Every now and then, I’ll run into some colleagues who speak Italian and who, in their inclusive nature, always treat me as another Italian. That red passport and a last name ending in a vowel is enough to be considered part of the group, even if I’m not really Italian. These days, when I start to respond, I listen to the words coming out of my mouth and realize I’m not speaking Italian at all. I’m speaking Portuguese. Which is not the same, not by a long shot.
The key to this is an idea called linguistic co-ordination, in which speakers naturally copy the style of their interlocutors. Human behaviour experts have long studied the way individuals can copy the body language or tone of voice of their peers, some have even studied how this effect reveals the power differences between members of the group. Now Kleinberg and so say the same thing happens with language style. They focus on the way that interlocutors copy each other’s use of certain types of words in sentences. In particular, they look at functional words that provide a grammatical framework for sentences but lack much meaning in themselves (the bold words in this sentence, for example). Functional words fall into categories such as articles, auxiliary verbs, conjunctions, high-frequency adverbs and so on.…