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. Buffy is 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 very as 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 totally interesting?
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.
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle