The intertextual construction of language attitudes and ideologies on a U.S. internet discussion board

Jennifer Sclafani

Georgetown University, USA

WS157: Doing things with an attitude: Interdisciplinary explorations of the relationship of language attitudes and social action

The study of language attitudes and ideologies has been undertaken within several subdisciplines of linguistics, in a vast array of contexts, and using a variety of methods. Studies that locate themselves within paradigms of linguistic anthropology, variationist sociolinguistics, language policy, and critical discourse analysis have utilized both qualitative and quantitative measures to gauge people’s conceptions of what language is, both in form and function, and people’s beliefs about qualities of speakers qua speakers of particular languages.

This paper explores the construction of language attitudes and ideologies by taking an intertextual approach (e.g. Fairclough 1992) to the analysis of computer-mediated communication, and analyzing posts on, a website which features discussion boards dedicated to current topics in the news. The discussion board I investigate was created in response to an April 2007 CNN report documenting comments that former Republican U.S. Representative Newt Gingrich made during a speech to the National Federation of Republican Women, in which he referred to bilingual education as tantamount to learning “the language of living in a ghetto”. The data set I analyze consists of 789 comments (over 17,000 words total) in response to the CNN article.

The analysis focuses on how users explicitly borrow prior texts (Becker 1995) and use constructed dialogue (Tannen 1989) as a discourse strategy in constructing their opinions regarding Gingrich’s remarks and their beliefs about bilingualism and education in general. I demonstrate that through the appropriation of a wide variety of voices, including those of Newt Gingrich and other politicians, other Digg users, and even an employee in a Chinese take-out restaurant, users construct competing ideologies of and attitudes toward language variation within the debate. I argue that the use of constructed dialogue in these posts draws interlocutors into an illustration of the lived social world as the speaker sees it, through a process which I call “embodiment indexicality”.

This analysis addresses the conference theme of “Micro and Macro Connections” by showing how intertextual analysis connects emergent constructions of opinion with broader attitudes, ideologies and stereotypes about language. It also attempts to bring together various strands of language attitude and ideology research by combining the study of explicit metalinguistic discourse with the analysis of implicit metapragmatics, or the “unsaid, unexpressed assumptions that implicitly frame a text and enable its coherence” (Woolard 1998:9). This analysis, along with the other papers in this panel, illustrates how to move forward in the study of language attitudes by drawing together different methodologies, theoretical questions, and analytical frameworks in order to better understand how attitudes are grounded in everyday social action.


Becker, A. L. 1995. Beyond Translation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Fairclough, Norman. 1992. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Tannen, Deborah. 1989. Talking Voices. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Woolard, Kathryn A. 1998. Introduction: language ideology as a field of inquiry. In B. B. Schieffelin, K. A. Woolard, and P. V. Kroskrity (eds.), Language Ideologies: Practice and Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3-47.

Session: Workshop
Doing things with an attitude: Interdisciplinary explorations of the relationship of language attitudes and social action
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 02