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date: 27 February 2024

Pop Cultural Linguisticsfree

Pop Cultural Linguisticsfree

  • Valentin WernerValentin WernerUniversity of Bamberg


Pop cultural linguistics represents an emerging research subfield. It can be conceptualized as a specific type of media linguistics concerned with the study of performed language as represented in various pop culture manifestations, such as music, TV series, movies, comics, cartoons, and video games, among others. Pop culture is thus viewed as a broad category that includes artifacts with a commercial, entertainment-related purpose that are (mass-)mediated, fall within the mainstream, and represent largely fictional and scripted content. Linguists working in pop cultural linguistics explicitly take account of the current social and practical relevance of pop culture and the fact that it is largely a multimodal phenomenon with a strong linguistic component and the potential for affective engagement. Pop cultural linguistics possesses inherent relevance for the broader area of cultural studies, which may benefit from quantitative and qualitative approaches used in linguistics to increase the overall validity of findings and to develop a comprehensive picture of pop culture artifacts.

The main object of study in pop cultural linguistics is performed language. While performed language was traditionally sidelined in linguistics due to its alleged “inauthentic” nature, it has gradually been acknowledged as a regular part of everyday language use and thus has been normalized in linguistic study. The increasing availability of resources relevant for pop cultural linguistics, such as language corpora and thematic bibliographies, illustrates the vitality of the field, as does the growing body of research. Research in pop cultural linguistics is methodologically eclectic and commonly adapts approaches and frameworks used in established linguistic subfields, such as sociolinguistics, stylistics, or corpus linguistics. It serves to explore salient topics, such as the linguistic construction of authenticity and identity from a sociolinguistic angle or the representation of politeness from a pragma-stylistic point of view, occasionally also applying a contrastive perspective in terms of performed language vs. natural conversation. Pop cultural linguistics is further characterized by increasing methodological reflection and a growing recognition of the affordances of multimodal analysis, even though these aspects will have to be addressed more explicitly in the future.


  • Applied Linguistics
  • Pragmatics
  • Sociolinguistics

1. Pop Culture and Linguistics

Pop culture (PC) has developed into an omnipresent phenomenon that is, arguably, relevant to all areas of social life. It can be encountered in a broad range of manifestations (pop music, shows, and movies available in cinemas, on TV, and streaming services, online video clips and podcasts, video games, comics, cartoons, memes, and video games, to name but a few) and—voluntarily or involuntarily—affects most people on a daily basis. Traditionally, PC was stigmatized as “low culture” (see, e.g., Adorno, 1941), which also led to a widespread ignorance of the issue in scholarly study. However, this neglect of PC and its trivialization despite its central social relevance, sometimes also referred to as the “pop culture paradox” (Weinstock, 2022, p. xi), has been overcome in several academic fields, such as media studies, literary studies, or cultural studies, but also in less obvious domains, such as philosophy (Gracyk, 2022), sociology (Fiske, 2011), or (evolutionary) behavioral psychology (Fisher & Salmon, 2012; Kubrak, 2020).

In the 21st century, linguists have also acknowledged the social and practical relevance of PC and the obvious fact that it is a multimodal phenomenon with a strong linguistic component and the potential for affective engagement. The present article explores in which respects linguistics, the scientific study of language and its structure, could be among the core disciplines committed to research on PC and its language. It thus (a) reflects upon some reasons why the language of PC has been underrepresented and understudied in linguistics, (b) provides a tentative history of how the study of PC has been normalized in the field, and (c) takes stock of current linguistic engagement with PC. The overall account presented is that of pop cultural linguistics (PCL) as an expanding subfield that is taken increasingly seriously (see also Pennycook, 2006).1 Simultaneously, it will also become evident that PCL is neither a consistent approach nor a unified school of thought. It rather benefits from methodological eclecticism as well as openness toward neighboring and genuinely interdisciplinary fields, such as multimodal studies, film studies, intermedial studies, leisure studies, and, notably, cultural studies.

The article at hand first presents definitions of PC and several key concepts to delineate the research focus of PCL. After a brief review of the history of the fate of PC in linguistics, it offers an outline of “performed language” as the central object of study, and a selective overview of relevant artifacts, approaches, and research. The final section contains considerations on desiderata and potential future developments.

As a general caveat, it has to be conceded that the vast majority of linguistic engagement with PC focuses on English. This has to do with the fact that for sociohistorical reasons English (and American English in particular; see Crothers, 2021) is commonly viewed as the language of PC (Werner, 2018a). Therefore, many of the perspectives developed and research discussed derive from English linguistics. However, this does not preclude an extension or adaptation of relevant observations to other language contexts.

2. Pop Culture: Definition and Key Concepts

Even though some observers have highlighted the elusive nature of pop culture (PC) and have even called it an “empty conceptual category” (Storey, 2021, p. 1), there have been several attempts to define it, mainly in cultural studies.2 Weinstock, for instance, conceptualizes PC as

social practices and activities in which people can engage without significant training, education, or cost. Typically associated with youth culture and quick to morph or fade, pop culture practices and activities are often construed as forms of leisure that allow for personal expression, afford pleasure, and create community. Such practices and activities often ignore or display an irreverence toward tradition, established standards for ‘quality’ and ‘good taste,’ age appropriateness, and those who seek to enforce these things.

