Buffy the very good Vampire Slayer

Sociolinguistics is all about how language is being used around us everyday, and where better to look than TV? Susan Reichelt and Mercedes Durham did just this, investigating how linguistic devices are used in Buffy The Vampire Slayer to strengthen characterisation.  Buffyis an American TV show that ran from 1997-2003 and which currently boasts over three million viewers on Netflix.  It has a huge and dedicated fanbase, some of whom have accurately transcribed every episode online.  Reichelt and Durham used these transcripts to research how the main characters used intensifiers (words like very, really, totally – also called ‘adverbs of degree’) to modify adjectives, as in ‘He’s really silly’ and ‘That’s so cool!’ 

Their research showed that intensifiers are sometimes used to indicate character ‘type’.  For example, the character Cordelia is initially portrayed as a popularity-seeking character who is opposed to Buffy.  She uses an extremely high rate of so, found in previous research to be a new ‘young’ choice of intensifier, and therefore indicating that she is a trendsetter. Cordelia could be regarded as the polar opposite to Willow, Buffy’s best friend, who is a brainy ‘nerd’.  However, as the series progress both characters undergo changes that can be charted through their use of intensifiers.  In the first series, Cordelia uses so much more than Willow, signalling her coolness. However, as the series develop, Willow begins to use so more whilst Cordelia uses it less.  Cordelia also stops using totally, a stereotypical ‘trendy’ intensifier.  These changes reflect changes in their characters, with Willow becoming more confident and assertive and Cordelia more serious as she moves away from the popular girls and closer to Buffy’s group.

                        Different characters, different intensifiers........

The male characters were found to be different to the females in their use of intensifiers.  They use veryas opposed to so, with the English character, Giles, using very the most often, seemingly indicating his Britishness. He also frequently uses quite and this also seems to fit into his stereotypical Britishness:  he dresses in tweed, drinks a lot of tea and often comments on how incomprehensible American culture is to him!  Interestingly, Spike, who is also English, is presented as the opposite: a rebellious punk vampire, who wears leathers and has no manners.  However, a punk is still a British stereotype and sure enough, it is both Giles and Spike who use very, quite and bloody at a significantly higher rate than other characters.

Buffy herself shows no preference in her use of intensifiers, maybe deliberately so on the scriptwriters’ part.  By disassociating her character from the speech patterns of others, like Cordelia, Buffy is marked as ‘different’ and not helpless and ‘air-headed’.  Instead of using a particular intensifier, Buffy seems to be marked as innovative by ‘inventing’ the adjective following it, as in “It’s been a very slay-heavy summer.”

So, it seems that TV shows use linguistic devices creatively for characterisation.  In Buffy, intensifiers are used to mark where a character is from, their gender, their relationships with others and also how their personality develops. 

Wow! Isn’t language so totallyinteresting?

Reichelt, Susan and Mercedes Durham (2017) Adjective intensification as a means of characterization: Portraying in-group membership and Britishness in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Journal of English Linguistics 45(1): 60-87.

DOI: 10.1177/0075424216669747

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Posted on: Thursday, August 10, 2017 - 13:09

Anthony Seldon: Universities should promote the flourishing of students and staff

This week I took the train out to Milton Keynes, then a taxi through the golden fields of Buckinghamshire to the University of Buckingham, where Sir Anthony Seldon recently became vice-chancellor. He was previously headmaster of Wellington School, where he … Continue reading

Posted on: Tuesday, August 1, 2017 - 11:44

Good morning customer, how may I help you?

If you’ve ever gone to get a takeaway drink from Starbucks, you’re probably aware that they like to take your name and write it on the cup. If you’re someone whose name is even vaguely unusual or uncommon, you’re probably also aware of how infuriating it is when the poor barista mangles your name when trying to write it on the side. “Why do they even bother?”, you may have thought in such situations.

