Individuals vary their linguistic usage across contexts, in a way that is influenced by many factors relating to social context, interlocutor and identity. What are the full range of influences on this variation, and what are the consequences of this variation? We know that the influences can by quite subtle, and that linguistic choices can be affected by very small details in the social environment. We also know that a speaker’s linguistic choices can have clear consequences for the linguistic behaviour of others. An interlocutor, for example, may shift their own speech to sound more like that of their speech partner. Much less well understood is whether linguistic choices can have consequences for our non-linguistic behaviours, and, following from this, whether or not our behavioural experiences throughout our lives (beyond those related to our immediate social environment) might also shape and influence our linguistic repertoires. We use the term behaviour in this paper, to refer to concrete, observable, non-linguistic behaviours, examples of which might include explicit attitudes, walking, gesturing or even purchase behaviour.
In this paper, we connect well-established results from sociolinguistics and social psychology, present recent results at the interface of the two, and argue that – together – the literature points to unexplored interactions between non-linguistic behavioural patterns and linguistic variation.
We start in Section 2 by very briefly reviewing a number of factors known to influence individual linguistic variation. Section 3 presents work showing that linguistic variation can affect listener behavioural responses – both in relatively direct and well understood ways, such as shaping attitudes toward the speaker, and also in more subtle ways such as influencing stated opinions, or moderating listeners’ reaction times to an unrelated task. Finally, we speculate in Section 4 about the ways in which both direct and less direct behavioural feedback may – over time – itself come to shape patterns of linguistic variation.
2 Factors influencing linguistic variation in the individual
Decades of work in sociolinguistics has documented a wide range of factors influencing variation in language use. Linguistic variation is not only highly structured across speakers, but also highly patterned within speakers. Research shows that we constantly vary our speech across contexts, in a way that is influenced by factors such as our interlocutors, the context, and the conversational topic (See Coupland 2007; Bell 1984, 2001; Schilling-Estes 2004; Pardo 2006; Babel 2012; Rickford and Price 2013; Walker 2014). As an example of interlocutor-influenced phonetic shifting, Pardo (2006) showed that pairs of interaction partners completing a cooperative task shifted towards each other early on in their interaction, and increasingly over the course of the interaction. The extent of this convergent behaviour depended on the sex of the conversation pair, and the giver/receiver of the task instructions. Topic influenced variation has also been well documented, for example by Schilling-Estes (2004), who found different stylistic practices when her Lumbee (native American) and African-American interviewee and interviewer discussed certain topics, such as race relations, and by Levon (2009) whose gay participants showed stylistic differences between discussions of Israeli politics, gay politics and their own personal histories. In contrast to research that views variation in speech as a relatively automatic response to external environmental primes, this topic-focused research views shifting as a tool with which the individuals can create, shape, and shift particular identities in interaction (Eckert 2000; 2012).
In addition to factors like audience and topic, we know also that subtle environmental cues can affect language production and perception. Delvaux and Soquet (2007), for example, showed that passive exposure to a different Belgian regiolect was capable of affecting the phonetic realisations of speakers who were listening to the non-local speech over loudspeakers. Similarly, Sanchez et al. (in press) show subtle shifts in the production of New Zealanders’ vowels when the context is primed with lexical items related to Australia. Hay and Drager (2010) investigated whether the presence of national cues could affect the perception of speech Using stuffed toys as a proxy for national stereotypes, they found that participants listening to speech in a room with either a toy kiwi bird or toy kangaroo were subtly influenced by these toys, perceiving recorded speech as either more New Zealand or Australian sounding respectively. It appears, then, that very subtle environmental cues can lead to small adjustments in speech production and perception.
Individual linguistic usage, then, is highly variable, and is influenced by a range of both linguistic and non-linguistic factors.
While the aforementioned results relate to linguistic choices in a particular local environment, short-term phonetic shifts can have a larger cumulative effect, and eventually result in long-term changes in an individual’s usage. The most commonly reported examples involve cases where a speaker has changed region. For example, Evans and Iverson (2007) showed that the accents of young English adults from the English Midlands changed after attending university. Certain vowels were produced with a more southern English quality than before they had attended, which the authors suggested was the result of interactions with southern students, whose more socio-economically prestigious variety they emulated.
