Stance and the “baptismal essentializations” of indexicality

Scott F. Kiesling Maeve Eberhardt

University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA

TP158: Indexicality in Interaction

In this paper, we test the hypothesis that stance is the basis of ‘intraspeaker variation,’ such that sociolinguistic variants are initially associated with interactional stances - stances which become reified in a speech community over time and with repeated use. In this view, stance is where the ‘baptismal essentializations’ (Silverstein 2003) of indexicality occur. Stance is generally defined as the linguistic strategies employed by speakers to create and/or signal relationships to their talk and their interlocutors, although we provide a more nuanced definition in the paper.

In two separate studies, we use a combination of quantitative, correlational, variationist methods and ethnographic discourse analytic methods. The first is a study of variation in a multi-party conversation in Pittsburgh, USA. In this project, we first determined the rates of variation across speakers across speech activities, and found that most speakers shifted their rates from one group of speech activities to another, and they did so in a similar direction. However, one speaker shifted in a different direction than the others. Analysis of her discourse revealed that she took a different stance in these speech activities than the other speakers. Thus, stance accounts for this otherwise anomalous style-shifting. In the second study, we show that a variable which might be called an ethnolinguistic marker in Sydney, Australia correlates with a particular stance. The 'non-standard' variant is used more in stances in which a speaker is epistemically certain of their talk, but at the same time is interpersonally displaying solidarity with their interlocutor. Finally, we draw on evidence from other investigations of style shifting to show that stance accounts for the patterns found in those studies as well.

Our ultimate objective is to connect the everyday use of language variation in discourse to the ways that it patterns on larger social scales, and to test the claim that this connection can be made through the concept of stance. The overall goal of this thought experiment is to understand how much of the sociolinguistic literature on style variation is attributable to stance. We advance the possibility that the various ways that style has been explained can be collected under the stance hypothesis. Ultimately, a strong version of the stance hypothesis proves to ignore the complex realities of variation and social meaning, but we find considerable support for a weaker formulation. This weak hypothesis predicts that a certain class of sound changes and stable variables are driven by speakers' considerations of stance, while other variables are more sensitive to internal linguistic factors and other social factors. We speculate as to what types of variable are probably not affected by the stance hypothesis.


Silverstein, Michael. 2003. Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language and Communication 23: 193-229.

Session: Themed Panel (part 1)
Indexicality in Interaction
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 05