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August 15, 2003 » 2:33 am

Language and Adolescence

Penelope Eckert, Professor of Linguistics at Stanford, gave a talk entitled, “Language and Adolescence,” this afternoon at the PARC Forum. Eckert explained the role that adolescent language played in developing peer social order, and dispelled complaints that teenagers were hurting language by using it irresponsibly. Her theories are based on extensive ethnographic studies of junior high school students in Detroit and the Bay Area.    (7E)

I went to this talk for two reasons. First, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear an academic lecture on “jocks” and “burnouts.” Eckert clearly enjoyed emulating various teenage and adult speech patterns, and garnered many giggles throughout her talk. Second, I’d like to eventually recruit a sociolinguist to Blue Oxen Associates, and wanted to get a sense of what such research entails. What do language patterns reflect about communities? What do we already know, and what remains to be studied?    (7F)

Eckert claimed that adolescents are leaders in linguistic innovation, which reflects their efforts to find their place within a structured social marketplace. She found a high correlation between various roles (e.g. “drama queens,” “onlookers,”) and certain speech patterns. According to Eckert, over 50 percent of the kids she studied were either “jocks” or “burnouts.” The latter group exhibited unique speech patterns. For example, burnouts were far more likely to use Negative Concords (e.g. “That don’t mean nothing”) than jocks, an act of rebellion against socially imposed institutions.    (7G)

Eckert has written several books about her research, including Jocks and Burnouts and Linguistic Variation as Social Practice.    (7H)

Sociolinguistic Analysis    (7I)

Identifying who plays what role in a community, or whether or not a person is a member of a community, is a difficult problem. I posted some ideas on this in January, where I argued that individuals mostly categorize themselves. I asked Eckert what criteria she used to categorize people as jocks or burnouts. She said that the students categorized themselves. She had some socioeconomic data that she could use to challenge the self-categorization, but found that she never needed to do so.    (7J)

Eckert’s talk reiterated my awareness of the sensory richness of face-to-face communication. Speech nuances alone carry a tremendous amount of information. Sadly, these nuances don’t exist in online communities. What affect does this loss of sensory richness have on online communities? Do online interactions have their own kinds of richness that face-to-face interactions do not share?    (7K)

Applying sociolinguistic research towards online communities would require analyzing patterns in writing. I believe we could learn a tremendous amount about communities through this kind of analysis. If anyone knows of such research, please let me know.    (7L)

Blue Oxen Trivia    (7M)

There are a number of good public talks held at PARC’s George Pake Auditorium in Palo Alto. In fact, I met half of the Blue Oxen Associates advisory board there. I first heard Doug Engelbart speak at the BayCHI meeting on December 10, 1996. I first heard Richard Gabriel speak at the Software Development Forum meeting on January 23, 2003.    (7N)

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