Signalling games, sociolinguistic variation and the construction of style

Abstract

This paper develops a formal model of the subtle meaning differences that exist between grammatical alternatives in socially conditioned variation (called variants) and how these variants can be used by speakers as resources for constructing personal linguistic styles. More specifically, this paper introduces a new formal system, called social meaning games (SMGs), which allows for the unification of variationist sociolinguistics and game-theoretic pragmatics, two fields that have had very little interaction in the past. Although remarks have been made concerning the possible usefulness of game-theoretic tools in the analysis of certain kinds of socially conditioned linguistic phenomena (Goffman in Encounters: Two studies in the sociology of interaction, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1961; in Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face interaction, Aldine, Oxford, 1967; in Strategic interaction, vol 1, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1970; Bourdieu in Soc Sci Inf 16(6):645–668, 1977; Dror et al. in Lang Linguist Compass 7(11):561–579, 2013; in Lang Linguist Compass 8(6):230–242, 2014; Clark in Meaningful games: Exploring language with game theory, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014, among others), a general framework uniting game-theoretic pragmatics and quantitative sociolinguistics has yet to be developed. This paper constructs such a framework through giving a formalization of the Third Wave approach to the meaning of variation (see Eckert in Ann Rev Anthropol 41:87–100, 2012, for an overview) using signalling games (Lewis in Convention, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1969) and a probabilistic approach to speaker/listener beliefs of the kind commonly used in the Bayesian game-theoretic pragmatics framework (see Goodman and Lassiter in Probabilistic semantics and pragmatics: Uncertainty in language and thought. Handbook of Contemporary Semantic Theory, Wiley, Hoboken, 2014; Franke and Jäger in Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft, 35(1):3–44, 2016, for recent overviews).

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Acknowledgements

This research has been partially supported by the program “Investissements d’Avenir” overseen by the French National Research Agency, ANR-10-LABX-0083 (Labex EFL), and a fellowship from the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University. I thank Eric Acton, Leon Bergen, Judith Degen, Chantal Gratton, Erez Levon, Ellin McCready, Devyani Sharma, Sali Tagliamonte, audiences at UCL, Institut Jean Nicod, LLF Paris-Diderot, Stanford, UCLA, UCSC and NWAV45, and especially Penny Eckert, Dan Lassiter and Michael Franke for very helpful comments and discussions. All errors are my own.

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Burnett, H. Signalling games, sociolinguistic variation and the construction of style. Linguist and Philos 42, 419–450 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10988-018-9254-y

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Keywords

  • Game-theoretic pragmatics
  • Social meaning
  • Sociolinguistic variation
  • Bayesian pragmatics
  • Identity construction