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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics

Abstract

Ethnolinguistic repertoires have recently been described in terms of fluid variability, strategic use, and ethnic identity (Fought 2006; Benor 2010; Hoffman and Walker 2010). In this paper I explore ways of assessing the degree of agency present in the use of ethnolinguistic traits. The study examines the use of Asian and British English variants by older and younger London-born Asian men. I first present a standard variationist analysis that shows older and younger men to have similar overall rates of use. However, closer analysis of variation—in repertoires and discourse—reveals underlying differences by age group, suggesting different indexical values despite similar rates of use. Older men show highly differentiated repertoires and very dynamic use of style-shifting to index stance, footing, and narrative structure. Younger men have a similarly mixed but relatively invariant style across settings, with little interactionally-tuned deployment of ethnic variants. The generational difference indicates change in indexical meaning over time despite retention of the same linguistic forms. The reason for different degrees of ‘stylistic activation’ lies in socio-historical stages of change in the community. The findings suggest that the use of ethnolinguistic features does not entail agentive use or shared identity work. Methodologically, the study indicates a need to attend to relative stylistic activation as much as to frequencies of use in understanding dialect change.

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