Inverted style-shifting in Anglo-Cornish

The study in a sentence

This study compares lexical choices in speech data collected from speakers of the variety of English spoken in Cornwall, in two speech styles: a picture naming task (careful style) and a spot-the-difference picture description task (casual style).

Although we typically see more use of standard vocabulary in careful speech styles, in this study the speakers showed the reverse pattern, known as inverted style-shifting. Speakers use more local vocabulary if they are encouraged to pay greater attention to their speech and their (Cornish) self.

Line chart showing stylised representation of variation in use of the local variant of (t) in Norwich by speech style and by social class of speaker.
Figure 1: Social and stylistic variation of (t) in Norwich (after Trudgill 1974: 96).

The question

Most sociolinguistic studies have shown that use of local, traditional or non-standard features is greater in less formal speech styles that are less formal. This is known as style-shifting. In speech styles where speakers pay more attention to how they are speaking (i.e. , in formal styles), they typically use a greater proportion of standard features and words. Figure 1 illustrates a 'classic' example from Trudgill's study of the use of different variants of (t) in English as spoken in Norwich.

Is this pattern seen in the lexical choices made by speakers from Cornwall, in two speech styles?

Key concept

Two key concepts principles underpin this study, originally proposed by the sociolinguist William Labov:

Do speakers with strong identity as being from Cornwall show more use of local lexical items?

And, do speakers with strong Cornish identity project their identity more strongly in casual speech or in careful speech?

Figure 1: Picture naming task (Sandow 2022)
Figure 2: Spot-the-difference task (Sandow 2022)

Methods: elicitation tasks

Two different tasks were used, to elicit (i.e. encourage people to produce) different styles of speech:

  • word list style elicited using a picture naming task

  • casual speech elicited in a spot-the-difference task

The key target words were elicited in each task: can you spot the lunch box in Figure 2?
Figure 1: Proportion of Anglo-Cornish words used in casual versus careful speech.

The answer

  1. Older speakers and speakers with strong local identities were more likely to use local words.

  2. Anglo-Cornish dialect words were much more likely to be used in careful, not casual speech.

    • This inverted style pattern was previously reported in Cornwall also for pronunciation of 'bath' (bath~baaath) and rhoticity (pronouncing your 'r's).

    • When speakers pay greater attention to their language they also pay greater attention to the social identities that they are constructing. When speakers with strong Cornish identities were paying attention to their speech, they projected these local identities by using local words:

      • "‘to assert my own pride in being Cornish and my sadness that the dialect is dying out’."

Classroom activities

The definition of 'style' in sociolinguistics

Predicting and identifying patterns of style-shifting, and an identity survey

In more detail

Pre-workshop taster video (3 mins)


Workshop talk slides

Live Workshop talk video (25mins)

Meet the author

Rhys Sandow

Rhys is Associate Lecturer in Sociolinguistics at York, teaching modules in sociolinguistics and in language variation and change.

Read the paper

Sandow, R. J. (2022) Attention, identity and linguistic capital: inverted style-shifting in Anglo-Cornish dialect lexis. English Language & Linguistics, 1-19. download pdf