Style in Syntax

The book Style in Syntax. Investigating Variation in Spanish Pronoun Subjects, by Miguel A. Aijón Oliva and María José Serrano, has just been published by Peter Lang Verlagsgruppe. The volume puts together and expands the results obtained in the course of our research project on Spanish first- and second-person pronoun subjects. The purpose of this project was to develop an explanatory approach to syntactic variation, its cognitive correlates and its potential for the creation of socio-communicative styles.

Human language is inherently variable and multi-faceted; any linguistic theory intending to be comprehensive and explanatory should take facts of variation into account. Nevertheless, it is well known that their study has generally remained a peripheral concern for mainstream linguistic science, usually devoted to the search for categorical, axiomatic principles of language structure. Particular variants and statistical tendencies have most often been disregarded as anecdotal features of usage and not really worthy of scientific consideration.

Of course, not all the blame is to be put on ‘theoretical’ linguistics and its traditionally scarce interest in language as actual communication. On the other side, analytical approaches that do acknowledge the relevance of variation and diversity – mainly (socio)linguistic variationism, but also other lines within sociolinguistics and pragmatics, such as anthropological-ethnographic linguistics or interactional linguistics – have not been able to define systematic connections between their empirical findings and any general linguistic theories, much less to develop their own explanatory models. This has resulted in variation studies remaining confined to the description and comparison of linguistic features, varieties and speech communities, with little intent to formulate general principles of the relationship between variation, communication and the human mind.

The aim of this book is indeed to take a step towards the construction of a theoretical model of linguistic variation as communicative choice. The focus is put on morphosyntax, due to its centrality as the level of language structure where all others converge. We start from the assumption that no theory of variation can be feasible or useful if conceived as a ‘new’ or distinct paradigm within linguistics. A multidisciplinary approach is needed in order to make the most of the findings contributed by a variety of approaches to language and communication during the last decades. Specifically, the main theoretical and analytical principles of the model proposed come from three different research trends: i) correlational studies on morphosyntactic variation; ii) theoretical cognitive linguistics, based on a consideration of language as undetachable from other mental processes and capabilities; and iii) current research on socio-communicative style and situated identities, drawing mainly on ethnographic and interactional sociolinguistic approaches.

These lines respectively deal with the three basic elements of linguistic communication, namely language itself, the human mind and the social context. A comprehensive, explanatory theory could hardly do away with any of them, so it is quite natural that our model of variation should be intended to harmonize them all. Chapter 1 of the book discusses each of the three research lines and specifies their possible contributions to a theory of variation. The main conceptual bases for the investigation are thus laid.

Chapter 2 can be seen as a complement to Chapter 1 and a further development of the principles discussed in it, by showing how they can be applied to an investigation of real linguistic usage. We briefly review the main features of the two corpora of contemporary Spanish on which our analyses are based (CCEC and MEDIASA); later, we show how, starting from the materials of those corpora and the ways in which they are structured, new views can be developed of the social and situational factors traditionally considered in variationist research. The strictly linguistic side of the analysis is based on the concept of variable, which constitutes the essential heuristic tool in variation studies. Two fundamentally different ways to conceptualize variables are proposed, which we respectively term relative and absolute. Far from representing merely methodological preferences, each of these conceptions of the variable entails a different way to understand and approach linguistic variation. Finally, the role of qualitative analysis as a necessary complement to variable quantification is discussed.

In Chapter 3, the notions developed are applied to an extensive analysis of syntactic variation in the use of Spanish first- and second-person pronoun subjects. First, an overview is presented of subject pronouns as a grammatical and discursive category, discussing their cognitive foundations and the main features of their syntactic variability in Spanish, which takes form in two basic aspects – expression vs. omission and, when expressed, preverbal vs. postverbal placement. We investigate the variable expression of the different first- and second-person forms: yo ‘I’, nosotros ‘we’, ‘you (sing.)’, usted / ustedes ‘you (sing. / pl.)’. Both the quantitative usage patterns of the variants and the main discursive and pragmatic repercussions of their choice are taken into account and jointly explained. The positional variation of expressed subjects is analyzed from the same integrative viewpoint. Through the analysis of different corpora and of the discursive genres within them we are able to envisage the existence of a general cognitive axis running between the poles of subjectivity and objectivity.

Building on the discursive and pragmatic analysis of pronoun subjects, Chapter 4 addresses the relationship between form-meaning variation and the construction of style in social contexts. It elaborates on the aforementioned continuum between subjectivity and objectivity as a basic explanatory dimension of grammatical variability. It then investigates stylistic management through three different features of speaker identity that become apparent in our corpora – sex/gender, communicative stance and socio-professional ascription. Many quantitative and qualitative data are reviewed in order to elucidate how the inherent meanings of syntactic choices contribute to the shaping of particular ways of speaker self-presentation, and how this is reflected on quantitative patterns of linguistic usage. The results are often remarkable and confirm the stylistic versatility of grammatical choices in social contexts.

Finally, style is not only the main tool for the projection of some kind of personal identity across discourse; it also contributes to shape the relationships of speakers with their communicative partners. This is why in Chapter 5 we outline an approach to morphosyntactic choice from the point of view of communicative (im)politeness, this having become an important current of socio-pragmatic and interactional research in the last decades, but that has scarcely benefited from scientific advances in the quantitative study of linguistic variation and choice. We first review the notions of (im)politeness and face as usually handled in approaches to language and social interaction, as well as the main shortcomings of this line of research in its present state. Later, we go back to the phenomena of syntactic variation that constitute the main interest of this study – variable subject expression and placement –, this time from the viewpoint of their potential for the development of interpersonal relationships. Both linguistic variation and interpersonal communication turn out to be explainable as facets of the construction of meaning in communicative acts, and can be approached through the same discursive and cognitive notions. This opens a much wider range of scarcely explored paths in the study of language and communication, which will need to be extensively addressed in future research projects.

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