Affective style: chill vs. loud

An abstract for a Stanford linguistics dissertation to be defended this coming Monday (March 19th): Teresa Pratt, Affective sociolinguistic style: an ethnography of embodied linguistic variation in an arts high school:

This dissertation explores the role of affect in sociolinguistic style. Styles – or clusters of socially meaningful linguistic features – are central to the projection of social types or personae. Linguistic styles convey behaviors and stances associated with these personae, and reflect and reproduce macro-social categories like gender, age, race and class. But styles also index affect; we can imagine stylistic displays of a Valley Girl’s exasperation, a surfer’s laid-back attitude, or a politician’s cheerful smarm. Such qualities are more than ephemeral moods; they are durative dimensions of stylistic practice. Further, because embodied behaviors like posture, comportment, and facial expression are taken to display emotions and attitudes, the expression of affect is an embodied phenomenon involving multiple semiotic channels. To that end, here I examine both linguistic and embodied practice, demonstrating that we gain a richer understanding of meaning-making by incorporating affect into our theory of style.

My data are drawn from a year of fieldwork at a public arts high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. Through ethnographic, phonetic, and visual analysis of interviews with 24 students, I show how speakers construct styles around affective qualities like ‘chill’ or ‘tough.’ These styles correspond to students’ orientation to their artistic pursuits and to the institution more broadly. An analysis of variation in young men’s use of creaky voice quality, speech rate, and seated interview posture reveals that these features are used to display energetic affective styles of ‘chill’ on the one hand, and its ideological opposite, ‘loud,’ on the other. And these styles position students in the social landscape; high-energy or ‘loud’ students are more institutionally-oriented, and ‘chill’ students are less institutionally-oriented but deeply invested in their artistic pursuit, beyond the scope of the school’s curriculum. A second analysis focuses on the tandem use of retracted /l/ and a raised variant of the LOT vowel by students in the technical theater discipline. Unlike other disciplines, these students engage in manual labor (constructing sets for school productions) and are described by their peers as ‘handy’ and ‘badass’ –  producing a cumulative image of embodied toughness. Notably, these two variables are both characterized by a retracted tongue dorsum; I suggest that tech students share a general articulatory setting which conditions their use of otherwise unrelated phonetic features, and that this articulatory setting indexes tech students’ embodied toughness.

In a final analysis, I explore the connection between contextualized interactional meaning and more durative enregistered meanings of three of these variables: creaky voice quality, retracted /l/, and raised LOT. In other words, I ask whether speakers use creaky voice to convey chill, or retracted /l/ to convey toughness, in situated interactional moments. I explore the potential social meanings of these features as used by two speakers in ethnographic interviews. Some extreme realizations of these features do emerge in moments when tough or chill affective displays are particularly salient. However, this is not the case for all such tokens, suggesting that variables need not always index specific meanings in interaction in order for holistic, thematic meanings to become enregistered within a community. Taken together, these analyses show that linguistic variation and bodily comportment are used to convey affect in stylistic practice. This work demonstrates that a more explicit focus on the intertwining semiotics of affect can enrich our understanding of the socio-indexical potential of linguistic variation.

Oral exam committee: Penny Eckert (linguistics, advisor), Rob Podesva (linguistics), Jonathan Rosa (education), Miyako Inoue (anthropology); oral exam chair: Ray McDermott (education)

One Response to “Affective style: chill vs. loud”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Mike Pope on Facebook:

    This made me think that acting to a great degree must consist (I speculate, I’m no actor) of being able to produce these affects on demand, but consciously.

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