An alternative perspective relates to the fact that PC has often been defined as an (inferior) residual category versus what is referred to as “high culture” (see, e.g., Merskin, 2008; Storey, 2021). This deficiency view (PC = “not art”; see McKee, 2022, p. 27), characterized by its binary nature and a cultural pessimist stance, seems to have largely been overcome, however. This is also due to the increasingly fuzzy boundaries between “high” and “low” culture and a concomitant recognition of the plurality of “taste cultures” (Mukerji & Schudson, 1986, pp. 56–57), referring to the fact that all people are subject to individualized sociocultural experience.

While Weinstock’s (2022) definition is extensive, what is missing is the “popularity” aspect of PC in the sense of global(ized) mass appeal, mass distribution, and mass consumption as a central property of relevant artifacts (see Crothers, 2021; Storey, 2021). It has been claimed that the academic study of PC revolves around commercial entertainment products as a “coherent object of study” (McKee, 2022, p. 25), with linguistics apparently following this trend (see Sections 3 and 4). On a related note, it has been argued that “texts (televisual fiction, pop songs, novels, feature films, etc.) always present a particular image of the world” (Storey, 2021, p. 3), so that PC has the potential to foster a particular worldview and therefore may fulfill an ideological function (Weinstock, 2022).3 Thus, aspects relating to commercialization and serialized production as well as to ideological stance may play an important part in PC analyses (see Section 5.2.1).

Some complementary observations that may have a bearing on linguistic engagement with PC are, first, that some analysts disagree with the view that PC is ephemeral. This applies in the sense that there are many inherent aspects of PC that are “invariant to time and place precisely because they are indicative of our evolved human nature” (Saad, 2012, p. 109), emphasizing the social impact of PC once again. Second, from a sociological perspective, PC texts have been associated with enjoyment (Fincham, 2017), but also with “cycles of sameness, endless variation within self-replication,” resulting in “variable repetition” (Blythe & Hassenzahl, 2018, p. 384) and the presence of established formulae, which may be traceable linguistically.4

As already indicated in Section 1 and the preceding passages, PC can be viewed as a multimodal phenomenon with a strong linguistic/textual component, given that “language, in its supreme basicness, forms the representational backdrop of other cultural products, such as literature, film, TV, gaming, [and] social media” (Levisen & Fernández, 2021, p. 2; see also Mukerji & Schudson, 1986). This establishes the core relevance of linguistics for the study of PC and simultaneously points to the importance of PC for linguistics. The meaning-making potential of relevant material is sketched in (yet another) definition of PC as a “broad range of texts that constitute the cultural landscape of a particular time and/or place, as well as the ways in which consumers engage with those texts and thus become producers of new negotiated meanings” (Maudlin & Sandlin, 2015, p. 369). This definition highlights the role of the PC audience not only as passive consumers but also as active agents and suggests that PC artifacts can also be viewed as cultural responses rather than mere mass entertainment products intended for mere passive consumption (see also Storey, 2021).

From a cultural studies perspective, Weinstock (2022) synthesizes five PC “pivot points” from the extant literature on PC (see Figure 1); that is, overarching and possibly interconnected themes that are repeatedly addressed and to which individual studies can be related.

Figure 1. PC pivot points (based on Weinstock, 2022); image published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License in the accompanying OSF project.

The concepts presented in Figure 1 may be viewed as broader key areas featuring in studies of PC and, as they rely on linguistic realizations, they indeed have served as helpful starting points for linguistic engagement with PC, as will be further illustrated through referring to relevant studies in the subsequent list (and in more detail in Section 5.2):

Authenticity is viewed as a central framework for Western individualism and relates to the sincere expression of emotion and “commitment” to the audience; in the context of PC, this pertains to the “performance of an authentic identity” (Weinstock, 2022, p. 90), of which language is naturally an important part. Relevant studies here are Walshe (2009) or Clarke and Hiscock (2009), for instance.5

Convergence culture refers to the adaptation of content and characters across various (mass)media as a central feature of PC, an aspect around which intermedial studies revolve as an independent discipline (Bruhn & Schirrmacher, 2022). Representative linguistic studies addressing such concerns are Zecca (2017) and Montoro (2023).

Intertextuality, which is strongly connected to convergence culture, includes the practices of sampling, parody, remakes, and adaptations, among others. These feature prominently in PC and have also been studied from a linguistic angle, for example in Zago (2016). Such approaches may involve a diachronic perspective on the data. Note that intertextuality in linguistics is commonly conceptualized more broadly and includes the study of shared genre and register features (Al-Surmi, 2012; Quaglio, 2009) and intertextual references for community building (Bednarek, 2015).

The area structures of feeling, that is, “shared generational experiences and common values [that] shape subjective experiences” (Weinstock, 2022, p. 100), is arguably harder to trace but directly relates to the topic area of emotional language and how PC artifacts create emotional engagement, as addressed by Kozinski (2011), Langlotz (2017), or Schubert (2023), for instance.