Whilst not entirely related to coffee shops, Anna Kristina Hultgren of the Open University looked into the politeness strategies of people working in call centres. Her aim was to compare the best practices with the actual interactions that call centre agents do. In particular, she noted an increasing trend of using vocatives – that exact trait where people constantly call you by your name – and considered how this could be accounted for.

Customer service was originally defined as being a “face-to-face” interaction, which orientated around what the customer desired from it, and the server’s obligation to fulfil the customer’s wishes. As Hultgren notes, the rise of call centres has changed this somewhat, along with what she calls the rationalisation of customer service interactions. This involves them being efficient, predictable, controlled, and calculable. (So yes, when you’re ringing up to query your phone bill and the person on the other end sounds like a robot, it is because they have to follow these four principles.) However, this still needs to be balanced with the fairly basic task of treating the caller like a human being. So how does this work?

                Madam, much as I would LOVE to spend another hour hearing about how your geraniums are doing, can you please just tell me what is wrong with your bill?

Hultgren looked at one particular call centre in Scotland, which specialised in pensions. She looked at the manuals that were provided to agents on training, and then researched the working practices of the call centre. This included on-site observations of the agents at work, a corpus of 79 call centre transactions, and interviews with call agents as well as their managers. Hultgren looked at 21 different rules that applied to the customer service interactions, dividing them into transactional  rules (ones which focused on the call being efficient and saving money) and interactional rules (ones which focused on the customer care element).

Naturally, given the rationalisation of the interactions, Hultgren found that, where the opportunity arose, transactional rules took priority. Of the interactional rules, the ones that were most frequently used were the aforementioned vocatives – giving the customer a “verbal handshake” by asking for their name, and then using it regularly throughout the interaction.

Why is this? Some of the other interactional rules included small talk and personalised greetings. The problem with small talk is the possibility that the agent will lose control of the conversation, and risk being too inefficient. Meanwhile, personalising greetings requires a lot of effort on the part of the agent, which they may not be able to expend when they have targets to meet. However, there is still the requirement to personalise the call, and the easiest way to do this is to use the customer’s name. Therefore, the use of vocatives sticks. 

Hultgren theorises that this shows a new politeness strategy, called rationalised politeness, which has emerged from the economic, social and technological conditions of such interactions. When the overall goal is to make money, and the lack of face-to-face communication constricts the personal aspect of the conversation, there are limited ways for agents to engage with the customers.

It remains to be seen how much further this new form of politeness will spread. But if you're annoyed with Starbucks getting your name wrong every time, consider that you may well have to get used to it – this trend seems to be here to stay.


Hultgren, Anna Kristina  (2017). Vocatives as rationalized politeness: Theoretical insights from emerging norms in call centre service encounters. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 21(1), 90-111.

doi. 10.1111/josl.12224
This summary was written by Marina Merryweather.

Posted on: Monday, July 24, 2017 - 17:34

What UK universities can learn from the US about promoting well-being

  I’ve recently begun a new research focus, looking at well-being in higher education. British universities have started to focus on this issue a lot more, spurred by worrying headlines about an ‘epidemic of mental illness on campus’. But, judging … Continue reading

Posted on: Monday, July 17, 2017 - 11:17

Naughty boys and sexy girls

21st Century = equality, right?  Cathrine Norberg decided to investigate, using the New Model Corpus, a 100 million word corpus of current English drawn from the web, to see if there were any differences in the usage of the words GIRL and BOY.

Norberg started by examining verbs and found that boys are frequently associated with physical activities.  Jump, run and kick for example, were mainly found with BOY. GIRL was principally used with ‘non-movement’ verbs, like sit and wait. Play was strongly linked to BOY, although the thinking verbs, discover and understand were also exclusive to BOY, suggesting they are more curious and mentally active.  

