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track language change

track language change month to month, unless you do it on the Internet—and then, you know, you’d need to filter that material a lot. If you look at Google, and you search for truly in the last month, you can see that there are some hits. But whether that actually tells you that it’s trending, or how it’s trending, or who’s using it … that would have to be a study, and that study has not been done, as far as I know. Interviewer What’s an example of a way to track language change? Tagliamonte We have something called the “Toronto corpus” that represents a community with a wide age range, from nine-yearolds to octogenarians. These people are born anywhere from the early 1900s right through to the late eighties, like my youngest kids. You can see on my website—I’ve been tracking various linguistic changes over the last ten years, and it’s astounding how quickly certain systems are changing. What you’re picking up on with your observation about truly is that intensifiers tap into vibrant language change, because they are subject to fashion—people pick up on them very easily. I did this study of the TV series Friends. At that time, people were starting to use so very strongly. And I noticed it, just like you’re noticing people saying truly. I thought the best way to look at it would be to look at the most popular sitcom ever, right? We showed that the characters on this show were actually pushing the frequency of so usage forward very strongly. Interviewer You’re saying there’s actual feedback between the characters and the audience? Tagliamonte Yes. The data shows us that language changes in these very strong ways depending on what people think is cool or trendy. Intensifiers are a great way to track that—they are a litmus test for language change. And if you can show that it’s the young women that are picking up on this trend, then that’s another indicator of linguistic change. Because we know that women lead when it comes to linguistic change, 95 percent of the time. Interviewer Is that a real statistic? Tagliamonte Yeah, it’s real. People have replicated that finding over and over again in many studies all over the world. Women are the ones who push language forward. In my Friends study, for example, the women characters were using more of this new intensifier so than the guys. It was remarkable. But an intensifier can only be used so much—and then it’s not intense. You have to pick a new one. That’s why intensifiers are good to track this development. If people keep using it and using it, then it’s not intense anymore. If all the trendy people are using so, for example, but then if everyone starts using it, it’s no longer trendy. So you know Bill Labov—he told you to call me! He’s one of the foremost researchers in how languages changes. He came up with six foundational sociolinguistic principles, one of which says that women lead linguistic changes. Another one is that the middle classes lead linguistic change. People who are central to the community, with links down into the lower classes and up into the upper classes—those are the people who are kind of moving between the layers of society, and they transport the new features of society from one tier to the other, and language spreads in that way. I had one of my stu- 9 Register Magazine

dents look at intensifiers in Chaucer and it patterns beautifully with the different characters. Interviewer In your paper, you suggest that the actors themselves were bringing some of the dialogue to the show. Tagliamonte That was one of the things I argued, that Courteney Cox and the rest of the cast were picking up on this trendy thing outside of the show, and then they kept using it a little bit more. Friends was so popular, and those actors were so popular, that they actually had quite a lot of license to adapt the dialogue in their own way. Other shows don’t have that—so it was a particularly good show to tap into. Interviewer Does the heavy use of intensifiers in the globalized media threaten regional intensifiers? Tagliamonte That’s not clear. People like to sound like where they come from. You can only push this study so far. You can look at communities—do the young people want to leave that community to live in New York? Then they’re going to try and talk like people in the bigger world. But if they don’t want to leave, they’ll maintain their local words. News 10

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