Analyses of PC regularly consider the practices and products of a specific subculture, defined as “a group that differentiates itself within the broader culture by having a set of beliefs and/or practices that are to some extent at variance with prevailing norms or beliefs” (Weinstock, 2022, p. 104). It has been shown that a subversive stance can also be expressed linguistically, as exemplified in Alim (2006) or Werner (2019), and that authentic performance is a prerequisite to establish a subcultural identity.

Interestingly, addressing these broader concerns thus constitutes a shared aim of both linguistics and cultural studies at large; namely, to engage in textual analysis of objects and practices (and beliefs) to determine how social realities are represented and shaped in discourse.

Indeed, this seems to constitute what Mukerji and Schudson have labeled a “new convergence” (Mukerji & Schudson, 1986, p. 48) between research traditions, as all of the above topics have been addressed in pop cultural linguistics (PCL) in one way or another. However, as will be shown in Section 5.2, there are additional approaches in PCL that go beyond the PC pivot points, which illustrates the benefits of applying instruments and methodologies that appear to be specifically apt for the study of the language of PC. On a related note, Bednarek has sketched the importance of linguistics as a “discipline that focuses on language . . . uniquely situated to complement other disciplines, which tend to act more intuitively in response to communication” (Bednarek, 2018a, p. 261; see also Werner & Schubert, 2023). Cultural studies may thus benefit from empirical approaches (both quantitative and qualitative) that are commonly used in linguistics. In addition, linguistic analysis not only addresses objects and products, but broadens the perspective to include (discourses related to) circumstances of production, channels of distribution, and aspects related to the reception of pop cultural texts (Bednarek, 2018a; Trotta, 2018). This may serve to increase the overall validity of findings, develop a more comprehensive picture of the artifacts studied than that which results when solely relying on approaches to content analysis that originated in cultural studies, and thus help to alleviate criticism of the “non-scientific” nature of the study of PC in the sense of mere “temporally or culturally bound analyses” (Saad, 2012, p. 115).

3. A Brief History of Pop Culture in Linguistics

As noted in Section 1, linguistics can be considered a latecomer to the study of pop culture (PC). This can be inferred from the fact that until lately, linguistic work on the language of PC was mostly published in the form of individual case studies that were found across various journals and edited volumes with a non-PC-specific focus.

Figure 2. A schematic historical view of textual concerns in linguistics; image published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License in the accompanying OSF project.

As discussed in Werner and Schubert (2023), potential reasons for this situation may lie in the philological roots of linguistics as a discipline. Figure 2 offers a coarse schematic overview of the primary textual concerns throughout the history of linguistics as a discipline. Traditionally, linguistics has engaged in the analysis of “serious” written registers, such as literary and academic writing and press texts. With the advent of modern structural linguistics, and in particular with the growing importance of sociolinguistics, the focus shifted to speech and especially “real” language, that is, natural conversational speech. This type of language was identified as the locus of language variation and change and was distinguished from “artificial,” that is, scripted performed language as represented in PC (Queen, 2018; Werner, 2021a; see also Bauman, 2011; Dynel, 2011; Locher & Jucker, 2017; Trotta, 2010; see further Section 4). In addition, the reluctance to linguistically engage with PC texts was possibly supported by a latent aesthetic stigmatization and perceived lack of quality (“low culture”; see Sections 1 and 2), by the fact that PC constitutes a subject area that is difficult to define (Werner, 2018a; see Section 2), and by unrelenting doubts on the part of some scholars about the effects of performed language on language change (as discussed in a dedicated issue of the Journal of Sociolinguistics, for instance).

However, in modern (socio)linguistics, there has been a (re-)appreciation of studying writing (e.g., Lillis & McKinney, 2013) as well as unscripted media material, which eventually led to an increasing normalization of the linguistic study of all kinds of media artifacts, as “media of different sorts—‘old’ and ‘new,’ and the mediatized world of language in general—cannot be hived off from the ‘everyday language’ that early sociolinguistics took to be its object of study” (Coupland, 2016, p. 446; see also Androutsopoulos, 2016; Pennycook, 2006). The connection to PC as a phenomenon relying on mass mediatization is obvious (see also Queen, 2015), so the question arises of whether this recent turn toward studying media language (see Figure 2) also implies a linguistic turn toward PC.

Observers such as Bednarek have recognized “the potential for such a turn and the benefits that might be gained from it” (Bednarek, 2018a, p. 255) but are cautious about whether it has fully materialized yet. In the meantime, however, evidence has grown that supports the notion of pop cultural linguistics (PCL) developing into a “thing” (Trotta, 2018), that is, a worthwhile research endeavor and thus an inherent part of linguistic study at large. Above all, as will be further exemplified in Section 5.2, the body of publications dedicated to PC has vastly expanded in the form of individual papers and chapters and book-length monographs, as well as edited volumes and journal special issues. Further Second, several PhD projects within the scope of PCL have successfully been completed (e.g., Bubel, 2006; Gibson, 2019; Reichelt, 2018), and final student theses with a PCL concern have become a common feature of academic practice (Trotta, 2021). In addition, international conferences and workshops have become a regular element of the linguistic event calendar, and dedicated linguistic sessions are part of conferences organized by professional bodies with a cultural studies background, such as the Popular Culture Association or the Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association.