These individual shifts can, over time, also result in larger sound changes for communities and regions. For example, Stuart-Smith et al. (2014) noted that there were sporadic reports of weak rhoticity in Scotland in the early twentieth century, when at the time, strong rhoticity was standard. This was then noted in Edinburgh during the 1960s and now, in the early twenty-first century, it is a widespread feature among working class speakers, particularly young males. One argument proposed for this is an engagement with popular, London-based television (Stuart-Smith et al. 2013).
In sum, individuals speak differently from each other, and they also vary their linguistic usage considerably, in a way that is influenced by a range of factors, some of them quite subtle. These influences can sometimes have cumulative effects, influencing more general production patterns of individuals and communities. What, though, are the wider consequences of the linguistic choices that speakers make? It is clear that our linguistic behaviour affects the linguistic choices of others (for example interlocutors may converge to us). What effects might it also have on others’ non-linguistic behaviours?
3 How linguistic variation affects non-linguistic behaviour
3.1 Direct behavioural responses: Speaker-directed attitudes
The previous section outlined some examples of how individuals vary their language, both in the short and longer term. The nature of this variation has some clear non-linguistic consequences. Individuals can be judged a certain way, and the behaviour of the listener may change in response to this judgement.
At the most general level, there is evidence that the language being spoken affects how speakers both perceive themselves and other listeners. For example, Chen, Benet-Martínez and Ng (2013) investigated the links between personality perception and language use (see also Chen and Bond 2010). They looked at Hong Kong bilinguals who spoke both Cantonese and English to determine whether both self and observer ratings of their personality would differ depending on the language used. They found significant differences in personality traits between language conditions, and that as expected, speakers were rated with more Chinese congruent traits (in this case, increased dialectical thinking and conscientiousness) when conversing in Chinese, and Western congruent traits (such as extraversion and openness) when conversing in English.
Attempts to correlate perceived personality with individual voice characteristics have a long history in social psychology (see Allport and Cantril 1934; Zucker 1946; Kramer 1964; Aronovitch 1976). In a relatively recent example, Rosenberg and Hirschberg (2009) looked at the linguistic properties that correlated with a politician being judged as charismatic. Speakers with greater standard deviations in f0 were judged as more charismatic, as were those with a higher f0 overall. They also found that rising intonation contours were negatively correlated with perceived charisma. Studies using artificial manipulation of voices also show influences on listener perceptions. Feinberg et al. (2005) lowered the fundamental frequencies of recorded male voices, which increased women’s preference for the voices, and also their ratings of masculinity and size of the speaker. Borkowska and Pawlowski (2011) have also found that by lowering the f0 of recorded female voices, those women were rated as more dominant.
Such inferences are also drawn from more traditionally sociolinguistic variables. Campbell-Kibler (2011b), for example, shows that/s/-fronting and realization of the (ING) variable (i.e., walkin’ for walking) affect listener ratings of the overall competence of the speaker, together with other attributes.
Differing judgments such as these can lead to non-trivial consequences for speakers. For example, Purnell et al. (1999) conducted a matched-guise study on housing requests, where they found that the same speaker, using either Standard American English, Chicano English, or African American Vernacular English, received different responses from landlords to their requests for accommodation, with Standard English requests correlating with more positive responses, and the ethnic varieties more negative responses. This mirrors findings from social psychology, such as Dovidio and Gaertner’s (2000) work showing that college admissions recommendations were affected by the race of the applicant, particularly when the competencies of the candidates were evenly matched (Black candidates were more negatively assessed for applications than were White candidates). There is a large body of research in social psychology that has shown how stereotype activation can lead to behavioural consequences, from the negative ageing stereotype hampering performance on memory tasks (Hess, Hinson and Statham, 2004), to the gay stereotype leading to higher aggression for non-gay participants (Cesario, Plaks and Higgins, 2006). For a review of much of the stereotype and behaviour work, see Wheeler and Petty (2001) and Correll et al. (2010).
