulich’s contribution studies the EModE courtroom and trial proceedings from this period, providing insights into a type of text that has been classed as authentic, despite numerous potential interferences in the transcription and editing process (see e.g. Culpeper & Kytö 2010). In particular, Csulich bases her study on a sociopragmatically annotated corpus of EModE trials from 1560 to 1760, an extension of the Sociopragmatic Corpus (Archer & Culpeper 2003), with the aim of targeting similarities and differences between high treason and ordinary criminal trials. Her paper approaches the negotiation of (im)politeness and its interplay with variables such as social status and role in these trials to investigate the use of the phrases your Lordship and traitor as terms of address and reference. By taking different types of trials into account and by linking the linguistic practice in the microcosmos of the courtroom to the macrocosmos of EModE society, this paper studies participants’ construction of identity in an institutional context that was characterized by formality and its own linguistic rules.

Minna Nevala’s article deals with the notion of social identity and the ways in which a single person’s social identity can be evaluated in relation to a bigger social group in public discourse. She focuses on the news discourse of four specific murder cases that took place in England in the latter half of the nineteenth century. By looking at how the news described both the murderers and their victims, Nevala seeks to establish patterns in the use of evaluative language. These patterns are based on three evaluative dimensions: intensity, objectivity, and solidarity, the latter of which is discussed in more detail. The findings show, among others, that while those usually seen as the wrong-doers, i.e. murderers and other members of socially marginal groups, are mostly evaluated in negative terms, the description can change quite drastically according to the situational context. When they are in the role of a victim, either of a mishap or of a crime, feelings of solidarity are evoked and the evaluation is turned into a more positive one.

Daniela Francesca Virdis studies the construction of professional identity in academic lectures by investigating the citation practices of the late-nineteenth-century art critic and social theorist John Ruskin. Her contribution makes use of genre analysis, specifically academic discourse analysis, and the pragmatic analysis of a particular conventional feature of the genre. Virdis employs Hyland’s model of academic citation (2000) to categorize the instances of quotes and summaries or generalizations from other sources in Ruskin’s two lectures on environmental protection, published as The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884), as non-integral or integral forms (further divided into subject, non-subject and noun-phrase structures). Combining a quantitative and qualitative approach, she shows how Ruskin made use of citation to construct his professional identity as an academic and learned lecturer who evaluates the works he cites in order to instruct his audience.

Jukka Tyrkkö investigates the use of personal pronouns in political speeches, embedding his study in a Critical Discourse Analysis framework and using historical corpus linguistics as his methodology. Taking into account background elements that range from the rhetoric of politics to recent changes in the media and their impact on language use, Tyrkkö looks at the ways in which I, we, you, they (and related items such as possessives) are employed to create in-group and out-group identities in British and American political speeches from 1800 to the present. The results show a diachronic increase in inclusive forms, suggesting a general change in political speeches from more “personalised” to more “group-centred” stylistic features. The discussion of specific types of speech and of speeches by specific politicians highlights, however, that the use of personal reference responds to more subtle, individual and context-dependent strategies.

The above overview, providing a first introduction to the contributions to this volume, shows the breadth and diversity in the approaches taken and the materials studied. Not only does the data stretch the time span from 1500 to the present day but it also includes six different types of text, both fictional and non-fictional, drawn from a variety of text collections and corpora. Nevertheless, what all of the seven contributions have in common is that they approach the study of certain features of language in use, such as terms of address or reference, pronouns, evaluative language, or citations, and interpret them for their stylistic effect in the construction and negotiation of identity and characterisation. At the same time, the interpretation and analysis of the specific features studied is viewed and evaluated within the social, cultural and historical context of the data and its ensuing norms, both with reference to specific sociopragmatic features as well as the wider communicative situation. This volume therefore showcases a trend that has been observable in historical linguistics for some time but that has not been addressed and focused on to the same extent as in the current volume. Consequently, The Pragmatics and Stylistics of Identity Construction and Characterisation may be the first step in the direction of a more streamlined approach to the study of (Socio)pragmatic Historical Stylistics.


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