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Language of leading TV personalities

Language of leading TV personalities

Standard Lithuanian language norm-setters and officials from institutions controlling public language have for several years bemoaned the fact that spoken media language is falling behind or even degradating. Besides pronunciation and stress shortcomings, occasions when famous television personalities use informal words have been received especially negatively. Nevertheless, despite the criticism they receive, television channel directors continue to appoint people who have on more than one occasion been identified as serious language norm offenders and incompetent for live-to-air work to host their most popular shows. How could this discrepancy between language requirements and realistic use be explained? I would think that this is a matter of ideological conflict between two different approaches towards spoken media. The first is represented by the normative Lithuanian language tradition, where radio and television are considered one of the main means of spreading standard language norms. A special role in implementing this mission is given to program hosts whose language must be correct and exemplary – representative of the benchmark for speaking in public. The other approach comes from sociolinguistic research of media language which suggests that television and radio language is unavoidably become more private and various. These changes are related to societal democratization processes, the informalization of communicating in public, and especially with changes in media itself.  Seeking higher ratings and commercial success, radio and television today orientate themselves to a specific audience’s needs and language. This comes across most clearly in talk shows where it has become commonplace to combine an official, formal style of communication with the everyday, almost street-level type of speaking. Presumably, the best hosts and guests of contemporary talk shows would have to be speakers possessing a wide linguistic repertoire who are able to switch between speaking styles and defeat the standard official language framework. 

In this study the hypothesis is that program hosts and participants who have received criticism for their poor language from language norm-setters are in fact distinguished for their good sociolinguistic competence, while their language is a reflection of democratization, individualization and global shifts in radio and television. In order to check these assumptions, I conducted research of the sociolinguistic competence of Lithuania’s media personalities – popular talk show hosts. In this type of research, of special importance are changes in communication situations that show whether the speaker is capable of reacting to the communicative situation. Three main factors were examined: the program genre (debate or talk show), the role of participants (e.g., were they a host, expert or celebrity), and relations between the speakers (was there a small or great social distance).

 The main television personality selection criteria in my research was the subject’s participation in the greatest variety of programs. I also acknowledged their experience of hosting shows and professionalism in other fields of activity. During the 2009–2011 research period, out of approximately 15 talk show hosts who at least partly met the selecion criteria, I settled on four candidates – the singer Marijus Mikutavičius, the entertainment event host Arnas Klivečkas, actor Vytautas Šapranauskas and historian Alfredas Bumblauskas.  All four were recognized as professionals in their respective fields, and having appeared on television, they became public personalities, well known to a majority of people, whose popularity has not diminished for over a decade. The talk shows they host draw the greatest deal of attention from audiences, while their comments become the headlines of Internet-based news portals. As public personalities they are regularly invited to participate in various lifestyle and talk show programs, or as experts in debate programs.

The research centered on talk show programs where the research subjects had different roles and dealt with different interlocutors, covering both public and private life themes. Twenty program recordings were made (17 television and 3 radio programs aired on LTV, TV3, BTV, TV6 and “Lietuvos radiją” [Lithuanian Radio] and “Žinių radiją” [News Radio]). The scope of the language being research was counted in words: in the total amount of programs studied, Šapranauskas used 7,500 words, Mikutavičius – 7,700, Klivečka – 9,100, and Bumblauskas – 9,600 words. An informal lexis unit usage percentage was calculated from the total number of words used by each subject in a given program. Informal lexis in this research was deemed to include words that are considered improper in standard Lithuanian: foreign origin vernacularisms, slang words and expressions, jargon, and words found on the “Great language errors list”.

 The research showed that the style of speaking selected by each media personality being studied in each case was adapted to the program context and their interlocutor at the time, the subjects changed their speaking style according to the demands of the particular communication situation they were in. When speaking with interlocutors with whom there was a greater social distance (due to age, gender difference, or with whom they were less familiar), the subjects spoke in a more formal manner and avoided familiarity. When speaking with closer friends or acquaintances, the smaller social distance was evidenced by lexis typical of the informal style of speaking.

An undisputed sign of sociolinguistic competence is not just the subjects’ ability to change their language in accordance with their relationship with their interlocutors, but also style changes in accordance with the conversation themes, depending on the program genre. On talk shows where aspects of private life are usually discussed, the informal style is used to express friendliness, familiarity and emotions, accentuating the minimal social distance between the speakers. On debate programs where political, academic topics are discussed, informal words are used less often by the research subjects, usually only to enliven a more formal conversation or to make it more understandable to a wider audience. Informal lexis is used in response to their role on the program in question also. When appearing on entertainment talk shows as celebrities, the subjects usually cooperate with the program hosts and in using an informal style of lexis they contribute to creating the impression of communicating in an everyday environment which is typical in contemporary spoken media. As was mentioned earlier, the ability to tailor one’s speech to their interlocutor and assess what type of language is most accessible to the program audience is one of the essential requirements demanded of a contemporary talk show host. In this respect, this research confirmed the sociolinguistic competence of Marijus Mikutavičius, Alfredas Bumblauskas, Vytautas Šapranauskas and Arnas Klivečka – they are capable of speaking in response to the requirements of a particular communication situation. 

I plan to continue with this project by adding research of the sociolinguistic competence of a popular female talk show host and a famous politician.