Authenticity, language and ideology: what is at stake and why it matters

Martin Gill

Åbo Akademi University, Finland


A number of recent studies have highlighted the problematic status of authenticity in sociolinguistics (e.g. Bucholtz 2003; Coupland 2001, 2003). Where earlier work, particularly in the variationist tradition, went in search of authentic speakers, speech communities, performances, texts, etc., whose unselfconscious vernacular formed a basis on which to theorize the relation between language and social structure, research from a post-modern perspective has generally rejected the essentialism of this enterprise, and turned instead to the nature of authenticity claims themselves as discursive constructions, and how these emerge within locally relevant practices.

Paradoxically, the social conditions of late modernity have increasingly tended to foreground issues of identity, so that for many language users the need to establish authenticity – categorically, non-negotiably – has become more rather than less urgent. As a result, the term still manages to exert a powerful, if tacit, essentialist influence, one that may be lost sight of in the discourse of minority language rights, self-realization, etc. One of its most striking features is that the boundary it draws between the authentic and its opposite is absolute and can be imposed on contexts where no such boundary existed, to legitimize certain speakers, identities, forms of speech, etc. and exclude others. Much then depends on the individuals, groups or institutions who have authority to draw this boundary, which can become a focal point for conflict in the struggle for legitimacy between mainstream and marginal groups.

This paper will examine the often complex implications of these issues for research in sociolinguistics. Building on the work referred to, it will attempt to show how modernist assumptions about authenticity have helped to shape concepts and approaches still influential in the field, and how these interact with the more recent emergence of authenticity both as an ideological issue, claimed or contested between communities, and as an object of reflexive awareness among sociolinguists.


Bucholtz, M. 2003. ‘Sociolinguistic nostalgia and the authentication of identity’. Journal of Sociolinguistics 7/3: 398-416.

Coupland, N. 2003. ‘Sociolinguistic authenticities’. Journal of Sociolinguistics 7/3: 417-431.

Coupland, N. 2005. ‘Dialect stylization in a radio talk.’ Language in Society 30: 345-375.

Session: Paper session
Planning/Policy 7 (Minorities)
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 14