Robin Queen delivered a keynote address at the 6th International Language and Media Conference, held in Hamburg, Germany, 7-9 September 2015. Robin is a leading researcher on language in the media - also the topic of her recent book on which we reported earlier this year. In her plenary address, Robin continues to explore how fictional characters on TV and in film can serve as a rich and complex set of data on how we use language to construct social and personal identities. The title and abstract of Robin's talk are given below.
Indexical authenticity and linguistic variation as evidenced in fictional television and film
Sociolinguists often focus on the indexical connections that hold between linguistic variation and social types, be those types demographic (Labov 2001) 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 either by itself or in connection with social types has received little attention (see however Johnstone 1996). Yet, personality traits 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 illustrate that such a mediating role may be captured through indexical authenticity, understood as the specific connection between social generalization and experienced particularity. As the source of data, I rely on fictional audiovisual media because of the importance of authenticity to the success of the product.
Narrative audiovisual media attempt to construct and present authentic characters and situations 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. Critically, this blend need not be an accurate depiction of the linguistic variation being represented in order to evoke relevant indexical associations of authenticity. Further, the indexicalities of authenticity may differ somewhat in that “type” indexicality (stereotypes) 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 (individual personalities), on the other hand, is the connection of language variation to variability within categories of social demographics and personae, such as being quiet, cheerful, introverted, 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 and help explain how they become understood as ‘authentic.’ 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 linguistically authentic. I further argue that understanding how characters become linguistically authentic provides broader insight into how language variation itself becomes meaningful."