Robin Queen presented a colloquium at the University of Chicago based on a chapter from her forthcoming book, Vox Popular (Wiley-Blackwell) on March 14, 2014.
Sociolinguists have typically focused primarily on the indexical connections that hold between linguistic variation and social types, be those types demographic (Labov, etc.) or role- and persona-based (Ochs 1992, Eckert 2008, Podesva 2007). Except for some of the work on sociolinguistic perception (Lambert et.al 1966, Cambell-Kibler 2008), the linguistic indexicality of personality traits both by itself and in connection with social type indexes has received little attention (see however Johnstone 1996). Yet, personality traits (and the linguistic indexes to them) may provide a theoretical response to one of the ongoing challenges of indexicality, namely its difficulty mediating between generalization and specificity. In this talk, I will illustrate that such a mediating role may be captured through indexical authenticity, understood as the specific connection between representational generalization and experienced particularity.
Narrative audiovisual media attempt to construct and present authentic characters that are accessible to a broad audience (Androutsopoulos 2012, Richardson 2010, Bednarak 2012, Coupland 2010). To do so, media producers typically rely largely on a nuanced blend of Labovian style stereotypes and more individualized personality traits, both of which depend on indexicality in order to be interpretable by an audience. However, the nature of the indexicalities differ somewhat in that “type” indexicality captures the meaningful connection of language variation to the broad set of social kinds that characters often inhabit. We can think of these both as their social demographics like race, gender, age, sexual orientation and class as well as specific kinds of persona like nerds, jocks, girly girls, etc. Trait indexicality, on the other hand, is the connection of language variation to variability within categories of social demographics and personae, such as being quiet, cheerful, melancholy or energetic.
The data for the discussion are drawn from a variety of television and film characters who largely share their social traits but differ in terms of their personalities. For example, most of the characters on The Big Bang Theory have similar demographic backgrounds and share a persona as ‘nerds.’ It’s the differences in their personalities, however, that make the characters compelling. Similarly, the characters who represent the domestic help in the film The Help share most of their demographic and social persona traits but differ in temperament, something that is represented at least in part through similarities and differences in their language use. I argue based on these and other examples that specific sociolinguistic blends of type and trait indexicalities render fictional characters as authentic. I further argue that characters who are perceived as authentic provide broader insight into the meaningfulness of language variation.