Mel Evans – Interjections, historical repertoires, and socio-pragmatic variation in early modern English

Interjections, historical repertoires, and socio-pragmatic variation in early modern English

Dr Mel Evans (School of English, University of Leeds)

Interjections, so the traditional view goes, are troublesome for linguists. Their formal properties do not fit with the criteria conventionally used to differentiate language from non-language, yet most speakers of a language, such as English, would recognise and comprehend the many forms available to them and their contemporaries. As part of the expressivity dimension of a language, articulating the experience of their speaker, often reflexively, their propensity for variation and change, across pragmatic and sociolinguistic dimensions, is clear (Ameka 1992). However, questions remains about the diachronic development of interjections in present-day and historical periods, the complexities of their socio-pragmatic meanings, and the interaction between micro- and macro-level factors in the evolution of the word class (Stange 2009). This paper contributes to this ongoing work, focussing on interjections in the history of English.

Proposing that the concept of the ‘repertoire’ (Blommaert and Backus 2012, Androutsopoulos 2014) provides a valuable model for understanding variability within the interjection system, I investigate the following research questions: 1) Are interjections stable or variable across the lifespan of an individual? 2) Do individual repertoires show formal or functional similarities or differences at the inter-speaker level? 3) How do individual repertoires relate to the macro-level system? This paper suggests that historical, literary language provides a valuable resource for investigating the socio-pragmatic properties of interjections. I explore these questions using a corpus of dramatic writing from across the multi-decade careers of writers Aphra Behn, Thomas D’Urfey and John Dryden. Interjections are exceptionally frequent in drama from this period (Culpeper and Kyto 2010). Using corpus and computational linguistic approaches to appraise their distribution in the authorial repertoires of the three playwrights, my results show that interjections are idiolectally distinctive, showing varying rates of change over time, with differences in both interjection forms and their functions. I suggest that these findings reflect the differing demands of the linguistic marketplace on, as well as socio-biographic differences in, the repertoires of the authors, with each writer responding differently to the stylistically- and ideologically-loaded marking of expressivity within the macro-level conventions of dramatic writing.

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