Linguistics Colloquium: Roey Gafter

02/06/2020 - 14:00 - 15:30

Roey Gafter, Ben Gurion University

Title: Reconsidering stylistic variation in reading tasks: Evidence from Hebrew

Abstract: One of the core assumptions of the sociolinguistic interview methodology (Labov 1966, 1972) is that careful, read speech tasks may be used to elicit more standard variants from a speaker. This link between reading and standardness, however, is a socially constructed relationship that may differ across cultures. Indeed, in Israel, the tension between notions of standardness and correctness in Hebrew results in a rather different pattern of language use than the typical cline of stylistic variation observed in Anglophone contexts. In Israel, the prescriptively correct variety does not conform to the prestigious speech norms of the social elite, but rather prioritizes faithfulness to earlier attested forms of the language (Myhill 2004). As a result, even highly-educated Hebrew speakers rarely speak “correct” Hebrew (Ravid 1995). Nevertheless, Hebrew speakers are exposed to prescriptively correct Hebrew, as it is the norm in newscaster speech and in certain recitation registers. Thus, among Hebrew speakers, the notions of linguistic standardness, correctness, and formality are not neatly aligned, and have a complex interrelationship (Gafter 2016).

This paper draws on a corpus of sociolinguistic interviews of Hebrew speakers from the greater Tel Aviv area. Speakers’ use of two variables, (ve) and (ha), are contrasted in reading and spontaneous speech contexts. (ve), a clitic meaning ‘and’, is normally realized as [ve] in speech, but prescriptively alternates between several forms in different phonological environments ([ve], [u], [va], and others), none of which are disambiguated via Hebrew orthography. The situation for (ha), meaning ‘the’, is analogous, with the writing system once again providing no explicit cues to the prescriptive variants.

Rather than incrementally increasing their use of prescriptive variants in the reading task, participants show a dichotomous pattern, with use of the prescriptive variants almost exclusively restricted to reading contexts. This categorical use suggests a shift to a specialized reading register that recruits a distinct set of stylistic resources from those of spontaneous speech. In other words, the nature of reading styles in Hebrew cannot be accounted for via greater “attention paid to speech” (Labov 1972), or a gradient rise in standardness, as traditional accounts of stylistic variation would suggest. These findings in Modern Hebrew highlight the nature of reading as a performance and problematize the arrangement of read and spontaneous speech along a one-dimensional stylistic scale. At the same time, this study demonstrates the value of investigating reading styles in their own right, as, in many communities, the reading register forms an integral part of speakers’ stylistic repertoires.

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