Forum Lecture

Natalie Schilling-Estes (Georgetown University)

"Linguistic artistry, artifice, and authenticity:
The 'naturalness' of 'unnatural' speech"

Thursday, 16 July 2009, 7:30 pm
2050 Valley Life Sciences Building

It has long been considered axiomatic in sociolinguistics that in order to understand the patterning and social meaning of language variation and what it means in 'real life', researchers need to focus on obtaining and analyzing 'natural', 'vernacular', unselfconscious language data. In this talk, I demonstrate that self-conscious, performative, and, some would argue, 'unnatural', linguistic usages are in fact pervasive in real life, and in research contexts carefully designed to yield non-performative speech.

Using data from research and 'real world' contexts, I show how linguistic performances lend insight into how such performances are shaped (e.g. what people are likely vs. unlikely to perform, what they are capable vs. incapable of performing) and what ends they serve. For example, participants in sociolinguistic interviews may use overtly performative language to display linguistic artistry (e.g. in entertaining narratives of personal experience) or for more covert purposes, for example, in attempting to disguise 'nonstandard' speech. In addition, linguistic 'fakery' can be used for both obvious effect (e.g. in amusing imitations of others' voices) and, somewhat ironically, to attempt to create, or at least feign, heightened 'authenticity' — for example, when an interviewer puts on a vernacular that somewhat matches that of the interviewee.

Beyond the research context, I show how linguistic performances can have immediate, often grave 'real world' effects. The data here are criminal communications whose authors have attempted to disguise their authorshop and/or intent: for example, anonymous email threats and fake suicide notes written to cover up murder.

The investigation of 'unnatural' language is thus of vital importance to linguistic study, as it enhances our understanding of the nature of 'natural' data and of the form and function of linguistic performances. Further, a sociolinguistic perspective on linguistic disguise has immediate real-world applications, including enhanced understanding of, and eventual improved methods in, authorial attribution and threat assessment in forensic linguistics.

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