Linguistic Accommodation: Accommodation Theory

A speakerís attitude towards another speaker in conversation can influence the way (s)he talks. A social psychological approach to language variation, Accommodation Theory Ė more precisely Speech Accommodation Theory (SAT) Ė has been developed by the British language psychologist Howard Giles and others since the early 1970s. They aim at providing an explanation why speakers accommodate Ė i.e. change the manner in which they speak - in face-to-face interaction.

The two key concepts of SAT are convergence and divergence. These are two linguistic strategies which are applied by interlocutors; they denote the general directions in which accommodation can take place in a speech situation. Depending on the attitude that speakers show towards each other, their language varieties and the shared social context, accommodation can take the form of either convergence or divergence. While convergence constitutes a linguistic, i.e. accommodative, process in which a speaker modifies his/her own speech to resemble more closely the addressee's speech, divergence refers to a process in which a speaker linguistically moves in the opposite direction in order to make his/her speech sound more unlike that of the person (s)he is talking to.

Within SAT, convergent and divergent speech behaviour have been explained on the basis of speakersí underlying psychological motivations which are connected to their use of language. That is, by convergent accommodative acts speakers can linguistically signal social solidarity and similarity. This behaviour expresses their conscious or unconscious desire for social approval or attraction and integration. Conversely, by means of divergent communicative acts, speakers can articulate and emphasize their social difference and distance from and disapproval of the addressee and his/her communicative behaviour. The application of divergence strategies shows an individualís identity (e.g. socio-economic, religious, cultural) in contrast to that of another individual. For example, ethnic minorities can signal their social distinctiveness by the deliberate use of ethnic markers when they interact with members of ethnic majorities. Linguistic divergence, as expressed in the use of the ethnic variety, thus functions as an identity marker.

Speaker A's evaluation of speaker Bís convergent or divergent speech behaviour and speaker Aís resulting convergence/divergence strategies are dependent on the underlying motives that speaker A attributes to speaker Bís actions in a particular speech situation. As a consequence, both convergence and divergence can be evaluated positively or negatively. In this connection, it was shown that convergence is not automatically viewed positively but that there are optimal levels of convergence.

Different types of convergence and divergence are possible: e.g. upward and downward, uni-modal vs. multi-modal, symmetrical vs. asymmetrical, subjective vs. objective.

Speech Accommodation Theory (SAT) is more recently referred to as Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT). CAT includes a wider range of factors as accommodation can occur at diverse levels such as variation in the use of a wide range of linguistic, prosodic, and non-verbal features such as accent features (pronunciation), intonation, speech rate, pauses, utterance length, smiling or gaze.

Two Examples for Convergence and Divergence