Language in Society


Accommodating the elderly: Invoking and extending a theory1

Nikolas Couplanda1, Justine Couplanda1, Howard Gilesa2 and Karen Henwooda22

a1 Centre for Applied English Language Studies, University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology

a2 Department of Psychology, University of Bristol


The article begins by exploring briefly the role of the elderly in sociolinguistic theory and research. After an outline of the parameters of speech accommodation theory together with a new schematic model, it is argued that speech accommodation theory is a profitable framework for elucidating the sociolinguistic mechanics of, and the social psychological processes underlying, intergenerational encounters. A recent conceptual foray in this direction, which highlights young-to-elderly language strategies, is then overviewed with some illustrations. Contrastive data from a case study are then introduced, a discourse analysis of which allows us to conceptualize various elderly-to-young language strategies. This interpretive analysis suggests important avenues for extending speech accommodation theory itself. A revised, more sociolinguistically elaborated version of this framework is then presented which highlights strategies beyond those of convergence, maintenance, and divergence and leads to the conceptualization of over- and underaccommodation. Finally, and on the basis of the foregoing, a new model of intergenerational communication is proposed and Ryan et al.'s (1986) “communicative predicament” framework duly revised. (Accommodation theory, elderly, overaccommodation, case studies, discourse management, stereotypes, underaccommodation, interdisciplinary)


1 This paper is based on research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC, UK) reference number: G00222002.

2. We are grateful to John Wiemann and Karen Atkinson for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper, which was presented in abridged form at the Minnesota Linguistics Conference on “Linguistic Accommodation and Style-shifting,” September 1986.