Importantly, while PC materials have suffered from exclusion from (or at least not principled inclusion in) reference corpora, several resources have become publicly available. These include databases such as Dialects in Audiovisuals as well as corpora of song lyrics, such as the Songkorpus, and of telecinematic language, such as the TV Corpus, the Movie Corpus, or the Sydney Corpus of Television Dialogue. Such resources allow the study of PC discourse and performed language (see Section 4) at large and thus enable researchers to go beyond investigating usages in individual PC “classics,” such as the TV series Friends (Heyd, 2010; Quaglio, 2009; Tagliamonte & Roberts, 2005). Notably, the TV Corpus and the Movie Corpus have been integrated into the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which thus can be credited for representing the first major reference corpus to explicitly include PC material. However, providing freely accessible data in a format that does not violate copyright restrictions seems to constitute a persistent issue for corpus compilers. Finally, the availability of sizable thematic bibliographies (such as Bednarek & Zago, 2022) can be interpreted as an indicator for the growing interest in PCL among researchers.

4. Performed Language

The concept of performance as a key cultural behavior is strongly rooted in anthropology and can be defined as a “kind of activity that is formally staged or an aspect of everyday life in which a person is oriented to and intends to have some effect on an audience” (Mukerji & Schudson, 1986, p. 50).6 It has been recognized that many acts of performance have a strong linguistic component (Bauman, 2011; Berger, 2003), which makes them relevant for linguistic analysis in the first place, and that scripted fictional media (as in PC) in particular (though by no means exclusively) fulfill the properties of a performance (Queen, 2018). Thus, the treatment of the term “performed language” in the literature (e.g., Bell & Gibson, 2011; Dynel, 2011; Queen, 2018) suggests that it is often used synonymously with scripted fictional language.7 As performed language is the object of PCL, several of its characteristics are discussed in the following passages (based on Werner, 2021a) with a special view to the radically different production circumstances of performed language vs. informal conversation (see also Section 3) and the related issues of synchronicity and authenticity of communication.

Unlike conversation, performed texts represent a form of one-way communication with an unknown, potentially vast, audience. Performed texts are by default monologic (at least on the extradiegetic level; see further below) and asynchronous as they lack interactivity in terms of back-channeling opportunities on the part of the audience, except for the case of live performances. The latter (e.g., concerts) are exceptional, as in the majority of cases performed PC texts are prerecorded and consumed with the help of technical devices (Bell & Gibson, 2011). This further implies that extensive preplanning and editing is usually involved in the creation of performed texts, which may result in a lack of the typical “on-line” features found in conversation subject to real-time processing constraints (Queen, 2018). Still, performed texts may simulate dialog through linguistic means, and may therefore be associated with informal language usage or the “language of immediacy” (Koch & Oesterreicher, 2012).

On a related note, performed texts have been described as “instances of strategic linguistic design” (Werner, 2021a, p. 561; see also Androutsopoulos, 2007) and have been related to the notion of “secondary orality,” defined as “deliberate and self-conscious orality, based permanently on the use of writing and print” (Ong, 1982, p. 136). Performed texts exemplify secondary orality due to their planned and scripted (“written-to-be-spoken,” “written-to-be-sung,” etc.) nature. The occurrence of secondary orality may result in the creation of secondary (or pseudo-)intimacy between and simulated or staged co-presence of the participants (O’Keeffe, 2006), a finding relevant for gauging the potential of PC texts to affectively engage audiences.

In addition, relevant texts are often created by someone other than the performers themselves, who act as mere “animators” (Goffman, 1979) that vocalize the performance. However, performers may also project a “persona” (Coupland, 2011, p. 580), a character perceived by the audience (which may be congruent with the private person or not) who consciously uses specific linguistic features to styl(iz)e his or her identity. Such actualities may have a strong bearing on contextual factors in sociolinguistic work or register analyses, for instance.

In linguistic terms, the “aesthetic distillate” (Yos, 2001, p. 54; transl.) of performed language thus may emulate informal usages but still has to be more explicit and context-free. At the same time, performed language is reductive, as it is commonly free from, or at least has a reduced number of, “disruptive” elements, including self-correction, false starts, repetitions, and so on (Bublitz, 2017). In addition, it is selective in choosing among a restricted inventory of salient and pervasive linguistic features that are considered indexical of informal spoken or nonstandard usages (Bell & Gibson, 2011; Quaglio, 2009). A rationale behind this is that producers of PC artifacts employ such devices for the characterization of figures, as is also common in literary language, for example (Mair, 1992). However, they always have to design performed language in a way that strikes a balance between realism and comprehensibility from the perspective of the audience (Bednarek, 2010; Hodson, 2014; Queen, 2015).

