Universiteit Leiden

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Lecture | Sociolinguistcs Series

Observing the course of discourse-pragmatic change in synchronic data: 'innit' in Multicultural London English

Friday 17 January 2020
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden



Since its emergence in the late fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries, the system of British English question tags, illustrated in (1)-(3), has been characterized by complex but stable and robust formation rules (Childs 2016; Hoffmann 2006; Pichler 2013; Tottie & Hoffmann 2009). However, in contemporary London English, this complexity is giving way to uniformity. Innit, as in (4), is rapidly ousting other tag forms from the system. In order to elucidate the mechanisms driving this dramatic change, I build on previous work that has examined individual variants (i.e., innit and weren’t it, as in (5)) in isolation, and quantified their distribution across selected predictors (Andersen 2001; Cheshire & Fox 2009). I include in the variable context all negative-polarity question tag variants (N=2395) extracted from the socially stratified Linguistic Innovators Corpus (collected in inner- and outer-London in 2005-2006; Kerswill et al. 2007), which allows me to: (a) situate ongoing changes in the use of individual variants in relation to the broader system in which they occur; (b) operationalize multiple measures of grammaticalization for quantitative analysis; and (c) explore which of these changes are internally-motivated or contact-induced.

  1. Oh, I missed out, me, didn’t I?
  2. But runner beans are our favourite, aren’t they?
  3. London can be posh, can’t it?
  4. Cos we rob them, innit?
  5. Cos I stopped bunning, weren’t it?

The quantitative data analysis confirms the gradual but rapid nature of the change described above. Within just two generations, a system dominated by a wide range of tag variants whose occurrence is strictly conditioned by syntactic-semantic factors, as in (1)-(3), is being supplanted by the invariant use of innit, as in (4), via a system of functionally-conditioned variation between variants, including invariant weren’t it. This rapid and large-scale reconfiguration of the system is made possible because innit – due to its reanalysis as a single unit – undergoes both decategorialization and semantic-pragmatic context expansion; it spreads across syntactic-semantic contexts and increases its functional versatility. Based on new cross-dialectal and cross-linguistic evidence, I propose that the emergence and ongoing grammaticalization of innitwere caused by an internal force, namely contact-induced grammatical replication. Multi-ethnic friendship groups and everyday mundane mobilities are enabling factors in the social and special diffusion of innovative innit uses beyond the multi-ethnic London boroughs where these innovations originate.


  • Andersen, Gisle. 2001. Pragmatic Markers and Sociolinguistic Variation: A Relevance-Theoretic Approach to the Language of Adolescents. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  • Cheshire, Jenny & Sue Fox. 2009. Was/were variation: a perspective from London. Language Variation and Change 21(1): 1-38.
  • Childs, Claire. 2017. Variation and change in English negation: a cross-dialectal perspective. Unpublished PhD thesis, Newcastle University, UK.
  • Hoffmann, Sebastian. 2006. Tag questions in Early and Late Modern English: historical description and theoretical implications. Anglistik 17(2): 35-55.
  • Kerswill, Paul, Jenny Cheshire, Sue Fox & Eivind Torgersen. 2007. Linguistic Innovators: The English of Adolescents in London: Full Research Report. ESRC End of Award Report, RES-000-23-0680. Swindon: ESRC.
  • Pichler, Heike. 2013. The Structure of Discourse-Pragmatic Variation. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Tottie, Gunnel & Sebastian Hoffmann. 2009. Tag questions in English: the first century. Journal of English Linguistics 37(2): 130-161.

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