Lecture by Barbara Johnstone, September 23, 2011

Identifying with Language by Barbara Johnstone, Professor of English and Linguistics, Carnegie Mellon University.

For the last decade or two, identity has been a hot topic throughout linguistics. Sociolinguists use the concept of identity to help explain why particular styles of speech get taken up in particular speech communities, and how and why people shift from one style to another. In descriptive linguistics, identity enters into arguments in favor of documenting and preserving endangered language and varieties. In applied linguistics, researchers are studying the interactions between identity and success or failure in second language acquisition. Across these areas and within them, different people use the word “identity” in sometimes confusingly different ways. But we all base our work on the observation that particular forms of language can be linked with particular social types, personas, or ways of being – that pronouncing something one way rather than another, using one word versus another, speaking one language or speaking another can signal belonging or outsiderness. Members of a speech community are people who share ideas about what linguistic choices mean.

How, then, do people come to share ideas about what linguistic forms can mean? As language teachers, we are all familiar with one mechanism:  we teach other people about meaning, by defining words, modeling academic writing styles, explaining that it is insulting in some places to show the soles of your feet, and so on. We tend to think of language teaching as a special kind of activity, one that requires particular skills and talents. And indeed it is. But whether we are professional language teachers or not, we are all, always, teaching each other about the meanings of linguistic choices. In this talk, I present a framework for thinking about exactly how particular language forms become linked to particular social and personal identities. Drawing on current anthropological thinking about semiosis, or meaning-making, I describe how links between forms and social meanings are made, often fleetingly, in interaction and how such links can sometimes stabilize and coalesce into styles of discourse associated with identities. In the process, I discuss four key concepts, indexicality, reflexivity, metapragmatics, and enregisterment. I first show how the concept of indexicality helps account for the way in which linguistic forms and social meanings are related. Then I discuss reflexivity and metapragmatics, the general and more specific mechanisms that allow us to teach each other about indexical relationships as we interact. Finally, I sketch how indexical links between form and meaning can stabilize, becoming reusable and accreting into sets of links sometimes called style, associated with identities. To illustrate these ideas, I use excerpts from the continual, unconscious, everyday practice of language teaching in interaction.

3:00 p.m., B-4 Dwinelle Hall
Light refreshments will be served following the lecture. –  VIDEO

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