Language and identity in a Lesbian Group: a Sociocultural Linguistics approach

Jones, Lucy

University of Sheffield, United Kingdom


Language and Identity in a Lesbian Group: a Sociocultural Linguistics approach

This paper explores recent developments in the study of language and identity, specifically constructionist approaches which consider language to be a stylistic tool in the production and projection of self. The research presented here applies the new framework of Sociocultural Linguistics, a subfield of sociolinguistics developed by Bucholtz and Hall (2005), to a lesbian walking group. This approach views identity as primarily social and contextually-specific, but also accounts for the ideologies which underpin and constrain the behaviour of individuals and groups. It is argued that, whilst the sexual orientation of the women under study defines their engagement, the social identity under production is emergent through the women’s interaction. Whilst the women’s joint identity construction is in part a mutual negotiation of their sexuality, it is the activity in which the group engages that shapes their most dominant values and their subsequent linguistic styles.

Through discourse analysis of a range of recorded interactions, it will be shown that the women’s language reflects prevalent ideologies of lesbianism (such as distinguishing between ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ gendered identities) in order to mutually orient themselves to the social category ‘lesbian’. This leads to a joint concept of what it means to be a gay woman in that context through, for example, the stylistic production of the group’s ideology that ‘butch is best’. Such local values are constructed indexically, by drawing on discourse features and lexis choice ideologically associated with masculinity. Additional stances are made towards other aspects of the group’s identity, however – many of which exist irrespective of the shared sexual orientation of the group. Though the women’s linguistic style to some extent ties them into a dominant conception of ‘the lesbian community’, their interaction is specific to their shared activity. In this sense, any aspect of their mutual identity is shaped by what it means to be a member of that walking group, as well as what it means to be a lesbian in that context. The ethos of this particular group is one of politeness, respect and (of most cultural importance to the group) a love of the outdoors and of nature. These philosophies are expressed through discourse choices (such as the use of facilitative and expressive interactive styles) which ostensibly appear to index femininity but which, more importantly, reproduce the ethos of the group.

This research supports recent advocates for the recognition of style as marked on an ideological or macro level but as meaningful for an individual’s identity only in light of their contextually-informed interpretation and production of it (cf. Eckert and Rickford 2001). Within this particular group, both ideologically masculine and feminine styles are reworked in the construction of a ‘lesbian walker’ identity.


Bucholtz, Mary and Hall, Kira (2005) ‘Identity and Interaction: a Sociocultural Linguistic Approach’ Discourse Studies 7(4-5:585-614)

Eckert, Penelope and Rickford, John R (2001) (eds.) Style and Sociolinguistic Variation Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Session: Paper session
Gender 2 (Identity)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 16