Labov's (1966) attention-to-speech model suggested both social and cognitive elements in style-shifting: social awareness of prestige norms and cognitive defaulting to an easier style when attention is diverted. A focus on social motivations in later work has left the cognitive dimension under-explored. As the contexts elicited in sociolinguistic interviews vary in both attention and register, new methods are needed to tease these apart. In this study, we investigate the cognitive prediction: Does an increase in attentional load cause individuals to struggle to maintain a later-learned style? The novel experimental design eliminates contextual differences by requiring a formal news report style throughout. Twelve speakers of vernacular British English completed two speech production tasks (reading and recall), each with varying attentional load conditions. Higher load conditions included a cross-modal distractor task requiring simultaneous arithmetical calculations. Both of the variables examined—glottal replacement of /t/ and th-fronting—exhibited a consistent but mild trend towards an increase in vernacular forms under higher load. Speakers seem slightly less able to maintain a formal style when their attention is diverted, as suggested in Labov's original description of the vernacular as a default. However, the low level of the effect also suggests that sharp formality shifts cannot be purely due to a reduction in monitoring, but must also involve social awareness of the stylistic norms of a given register. Processing and cognitive ease should therefore be factored in alongside social motivations in the study of style variation.
Sharma, Devyani and McCarthy, Kathleen
"Attentional Load and Style Control,"
University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics: Vol. 24
, Article 15.
Available at: https://repository.upenn.edu/pwpl/vol24/iss2/15