Social Meaning in Archival Interaction: A mixed-methods analysis of variation in rhoticity and past tense BE in Oldham
2022-04-14, 12:00–12:30 (Europe/Vienna), Room 3

This paper uses a mixed-methods approach to investigate the indexical fields of two variables, rhoticity and past tense BE, in oral history interviews with speakers from Oldham (Greater Manchester, UK), born between 1907 and 1929. The two variables we examine differ in two main ways: (1) rhoticity (the pronunciation of the /r/ sound in words like farm) is a phonological variable while variation in past tense BE (e.g. the use of I were going in place of I was going) is a morphosyntactic variable, and (2) rhoticity is a change in progress while variation in past tense BE is stable.

In a quantitative analysis of the variation, we account for a range of linguistic constraints, and find some evidence suggesting that rhoticity does not tend to cooccur with nonstandard past tense BE. To investigate this further, we employ a modified version of the Lectal Focusing in Interaction method (Sharma & Rampton 2015; Sharma 2018), allowing us to track the speakers’ variation in interaction. Using this method, we explore the indexical fields of the variables. We find evidence that moments of higher rhoticity often occur when the speakers are enacting stances of respect for tradition, the older generation, and older ways of doing things. Conversely, we find that nonstandard past tense BE often occurs when the speakers are enacting stances of rebelliousness, irreverence, and playfulness. Extrapolating from this analysis, we suggest that the two variables have differing indexical fields, and carry indexical meanings which are potentially in conflict. We suggest that this may go some way towards explaining the observed pattern of non-cooccurrence: when, for example, a speaker is enacting a stance of respect for tradition and the older generation, they may be less likely to use a variant which has potential indexical links to rebelliousness.

Overall, our analysis demonstrates how the status of rhoticity and past tense BE as phonological and morphosyntactic variables, as well as shifting and stable variables, influences their indexical potential in interaction. We suggest that as a stable morphosyntactic variable, past tense BE may be more subject to standard language ideologies in educational settings, allowing it to accrue meanings relating to rebelliousness. We suggest that the status of rhoticity as a phonological variable and a change in progress has allowed it to accrue a different set of meanings relating to tradition and the older generation. Our analysis supports Moore’s (2021) suggestion of a more integrated approach to the study of social meaning across multiple levels of grammar, and demonstrates the effectiveness of applying contemporary methods of analysis to non-contemporary data in order to further our understanding of meaning-making processes.


Moore, Emma. 2021. The Social Meaning of Syntax. In Social Meaning and Linguistic Variation: Theorizing the Third Wave, 54–79. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sharma, D. & Rampton, B. 2015. Lectal Focusing in Interaction: A New Methodology for the Study of Style Variation. Journal of English Linguistics 43(1). 3–35.

Sharma, D. 2018. Style dominance: Attention, audience, and the ‘real me.’ Language in Society 47(1). 1–31.

I am a sociolinguist broadly interested in sociophonetic variation and change. More specifically, I am interested in combining production and perception methodologies to explore the social meaning of accent features. My PhD explored linguistic variation in West Cornwall, England, with a focus on how rurality influences the progress of sound change in the region. I am currently a Research Associate on the Manchester Voices Project ( at Manchester Metropolitan University.