3.2 Voice as an environmental prime: Indirect behavioural responses
The studies reviewed above show that perceptions of voices can lead to consequences in terms of behaviours directed at that individual. Could voices also lead to behavioural consequences that are more general, and not necessarily speaker-directed? A substantial amount of research in social psychology has sought to identify the environmental cues that affect one’s behaviour, particularly in ways which are neither obvious to an observer, nor apparent to the behaver. With the rise of the cognitive revolution, behaviours and actions, including linguistic production, came to be seen as deliberate, conscious and rational. However, priming research – (see Wheeler and Petty 2001; Wheeler and DeMaree 2009; Wheeler and Berger 2013, for a review of priming, mechanisms offered, and effects across different paradigms) – has demonstrated a range of more automatic, less deliberate effects. Whilst there has been controversy surrounding some particular results within the priming research (c.f. Bargh and Thein 1985), it is largely accepted that priming is frequent and ubiquitous (Wheeler and Berger 2013; Wheeler and DeMaree 2009). Indeed, the controversy surrounding priming rests largely on issues of replicability – however, as priming is the product of an ever changing environment, and susceptible to some very small fluctuations in this environment, there is debate as to whether this concern over direct replication is indeed warranted (Stroebe and Strack 2014; Cesario 2014). Some examples of largely automatic behavioural priming in the psychology literature include: subliminal exposure to senility stereotypes leading to impaired performance on a memory task (Levy 1996); lowered performance on a trivia test after activation of the soccer hooligan stereotype (Dijksterhius and van Knippenberg 1998); the greater reported trustworthiness placed on market-forecast trends that are written in a more readable font (Huang et al. 2011); and how holding a cup of hot coffee may increase feelings of personal warmth (Williams and Bargh 2008).
It is therefore clear that there are many automatic behavioural consequences to environmental primes. Voices are an important and highly salient stimulus that most of us encounter in our social environment on a highly frequent basis. The literature above, then, leads to the prediction that voices should be counted among these environmental cues, and should be affecting listener behaviour not only linguistically (as seen, for example, in speech accommodation), but also more widely, in an indirect way that shows up in choices, attitudes, and perhaps physical behaviours. This is a move away from looking solely at speaker-directed responses, such as judging a speaker to be more friendly based on a particular aspect of variation, but looking at how the judgements of unrelated stimuli and concepts can be affected by speech, such that one might judge a cup of coffee to taste better having just heard a particular voice.
The sparseness of work on how voice might affect non-speaker directed behaviour is surprising given the amount of consideration given to other stimuli, such as people, concepts and images. We have recently begun to explore this issue, conducting preliminary work into how voices can affect social attitudes, judgements of ambiguous stimuli, and reaction times. Our results suggest that people’s reported social opinions can be swayed depending on the sex of a voice, and in some instances whether the voice matches the social group in question. For example, in an online questionnaire targeting social opinions, participants agreed significantly more with the statement ‘I am comfortable with the concept of same-sex marriage’ when female voices presented the statement. This example clip has the recordings from our experiment of a young heterosexual female and heterosexual male presenting this statement. Over a wide range of questions, we found higher levels of agreement with female voices than male voices (MacFarlane 2014).
We also looked at whether categorizations of ambiguous stimuli, such as a sound clip of music, could be affected by voices acting as primes (MacFarlane 2014). For example, we played participants a recording of Chinese rap music in reverse. Across conditions, a selection of six voices (5 of which were Pakeha 1 New Zealanders, the other a Chinese male) asked participants to guess the regional origin of the music. When the question was asked by the Chinese male voice, significantly more people judged the music as Asian in origin. This example clip has a heterosexual New Zealand female and a heterosexual Chinese male presenting the statement and music. In another question, we asked people to judge whether the male in Figure 1 (who is gay) was heterosexual or gay on a continuum. Those participants hearing the gay male speaker, who was a gay male but not the male in the photograph, were significantly more likely to judge the photographed male as being gay, which was similar to the ratings from those participants in a silent reading condition. The participants from the other voice conditions (all of which were heterosexual) judged the male to be more heterosexual.