The strategic use of linguistic features as described in the foregoing paragraphs results in performed texts having an inherently different quality when contrasted with conversation and other text types. Some observers have thus claimed the existence of a “performance filter” (Werner, 2021a, p. 568; see also Alvarez-Pereyre, 2011) from a process-oriented view. This means that the eventual linguistic outcome is strongly determined by production (planning and editing) and reception (asynchronicity) circumstances, which are markedly different to those of informal conversation, for example, and that performed texts constitute (written-spoken) hybrids that may require the adaptation both of approaches used for their study and of communicative models that attempt to conceptualize textual variation in different modes (Werner, 2021a).

Scripted fictional content, and this applies both to performed language and to literary language, for instance, is commonly characterized by the presence of multiple communicative layers, at least an extradiegetic and an intradiegetic one.8 Extradiegetic communication is usually public and happens between a sender and a receiver (an unknown, and possibly nearly infinite, audience). Simultaneously, intradiegetic communication is simulated within the confines of the textual world and may potentially illustrate a private communicative situation (Werner, 2021a). The study of PC artifacts can thus be used to obtain a view of creative and selfconscious language use in (mass-)mediated form in its own right (Bell & Gibson, 2011). More specifically, what renders such material interesting from a broader perspective is (a) that it may have the potential to discursively stimulate emotional experiences as an omnipresent social phenomenon (Langlotz, 2017), and (b) that it “purport[s] to be (as well as to represent) reality” (Coupland, 2016, p. 445), which also motivates direct comparisons between performed and unscripted texts (see, e.g., Bednarek, 2018b; Jucker, 2021 for telecinematic language; Werner, 2021b for lyrics). In this regard, parasocial interaction (see, e.g., Cohen, 2009; Horton & Wohl, 1957), that is, an illusory experience on part of the media audience of a face-to-face relationship with a media persona (e.g., a character in a TV series), is relevant as a wider sociocultural phenomenon related to the potential of PC for affective engagement (see also the notion of pseudo-intimacy introduced above). Such parasocial interaction may even develop into a parasocial relationship, involving illusions of loyalty, friendship, and intimacy (as well as breakups) with the fictional persona. While these notions have explicitly been addressed in psychology as well as media and communication studies (e.g., Goode & Robinson, 2013), dedicated linguistic research, which could investigate linguistic accommodation between audience members and PC personas for instance, is scarce (but see Beers Fägersten, 2017; Queen, 2015).

5. The Scope of Pop Cultural Linguistics

As shown in Section 3, pop cultural linguistics (PCL) has a relatively short history. To flesh out the current dynamicity of PCL, the following sections will list the main types of pop culture (PC) artifacts studied and exemplify the scope of associated research. It is evident that such an overview is by necessity selective and that some of the studies presented could be categorized under multiple labels, which illustrates the genuinely interdisciplinary nature of many PCL activities.

5.1 Artifacts

The range of artifacts to be considered as constituting PC is vast and potentially open-ended. However, there are a few manifestations that have featured more prominently in PCL than others.

Figure 3. Artifacts studied in PCL; image published under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License in the accompanying OSF project.

As shown in Figure 3, music, TV series, and movies (including streamed TV and movies) are commonly viewed as “default” PC artifacts (Crothers, 2021; Saad, 2012; Storey, 2010; Weinstock, 2022), and the language of lyrics and telecinematic language have also been core concerns in PCL.9 Less central categories include the language as represented in pop literature (e.g., Gregoriou, 2023; Trotta, 2020), comics and cartoons (e.g., Bramlett, 2018; Walshe, 2018), video games (e.g., Domsch, 2017; Ensslin & Balteiro, 2019; Stamenković et al., 2017), as well as fan fiction and fan discourse (e.g., Cutler, 2018). While social media discourse (and occasionally also gaming discourse) is at times viewed as a phenomenon that should be treated separately (see, e.g., Seargeant & Tagg, 2014), it can be related to PC as it shares many central characteristics with the other manifestations (see Section 2). To a lesser degree, this also applies to specialized discourse, such as the language of sports (e.g., Callies & Levin, 2019), fashion (e.g., Peirson-Smith & Hancock, 2018), or advertising (e.g., O’Sullivan, 2020), which certainly have a commercial nature and represent mass-mediated and largely scripted texts but arguably only have partly overlapping communicative concerns with the more central categories. Therefore, they are located at the fringes of Figure 3.

5.2 Approaches Toward Pop Cultural Texts

There are various strands of linguistic research that have featured PCL research. The following overview will selectively present approaches and research themes used, focusing on three highly prolific strands. While the categorization along subdisciplines will complement overviews such as Werner (2018a) and will serve to illustrate both the breadth and dynamicity of PCL, there are also publications that focus on one particular artist, artifact type, or genre (e.g., Chepinchikj, 2022 on Woody Allen; Beers Fägersten, 2016; Kozloff, 2000; Piazza et al., 2011 on telecinematic language; West, 2019 on lyrics; Bramlett, 2012 on comics; or Rüdiger & Lange, forthcoming on science fiction). Further, there are books that look at the language of PC more globally (e.g., Queen, 2015; Werner, 2018b), as well as interdisciplinary volumes that contain articles with a genuine linguistic focus (e.g., Berger & Carroll, 2003; Gregori-Signes et al., 2021). Areas that will not be addressed explicitly are representations of historical stages of languages and constructed languages in PC (Knappe, 2022; Porck, 2015; Sperling, 2022; Traxel, 2019) and the domain of applied linguistics, which comprises the use of PC in language education (Werner & Tegge, 2021; Werner, 2022) as well as issues such as dubbing and translation of PC artifacts (Franzon et al., 2021; Pavesi, 2022; Ranzato & Zanotti, 2019).

