Indexical directness and conventionalization in prep stylization at a U.S. high school

Elaine Chun

University of South Carolina, USA

TP158: Indexicality in Interaction

This paper examines interactions as sites for understanding the indexical relationship between language and social meaning at a high school in Texas. In this multiethnic setting, a culturally recognizable persona, the prep, was frequently mocked by a social outgroup—that is, self-identified non-preps who, nonetheless, defined themselves in relation to this persona. I show how this stylized mocking practice depended not only on linguistic indexes of varying degrees of conventionalization but also on the merging of multiple linguistic resources that cumulatively indexed social practices that were, in turn, linked to the prep persona. This analysis highlights the importance of examining specific moments of interaction in order to understand complex indexical relations and processes.

My analysis of a wide range of stereotypically preppy linguistic resources suggests that it is useful to understand indexes in terms of their degree of conventionalization. A high degree of conventionalization for certain resources (e.g., like, oh my god, and nasality) resulted from their frequent entextualization (Bauman & Briggs 1990) through stereotypical prep performances in the local school community and in the mainstream media. Such conventionalized lexical items demonstrated a particular indexical richness, evoking a stereotypical prep image even in relative isolation. On the other hand, some linguistic resources (e.g., really and I can’t believe it) became linked to preppiness only within the course of interaction, despite having relatively non-salient links to such a persona in moments prior. These emergent linguistic indexes may have been candidates for future conventionalization, though whether they eventually achieved such a status would require the examination of subsequent interactions.

In addition, I suggest the importance of examining linguistic resources in moments of interaction because of how indexes co-occur (Ervin-Tripp 1972): conventionalized linguistic resources often appear alongside emergent ones (e.g., nasality is used to utter the phrase I can’t believe it), imparting their indexical meanings to co-occurring elements. An analysis that examines features in isolation would likely overlook such processes of indexical resignification. Investigating indexes as situated elements of interaction also reveals how conventionalized and emergent resources may not be directly linked to personae but frequently mediated by the kinds of practices— stances, acts, and activities (Ochs 1992)—that are associated with these personae. For example, resources, such as nasality, are used alongside other resources in the engagement of particular kinds of social action—whether gossip, complaint, or critique. These forms of social action may, in turn, be regarded as constituting a particular kind of social identity or persona. An analysis of co-occurring elements in moments of social action reflects how speakers employ linguistic resources as well as how they may encounter and learn to use them. The necessary embedding of language in meaningful social practice requires sociolinguists to carefully consider what kinds of indexical relations and processes may be obscured when linguistic features are abstracted from their specific interactional instantiations.

Session: Themed Panel (part 2)
Indexicality in Interaction
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 05