We further looked at whether peoples’ reaction times could be affected differently by different voices (MacFarlane 2014). Two groups of participants, one younger and one older, completed a non-linguistic computer-based, speeded response categorization task. For each half of the experiment, either a younger or older voice presented task instructions and encouragement in a counter-balanced design. We found that younger participants were significantly quicker at the task when hearing the instructions in the younger voice, and older participants were significantly quicker when hearing the older voice. This audio clip gives an example of the younger and older voice giving task instructions. One interpretation of this result is that category membership, and a greater positive affect for one’s own social category, may be responsible for the speeded ingroup response. We also found that the performance of individuals in the audio version of the task was markedly better than those in a silent condition of the experiment, in which instructions were presented orthographically. This indicates that the mere presence of a voice fosters social facilitation, triggering increased reaction times (see Bond and Titus 1983; Huguet et al. 1999; Risko and Kingstone 2011).
Recent work then is beginning to indicate how different voices can trigger different responses in a listener. These responses may be direct, and speaker-oriented, such as influencing the listener’s perception of, or behaviour toward the speaker. However they may also be more subtle, with voice characteristics acting as primes which shift reported attitudes, classifications and reaction times. These results, together with the overwhelming evidence for other subtle priming effects from psychology, indicate that the effect of linguistic variation on listener behaviour may be non-trivial, and that this is an area in which future research may bear considerable fruit.
4 How behavioural feedback might shape linguistic usage
As we have outlined, our linguistic choices and behaviours have consequences – some quite direct, and some relatively automatic and indirect. In this section, we outline the considerable literature from psychology showing that when our actions lead to consequences in the world, these consequences can shape future choices. Feedback shapes subsequent behaviour. Together, these results point to predictions regarding a role for behavioural feedback in shaping the acquisition and evolution of patterns of linguistic variation and change.
Individuals, when unconsciously basing their decisions on past experience, tend to select a behaviour that has recently resulted in, or is expected to result in, a positive outcome (Estes 1976; Ho et al. 2006; Nevo and Erev 2012). What counts as a satisfactory outcome for one person may be quite different for another, exemplified in risk-tasking situations such as gambling (see e.g. Fromme et al. 1997). Nonetheless, B.F. Skinner’s principles of reinforcement (1963; see also Skinner 1986) are still largely applicable – people choose behaviours that have resulted in satisfying conditions, and neglect behaviours that have resulted in unsatisfying conditions. These may correspond to feelings and attitudes, but the behaviours themselves are primary. For any particular behaviour, the most frequent outcome of the past is assumed to be the most likely to occur in the future, absent any significant deviations in the environment or individual.
Consistent with the above, there are many examples where individuals adjust their interpersonal behaviour in response to feedback from their audience. A classic work in this area is Solomon Asch’s (1951) work on social conformity. Asch showed that individuals would forego their own answer choice, answering in opposition to their actual beliefs that certain lines were shorter or longer than they patently were, in the face of opposite group answer norms. Physical behaviours are also open to interpersonal feedback. This ranges from obvious, often deliberate behavioural changes such as speaking quietly in a library, to less obvious ones such as mimicking the sitting behaviour of someone who has romantically interested you.). There is extensive literature on body-language mimicry, for example, showing that individuals, over the course of an interaction, subtly adopt certain postures and behaviours of their partners but that this is dependent on feedback from the situational partner(s). This is typically seen as a goal-directed behaviour to increase liking (Lakin and Chartrand 2003; Lakin et al. 2008). In other situations, mimicry can lead to increased helping behaviours (van Baaren et al. 2004), increased trust, and successful negotiation outcomes (Maddux et al. 2008).
Research looking at cultural display rules offers a rich repository of work showing that our behaviour in isolation, and in response to others, is qualitatively different. Friedman and Miller-Herringer (1991) showed that the facial expressions used as a result of winning a problem solving task were different for individuals in isolation, who smiled with more intensity and used more victory gestures, than for those who completed the tasks in conjunction with others, who sought to downplay their achievement to maintain cultural norms. Behavioural changes can also occur in response to the implied presence of others. Goldstein et al. (2008) were able to increase rates of hotel towel re-use by displaying notices that said ‘the majority of guests reuse their towels’, and even stronger, ‘the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels’. This appeal to social norms, the authors argued, is stronger than traditional approaches that appeal to environmental concerns. Normative feedback interventions have also been shown to be effective for garbage recycling (Schultz 2010), alcohol drinking (Neighbors et al. 2006 and eating behaviours (Leone et al. 2007).
Thus, at least in the non-linguistic domain, when people encounter a consistent response to particular behaviour or behavioural pattern, it is very clear that this response can help to shape future behaviours. As it is also now clear that linguistic variation can influence behavioural responses or patterns, we now ask whether past patterns of behavioural responses may also affect overall patterns of linguistic variation.
Listener response certainly affects speech behaviour in contexts where speakers have some conscious awareness or sensitivity regarding their speech. For example, individuals who stutter show marked variation in their stuttering rates, depending on the reaction pattern of the audience or addressee (Hansen 1956; Bloodstein and Ratner 2008:265).
Individuals are also able, in certain conditions, to modify their voices in response to the perceived reception of various characteristics, such as intelligence or friendliness. Hughes et al. (2014) looked at the effects of deliberate voice manipulation. Their results showed that speakers have the ability to sound more intelligent, confident, attractive, and dominant through certain voice manipulations, but that this is different for the sexes; interestingly, women were able to make themselves sound more attractive, whereas men were not, for which the authors offered an evolutionary argument based on the assumed need for females to portray attractiveness, whereas for men this was not deemed a necessary trait (Buss 1988; 1989). Anolli and Ciceri (2002) found that men who exercised greater vocal manipulation, and deepened their pitch over the progression of a conversation with a female (settling on what the authors call the ‘self-disclosure voice’), were more successful at securing future dates in a simulated dating scenario.
Zucker (1946) wryly noted that if we say to a 7-month old baby “Aren’t you a nasty, wretched little brat” in the same tone as we might say “Aren’t you a dear, precious little angel”, the effect on the baby will be congruent with the sentiment of the latter statement. The way something is said, and the particular voice qualities and phonetic variants used, become associated with certain behaviours, positive and negative, under specified situations. We have outlined how non-linguistic behaviour is shaped by social feedback and expectations, and how both linguistic and non-linguistic behaviours are tied to environmental cues so that many behaviours are subtly primed. We have also mentioned that experiments we have recently conducted indicate that voices can impact upon people’s attitudes and reaction times. The sum of the different literatures we have highlighted would point to linguistic variation being partly affected by histories of behavioural responses. By this, we mean that when an individual comes to automatically associate a positive outcome with a particular linguistic variety (be that a style, a lexical choice, a phonetic variant and so forth), they will be more likely to adopt this feature in future. If their environment remains largely static, so that this behaviour remains likely to effect a positive outcome, then it will move from the short-term to the long term, and become part of that person’s linguistic-behavioural routine, and contribute towards their identity. That is, we are suggesting that there is an unexplored role played by implicit feedback in shaping individuals’ idiolects, the stylistic resources ultimately at their disposal, and the manner in which they are utilised.
Individuals display social identity through their speech. The canonical view of how this is achieved involves individuals observing the speech of others, extracting social meaning from observed distributions of variables, and then adopting linguistic resources most aligned to the identity they wish to convey (Eckert 2000; Coupland 2007; Munson and Babel 2007; Levon 2009). This process starts very young. Gendered variants of/t/, for example, have been observed to emerge in children as early as 3 (Foulkes et al. 2005; Nokes 2014). This is argued to have emerged from a process of observation of male and female usage, and to mark the beginnings of aligning oneself linguistically with a particular sex – an interpretation which is reinforced by the finding that children who show the most gender-marked toy preferences also show greater use of gender-marked/t/variants (Nokes 2014).
