The Ohio State University
OSU Linguistics

Listener perceptions of sociolinguistic variables: The case of (ING)

Informal summary

2005 PhD thesis, Stanford university.
Kathryn Campbell-Kibler

My dissertation explores how the English variable (ING) changes how we are perceived. When you say "I'm working on it" or "I'm workin' on it", what information are you giving to other people about who you are? What are you telling them about what you think of them? Or about the situation you're in? How is that different for different people? Does it matter if you're a man or woman, where you're from or what accent you have?

This page describes my project and the results in very general terms. You can also download the dissertation as a whole in one large PDF file, or look at the table of contents to download PDF files of the individual chapters.

I interviewed eight people, two men and two women each from the South and from the West Coast. From the recording of each interview, I took four excerpts, short stretches where the person used a few examples of (ING). Today's computer software allowed me to "cut-and-paste" them, making pairs that were exactly the same except for (ING):

"You know, we spend a lot of time in the mountains hiking, camping and whatnot."

"You know, we spend a lot of time in the mountains hikin', campin' and whatnot."

First, I played the recordings for small groups of people and asked them to talk to me about how the people sounded and how that changed based on (ING). Then, I made a survey to collect more information that I could analyze statistically.

What I found out was that the way we get social information from speech is really complicated! Using many different recordings and speakers helped me learn about how the influence of (ING) was different depending on who was talking and what they said. Some things that turned up were not too surprising:

  • The listeners thought the people sounded more educated when they said -ing.
  • They also thought people sounded articulate more often with -ing.

    Most of the rest of the results were not as simple as that:

  • Sometimes, changing (ING) changed the way two responses related to each other. In general speakers were rated as more casual if they were also described as working class, but this relationship was much stronger if the speaker said -in instead of -ing.
  • (ING) meant different things depending on who was talking. It made Southern accents sounds stronger if they were already there, but didn't make other people sound more Southern.
  • It also meant different things depending on who was listening. People who liked one of the speakers were more likely to interpret her saying -in as being compassionate, while those who didn't like her heard it as condescending.

    The exciting part of this project is that it shows us how much different aspects of speaking and listening influence each other. Special ways of pronouncing things change how we sound, but their influence is different depending on who we are and who and we are talking to. This suggests that people interacting with each other use the idea of personal style to help them interpret the people around them.