5.2.1 Pop Culture and Sociolinguistics

The connection between PC and sociolinguistics is established by virtue of the fact that “the majority of fictional tales are representations of our social world and, as such, cannot only be used to inform, but also to influence the behavior of other people” (Fisher & Salmon, 2012, p. 105). As already shown in Sections 3 and 4, the linguistic study of PC has strong roots in the “sociolinguistics-of-performance” approach (Bell & Gibson, 2011), overcoming the near-exclusive focus on “real” (i.e., unplanned, natural, spontaneous) language. Within this framework, researchers have argued that the linguistic construction of identity is highly salient in performed language, and that performed language possesses “socially transformative potential” (Coupland, 2011, p. 582) in terms of determining knowledge, opinions, and values. Analyses associated with the sociolinguistics-of-performance paradigm have tended to focus on sociophonetic features. A classic study in this respect is Trudgill (1983), who diagnosed “acts of conflicting identity” caused by different sociocultural forces in terms of British artists, such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, who used a hybrid accent with features both from British and American English. Trudgill’s influential work inspired numerous follow-up studies (Beal, 2009; Gibson & Bell, 2012; Gerwin, 2017; Jansen, 2022; Konert-Panek, 2017; O’Hanlon, 2006; Morrissey, 2008; Simpson, 1999) that expanded and refined his results and found an area of conflict between “Americanness” as an indexical of mainstream PC and vernacular usage as an indexical of (local) authenticity.

Other core sociolinguistic concerns that have been addressed from a PCL vantage point, broadening the scope to a “sociolinguistics of fiction” (Stamou, 2018), include (a) style, stylization, and style shifting, alongside specific approaches such as audience and referee design (e.g., Flanagan, 2019; Richardson, 2010; Squires, 2019; Werner, 2019); (b) the representation of dialects and nonstandard varieties and issues related to indexicality, identity, and enregisterment, as well as linguistic stereotyping, language ideologies, and identity performance (e.g., Alim, 2006; Bednarek, 2020; Cutler, 2014; Eberhardt & Freeman, 2015; Hodson, 2014; Jansen & Westphal, 2017; Lippi-Green, 2012; Pennycook, 2010; Walshe, 2009, 2018); (c) raciolinguistics and gender issues (e.g., Cutler, 2023; Lopez & Bucholtz, 2017); (d) social networks and speech communities, including specific concerns such as code-switching, multilingualism, and super-diversity (e.g., Reichelt, 2023; Reichelt & Durham, 2017; Sarkar & Low, 2012); and (e) diachronic sociolinguistic change from an ex post perspective (e.g., Boberg, 2021; Heyd, 2010; Stratton, 2018; Tagliamonte & Roberts, 2005). In addition, there is a special strand of studies that take account of the dual role of English as the language of PC (see Section 1) and as the postcolonial world language, and thus connects its research to the World Englishes paradigm (e.g., Lee, 2011; Moody, 2020; Westphal & Jansen, 2021), where sociolinguistic concerns naturally also play a significant part.

5.2.2 Pop Culture and Stylistics

Another important subdiscipline engaging with PC is stylistics. As outlined in Werner and Schubert (2023), tools used in stylistics may be particularly apt for the study of the performed language of PC as (a) the fictional character of many PC genres corresponds with the (original) focus of stylistics on literary discourse; (b) the diversity of approaches and methods in stylistics is suitable for the heterogeneous genres subsumable under the label PC; (c) they offer the opportunity to identify distinctive stylistic features that contribute to the mass appeal of PC texts (and individual subgenres) and characterize PC discourse at large, possibly in contrast to “high-status” works of fiction (but see Section 2); and (d) as the stylistic principle of foregrounding, especially in the form of deviation, may fulfill important entertainment-related functions in PC, such as creating humor through incongruency or suspense by way of deviant verbal behavior.