What we don’t know is how much of such variation is shaped by implicit behavioural feedback from the people the children interact with. All parents, of course, appreciate the power of feedback in effecting behavioural modification. Children will eventually learn, for example, that screaming a request doesn’t lead to compliance. Most feedback, however, is not of this overt conscious form – but is more subtle; carried, for example, by individuals’ body language and facial expressions and patterns of continued interaction. It is well attested that adults respond to male and female babies and children differently (Lewis 1972; Seavey et al. 1975). It is likely, then, that they also respond to children differently depending on the social meanings carried by the variants they produce. Over a period of time, such patterned feedback is likely to contribute to shaping the variants the children favour.
Adults too continue to modify their stylistic choices throughout their lifetimes, and subtle patterns of behavioural responses are likely to influence this. This may manifest in overall changes based, for example, on continued more positive interactions involving some stylistic choices more than others, or on more targeted but still subconscious context-based shifts when particular goals are salient. These could include influencing other people to move quickly, to continue talking, or to agree with a question. The detailed and culturally specific patterns of minimal feedback, timing and turn-taking displayed by speakers, for example, (see e.g. Stivers et al. 2009) must surely be partially learned through a process involving some error and modification, as speakers learn which feedback patterns lead others to keep talking. It should also be possible for listener-specific modes to emerge, based on different patterns of responses from high-frequency interlocutors.
The combined literature outlined above points toward interlocutors’ responses to linguistic choices influencing the emergence and usage of linguistic variables and styles. While there would be a variety of ways to test this experimentally, it may be challenging (but not impossible) to document such effects in natural contexts. This is because such effects are likely to work together with other factors well known to influence variation, making it difficult to document separate roles for each. We know, for example, that adults talk to their children (and pets) differently (Kuhl et al. 1997; Burnham et al. 2002), and also that mothers use different linguistic variants with their daughters and sons (Foulkes et al. 2005). Extending this, it would be interesting to explore whether there are different patterns of parental responses (such as acquiescing to a request) to different linguistic variants produced by children. Such a result would take us one step closer to demonstrating that behavioural feedback plays a role in shaping the acquisition and ongoing use of patterns of linguistic variation.
We began this review by recounting that work in sociolinguistics has a long history of showing that social forces operate on linguistic variation. Both at a personal and group level, and in the shorter and longer terms, variation can be traced to socially motivated, although not necessarily deliberate, decisions on the part of the speaker. This socially linked variation, once it comes into contact with a listener, leads to consequences for the speaker. These consequences may relate to judgement and categorization, or more concrete outcomes. We suggest that once the speaker has noted these consequences, this information becomes bound to the other indexical information (Silverstein 1976/2003) of the style in use, such that a manner of speaking that was previously indexed to, for example – German, male, educated, middle-aged – may become tagged with a label such as persuasive, or antagonistic, based on the outcome of the interaction.
Moving into the realm of social priming, we presented selected examples of how environmental stimuli can affect non-linguistic behaviours in unintuitive ways, and asked whether voice, being an inherently social stimuli, would not do the same. Our ongoing research into this question certainly indicates that this is so, and we have found that judgements of ambiguous stimuli, and reaction times in a monotonous task, are affected differently by different voices. We would expect that as this type of work becomes more common, the domains in which voice is found to act as a behavioural prime will increase. Finally, we speculated that a natural progression of these combined findings from psychology and linguistics suggests that an individual’s linguistic variation would be influenced by their behavioural histories, and that over time, this could result in sound changes at the individual and group level, particularly where the group shares common behavioural ground. This line of research is evidently novel within linguistics, and it requires a much greater engagement with the literature and practices from social psychology. It is, however, important if we are to more fully understand the range of behaviours that both feed into, and in turn are shaped by, language and speech variation. Philosophically, it requires approaching speech like any other stimuli, and seeks to identify in what situations, and under what moderators, it can both affect and be affected by that environment. For linguists, it will further help us to understand how variation is stored, with what other information it is stored, and the extent to which our experiences of a particular type of speech vs. our superficial, automatic phonetic judgements are involved in the types of behaviours we have outlined.
This work was supported by a New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour (NZILBB) PhD Scholarship to the first author, and a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship to the second author. We are grateful to our colleagues in NZILBB, Psychology, and Linguistics at the University of Canterbury, and to all of the participants in the studies described herein.
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