Girls were the objects of verbs far more often than boys. The violent verbs rape, traffick, abduct, assault, attack and steal were all exclusively found with GIRL, whereas the only similar verbs with BOY as the object were beat and drown, suggesting that girls are more frequently represented as victims.  GIRL was much more frequently the object of marry, indicating that the idea of girls being ‘given’ in marriage still persists. GIRL was often used as the object of date, love, and fuck, showing that females are seen as passive objects of male sexuality.
Norberg also analysed adjectives, dividing them into three groups:


In physical appearance, female identity was closely connected to appearance, often with sexual undertones.  Attractive and sexy are more frequent with GIRL and the use of naked suggests that there is a stronger connection between nakedness and sexuality when it is a girl who is without clothes (‘I spot a naked young boy chasing a cow’ vs. ‘...viewing naked girls was a matter of sexual delight’).  Boys were discussed in terms of their physical size, with bigalso used in the sense of importance.  Girls were more often described as littlebut in the sense of sweetness and innocence (‘...that little girl is so cute’). Young was also used more with GIRL, although freshness, in terms of girls’ sexuality, was a more common meaning than age (‘I could...enjoy this younggirl’s body for pleasure…’).  Old was used more with BOY, although rarely with reference to age; more commonly it had the sense of belonging to a ‘club’.  Similar to big, old indicates male importance (‘Study finds corporate old boys have positive impact on governance reform.’)


Inpersonal characteristics, naughty was used for both BOY and GIRL but with a difference, often including sexual aspects for girls (‘Can you make your skirt slit any higher, you naughtygirl?’) and only conduct for boys (‘We’ve got a naughty boy in school.’)  Norberg found a set of adjectives used more with GIRL that diverged from the traditional image of girls as agreeable and passive:  words like tough, crazy and popular. However, once again, many of them alluded to sexuality (‘Edith, a very pretty blonde, was the popular girl, who received lots of valentines.’)


In roles and social identity, Norberg found that boys were associated with activity (delivery boy) whereas girls were associated with sexuality (call girl).  Only GIRL occurred with single and unmarried, indicating that females are more likely to be referred to in terms of their marital status. This also happened with nationality words like Swiss and religious terms like Christian, suggesting that females are seen as ‘others’, becoming Muslim girls, whereas males were just Muslims.

So, our language reveals that we still think in gender specific terms, sometimes to an alarming extent. Definitely not 21st century equality….


Norberg, Cathrine (2016). Naughty boys and sexy girls: The representation of young individuals in a web-based corpus of English. Journal of English Linguistics 44: 291-317.

doi: 10.1177/0075424216665672  


This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle
Posted on: Monday, June 26, 2017 - 23:57

On Positive Psychology and the Positive University

Earlier this year, Anthony Seldon, the new vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, announced he was making Buckingham into the UK’s first ‘positive university’. All students will take a course in Positive Psychology. All tutors will be trained in Positive … Continue reading

Posted on: Wednesday, June 21, 2017 - 10:18

At the Abyss: The Phenomenon of Self-Reflexive Anxiety

Ruth Rebecca Tietjen recently (2017) finished her PhD-thesis in Philosophy of Emotions at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She works on self-reflexive and mood-like phenomena of fear and anxiety, on religious and mystical feelings. She is particularly interested in how … Continue reading

Posted on: Thursday, June 15, 2017 - 13:00

‘Silence that Dreadful Bell!’: Hearing Fear in Shakespeare’s Othello

This week is Fears&Angers week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from our upcoming conference ‘Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ where a group of scholars got to grips with fear and anger. In this … Continue reading

Posted on: Wednesday, June 14, 2017 - 13:00

Requiem for a Bad Dream: Fear of the Night, the Devil and the Nightmare in Early Modern England

This week is Fears&Angers week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from our upcoming conference ‘Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ where an interdisciplinary group of scholars will get to grips with fear and anger. … Continue reading

Posted on: Tuesday, June 13, 2017 - 13:00

What to do about anger? Pragmatism and passionate disagreement

This week is Fears&Angers week on the History of Emotions Blog. We’ll be publishing a series of guest posts arising from our upcoming conference ‘Fears and Angers: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’ where an interdisciplinary group of scholars will get to grips with fear and anger. … Continue reading

Posted on: Monday, June 12, 2017 - 14:30