Language in Society

Research Article

Language style as audience design*

Allan Bella1

a1 Wellington, New Zealand and Department of Linguistic Science, University of Reading


The style dimension of language variation has not been adequately explained in sociolinguistic theory. Stylistic or intraspeaker variation derives from and mirrors interspeaker variation. Style is essentially speakers' response to their audience. In audience design, speakers accommodate primarily to their addressee. Third persons – auditors and overhearers – affect style to a lesser but regular degree. Audience design also accounts for bilingual or bidialectal code choices. Nonaudience factors like topic and setting derive their effect by association with addressee types. These style shifts are mainly responsive – caused by a situational change. Speakers can also use style as initiative, to redefine the existing situation. Initiative style is primarily referee design: divergence from the addressee and towards an absent reference group. Referee design is especially prevalent in mass communication. (Sociolinguistic variation, code-switching. bilingualism, accommodation theory, ethnography of communication, mass communication)


* Parts of (his paper were presented at the University of Pennsylvania, 1981; Sociolinguistics Symposium. University of Sheffield. 1982; and to a responsive and stimulating audience at the Washington Linguistics Club. 1982. After a preliminary draft (1974), I entitled early versions of this paper “Style – the neglected dimension.” Recent work (e.g.. Hindle 1979: Coupland 1981) has happily reduced that neglect and invalidated the title. I owe special thanks to Ralph Fasold. William Labov. and Peter Trudgill for their specific comments and continued encouragement. Nikolas Coupland. Howard Giles. Dell Hymes, Gillian Sankoff. Deborah Tannen, Walt Wolfram, and Malcah Yaeger made helpful suggestions. None of these bears negative responsibility for what appears here. Thanks to the Center for Applied Linguistics. Washington. D.C.. for its welcome in 1981–82. I am grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for financial support in 1982 and for the hospitality of the Department of Linguistic Science. University of Reading. England, during my year as Leverhulme Visiting Fellow.