Werner and Schubert (2023) identify four main strands of stylistics that have been fruitful for the analysis of PC texts.10 Pragmatic stylistics focuses on the discourse situation and on participation frameworks and roles of interlocutors (relevance, speech acts, im/politeness, communicative cooperation, implicature, and conversation management). Relevant studies have addressed topics such as creative linguistic impoliteness (Bousfield & McIntyre, 2018) and the creation of suspense in movie dialog (Schubert, 2023), as well as the creation of humor and the representation of friendship and gender in TV series (Bubel, 2006; Bubel & Spitz, 2006), for instance (see also Locher & Jucker, 2017). Second, cognitive stylistics is interested in mental processes in the production and reception of fictional texts, such as conceptual metaphors and blending, prototype theory, reader response, text worlds, and the role of knowledge representations and of inferencing during text comprehension. This strand is represented by studies on production and reception processes in specific genres of pop literature (Montoro, 2013), as well as on the linguistic construction of the “antihero” in TV series (Schubert, 2017), and of counterfactual scenarios in musical-comedy films (Lambrou, 2019). Third, corpus stylistics (see also Section 5.2.3) is a potentially wide field that exploits the affordances of corpus software to determine frequencies of salient stylistic features and to identify concordances, as well as to produce various statistics, dealing with concepts such as keywords (words that occurs in a text more often than expected by chance), collocations (series of words that occur in a text more often than would be expected by chance), or semantic prosody (the way in which specific words carry positive or negative associations through frequent co-occurrence with particular collocations). Pertinent work has examined, for instance, lexico-grammatical style markers of lyrics (Werner 2012, 2021b) and functions and salient features of TV dialog (Bednarek, 2018b), as well as more specific aspects such as catchphrases and swear- and taboo-word usage in US TV series (Bednarek, 2021; Beers Fägersten & Bednarek, 2022) or longitudinal stylistic development in pop and rap artists (Hilbert, 2012; Werner, 2023). Corpus-stylistic approaches to characterization are also particularly common (Bednarek, 2010, in press), often drawing on keyword analysis of character corpora. A fourth, emerging strand of stylistics is multimodal stylistics, which explicitly takes into account the interplay between verbal text, (moving) images, and sounds, and thus focuses on cross-media adaptations and nonverbal communication in telecinematic and online discourses, for instance. Relevant work on multimodal aspects of films, television, advertising, and music videos has been published in a landmark volume by Djonov and Zjao (2014), while multimodal comics research (Dunst et al., 2018) as well as investigations of the interaction between lyrics and music (Morini, 2013; several contributions in West, 2019) and of telecinematic language and cinematographic techniques have also been conducted (Gentile, 2021; several contributions in Hoffmann & Kirner-Ludwig, 2020).

5.2.3 Pop Culture and Corpus Linguistics

A general methodology that has repeatedly been employed to analyze performed language is corpus linguistics. In addition to corpus-stylistic and corpus-based sociolinguistic studies (see Sections 5.2.1 and 5.2.2), it has specifically been applied within the frameworks of (critical) discourse and register analysis. As to the former, issues such as the linguistic representation of gender roles (Kreyer, 2015) and of social hierarchies in lyrics (Longhurst & Bogdanović, 2014) have been addressed, while such analyses have also been fruitfully combined with multimodal and sociolinguistic (Helland, 2018) as well as cognitive approaches (Jamet, 2011). As to register analysis, which can alternatively be related to the domain of corpus-based stylistics (see Section 5.2.2), there are case studies on pop, rap, and Eurovision Song Contest lyrics (Kreyer, 2016; Motschenbacher, 2016); studies that have compared movie/TV discourse to natural conversation (Bednarek, 2018b; Levshina, 2017; see also Zago, 2021); and those that have provided contrastive analyses of related types of discourse such as movie vs. TV discourse (Werner, 2021c), as well as studies that have explicitly applied multidimensional analysis (MDA; Biber, 1988) to telecinematic language (e.g., Al-Surmi, 2012; Berber Sardinha & Veirano Pinto, 2019; Forchini, 2012; Quaglio, 2009) and lyrics (Bértoli-Dutra, 2014; Werner, 2021b). Such studies also have explicitly addressed the production circumstances and other contextual factors that are salient in PC artifacts.

6. A Look Ahead

While the present article provides an overview of the history and the current state of pop cultural linguistics (PCL), there are also a few aspects that are likely to become salient in the future. These comprise potential developments in pop culture (PC) as a highly dynamic field itself, as previously evidenced by the increasing importance of subscription-based streamed TV vs. linear TV interrupted by ad breaks and the potential impact of these respective variants on storytelling. From a content perspective, the rise of “complex TV” (Mittell, 2015) could be mentioned, which led to TV narratives being taken more seriously in academic study, including in PCL.

Concurrently, an extension of the scope of languages treated in PCL is conceivable, going beyond English and taking account of the global impact of phenomena such as K-pop, for instance (see, e.g., Ahn & Kiaer, 2021). In this regard, it would also be desirable to extend the perspective to the global south. Such an extended perspective would include both analyses of artifacts from these regions as well as the involvement of researchers from these parts of the world, who to date are less well represented. In principle, the dominance of American PC could also wane, which will have a decisive impact on PC and PCL.

Further, due to the close relation between PC and (electronic) mass-media distribution, the types of artifacts being studied may change with advancements in technology and with shifts in the ways in which people engage with PC, underlining the issue of whether the analysis of language as used in electronic media should be a genuine part of PCL (see Section 5.1), as it may move between the scripted and unscripted poles (e.g., in social media).

