3.2 Language variety, style and identity

In this part, we shall explore how language variety and style may be salient to people’s identities, in particular contexts.

The idea that individual and group identity is constantly being negotiated and renegotiated through the minutiae of everyday social interactions has been explored in some detail by the American sociolinguist, Penelope Eckert. Eckert studied the language use of American high school students who called themselves Jocks and Burnouts. These two subcultures were associated with sharply contrasting personal styles. Jocks participated enthusiastically in extra-curricular activities, played sports, served on the school council and hoped to graduate to college. They took the school as their community and hence the basis of their group identity. In the 1980s, when Eckert did her research, they wore smart designer jeans, the girls used candy coloured make-up and the boys had short hair. The Burnouts, in contrast, did not participate in school social activities and resisted the corporate identity of the high school and what it stood for. They wore bellbottom jeans, rock concert T-shirts, sweatshirts and auto-plant jackets, and expected to work in local industry when they were older. They were more likely to be out at an all-night party in the town than at the school dance.

There were differences, too, in the language styles (pitch, pronunciation and grammar) used. Eckert sees these two subcultural groups as representing two different kinds of response to the school institution, and as involving students in alternative ways of negotiating their individual identities, their ‘meaning in the world’ (Eckert, 2000, p. 41). She suggests that Jocks and Burnouts are two different ‘communities of practice’, each involving students who have come together to share ways of doing things and ways of talking, beliefs and values, as a function of their shared engagement in the activity. Individual identity is constructed in collaboration with others in and around these communities of practice.

3.1 Language and identity

3.3 Communities of practice