A corpus-based sociolinguistic analysis of indefinite article use in London English

Costas Gabrielatos, Eivind Torgersen

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    A corpus-based sociolinguistic analysis of indefinite article use in London English Costas Gabrielatos & Eivind Torgersen (Lancaster University) This paper reports on the analysis of the use of indefinite article forms (a/an) in front of vowel sounds in spoken London English, which formed a part of the completed project Analysis of spoken London English using corpus tools (funded by the British Academy). The study used the Linguistic Innovators Corpus (LIC), a 1.4 million word corpus comprising the transcribed and marked-up interview data from the Lancaster/Queen Mary ESRC-funded project, Linguistic innovators: the English of adolescents in London (Kerswill et al. 2008), as well as the Corpus of London Teenage English (COLT) (Stenström et al. 2002). The research methodology combined approaches and techniques from sociolinguistics and corpus linguistics. Variables were examined individually and in cross-tabulations, using both manual/semi-automated and automated techniques (logistic regression analysis). The former analysis took account of the frequency of the a+vowel pattern relative to the number of opportunities for a choice between a or an (i.e. vowel-initial words preceded by the indefinite article) and the proportion of speakers who used the pattern. The study examined both linguistic and sociolinguistic variables, but only the sociolinguistic variables yielded statistically significant results. This suggests that the linguistic variables play a minor role, if any at all, in the choice between a or an in front of a vowel sound. The sociolinguistic variables comprised the speakers’ sex, age, ethnicity and place of residence, as well as the ethnic make-up of the friendship networks. In particular the speakers’ ethnicity and place of residence, emerged as the strongest predictors of the use of a before vowels. The comparative analysis of LIC and COLT showed an almost three-fold increase in the use of a before vowel-initial words by young speakers (19% and 8% respectively). Equally striking is the three-fold change in the proportion of young speakers who use the a+vowel pattern (58% and 20% respectively). More specifically, in LIC, the majority of speakers (52%) alternate between a and an, 43% use an+vowel only, and 5% use a+vowel only. In contrast, the vast majority of COLT speakers (85%) use only an+vowel, with a small minority (15%) alternating between a+vowel and an+vowel - no COLT speaker uses a+vowel only. The indefinite article form a before vowels seems to have undergone a process of reallocation (Britain & Trudgill 1999) in which its sociolinguistic status has been realigned. While the form a in front of vowels earlier seemed to have been avoided, either because it was socially stigmatised or only formed a part of child language and L2 varieties, it is now frequently found among adolescent speakers in inner London. We argue that the indefinite article form a before vowels forms part of Multicultural London English (Kerswill et al. 2008), along with other phonological and grammatical features that have already been documented.
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 28 May 2009
    EventICAME 30 - Lancaster, United Kingdom
    Duration: 27 May 200931 May 2009


    OtherICAME 30
    Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


    • sociolinguistics
    • corpus linguistics
    • language variation and change


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