Another methodological concern regards reflections on data types and potential insights drawn from PC data. As PCL can be viewed as a comparatively young endeavor, only a few attempts have been undertaken to develop best practices when it comes to the compilation of relevant corpora (see, e.g., Tegge & Parry, 2020 on text segmentation of lyrics; Bednarek, 2015 or Veirano Pinto, 2018 on using subtitles, scripts, or transcripts as sources for studying telecinematic language), for instance.11 The contiguity between “real” everyday language and fictional language has already repeatedly been recognized from the perspective of literary linguistics (Amador-Moreno & Terrazas-Calero, 2022; Mair, 1992). This applies equally to the language of PC, so that arguably the same approaches used for the study of everyday language can be taken or adapted to the study of the performed (fictional, scripted, mediatized) language of PC. However, it is evident that there is a cline between more realistic (e.g., TV series) and more poetic/stylized PC artifacts (e.g., lyrics), so individual contextual factors always have to be taken into account and it is important to emphasize that “one of the primary considerations for working with performed media language concerns thinking carefully about how to frame the questions that can be answered with such data, given the various constraints that performed media present” (Queen, 2018, p. 219). At the same time, PCL can be credited for having challenged some seemingly axiomatic views in linguistics (e.g., what constitutes “authentic” language usage) and for having broadened the horizon of the discipline at large (e.g., through contributing to a differentiated discussion of concepts such as performance).

As noted in Section 5.2.2 and discussed in Werner (2018a), the issue of multimodality appears to be becoming increasingly relevant. Even though PC artifacts have a strong linguistic component, requiring an informed linguistic description, they are often genuinely multimodal (e.g., verbal–visual, verbal–musical), an aspect that should not be ignored if one wants to acknowledge their full semiotic potential. Additionally, this may pave the way for cross-fertilization with neighboring disciplines, such as intermedial studies or film studies, for instance.



  • 1. Occasionally, PCL is also conceptualized as a strand of media linguistics that specifically engages with fictional/imaginative media (vs. informational/news media). While it is certainly helpful to retain this distinction, news media have also been assessed as a part of PC (see, e.g., Danesi, 2015; Storey, 2010, ch. 5). Further, PCL is not to be confused with “popular science” approaches to linguistics, that is, a presentation (and interpretation) of linguistic research results intended for a general audience, as represented by publications such as Babel: The Language Magazine, for instance. Interestingly, articles with a PC concern (see, e.g., Moore, 2014 on the language of female rappers) are highly popular in such outlets. Note also that the present article does not follow a reductive conceptualization of “pop language” as mere spelling variants (2Pac, gangsta, etc.) or lexical items and catchphrases that have found their way from uses in PC into general usage (cf. Danesi, 2015, ch. 10).

  • 2. For comprehensive overviews from a cultural studies perspective that also include discussions of additional approaches toward defining PC (e.g., Marxist and postmodern conceptualizations or PC versus “folk culture”), see Storey (2021, ch. 1) or Weinstock (2022, ch. 1). McKee (2022) offers an overview of conceptualizations of PC in academia and in vernacular usage. He also discusses the terminological difference between PC and “popular culture.” While many publications use both terms interchangeably, to avoid potential confusion, others prefer to differentiate between “popular culture” as an equivalent of “folk culture” and PC as (fictional, scripted, preplanned) objects and practices with an entertainment/recreational function designed to appeal to a global mass audience (see, e.g., Merskin, 2008; Werner & Schubert, 2023).

  • 3. Text here is conceptualized in a broad sense, including the spoken, written, and electronic mode.

  • 4. For an interdisciplinary approach toward repetition as a formal property of pop music, for instance, see the contributions in Julien and Leveaux (2018).

  • 5. Authenticity is, apparently, a broad concept that can be defined in various ways.

  • 6. Obviously, “performance” here is not used in the Chomskyan sense, that is, as an opposite to “competence” of an ideal(ized) speaker-listener.

  • 7. A general question that arises is whether user-generated artifacts (such as memes or social media content) that are not necessarily fictional or scripted (see also Section 5.1 and note 8), but could be considered to represent performed language, should be part of PCL. This illustrates the scalar nature of the notion of PC (see Trotta, 2018 for further discussion).

  • 8. Karpenko-Seccombe (2023) illustrates that additional layers of communication may arise in specific PC formats such as televised reality romance shows, which exemplify fictional discourse that is not scripted as a case in point (see also Landert, 2021, on improvised theater, an instance of nonscripted fictional discourse that is not mediated). In general, PC may also blur the boundaries between different layers of communication through being consciously disseminated on multiple media channels, as explicitly addressed in transmedial studies (see, e.g., Schiller, 2018).

  • 9. Notably, the only PC artifact that regularly receives an explicit “pop” label is that of pop music, while designations such as “pop film” are less common (McKee, 2022).

  • 10. A potential fifth strand is socio-stylistics. However, relevant work is subsumed in Section 5.2.1.

  • 11. There are efforts on how to process PC data in the domains of computational linguistics (e.g., Brett & Pinna, 2019) and the digital humanities (e.g., Hołobut & Rybicki, 2020).