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The Preadolescent Heterosexual Market

This project is based on three years of ethnographic fieldwork in elementary and then middle school, following two age cohorts from fifth through seventh grades. The cohorts were from very different but neighboring neighborhoods in San Jose, California. Steps Elementary (pseudonym) serves a primarily poor and highly diverse student body, with a large cohort of Latino, Asian, African American and Pacific Island kids. Fields Elementary serves a primarily White Anglo working class and middle class population. Christi Cervantes, now teaching at University of California at Sacramento, worked with me at Fields. The project focuses on the emergence of the adolescent peer social order, in order to understand how it emerges from a child social order, how gender differences in phonology come about, how adolescent linguistic styles emerge from kid talk, and how to theorize style as social practice. The social action in both schools centers around the emergence of a peer-based social order, as kids pull themselves away from adult domination. And as their social arrangements move away from normatively asexual into normative heterosexual, the new social order centers around an emerging heterosexual market. This market will eventually become the basis for an adolescent social order.

Work so far has focused on elements of the Northern California Vowel Shift. and some exploration of rhythm.

The nasal split of /ae/. Most Anglo speakers show a split between /ae/ before nasals, which fronts and raises, and /ae/ elsewhere, which lowers and backs. Chicano speakers show lowering and backing of /ae/ before non-nasals, but far less of a nasal split, and many show no split at all. In the two elementary schools, ethnicity interacts with participation in the crowd. Kids in the Anglo-dominated crowd at Fields (regardless of ethnicity), show a dramatic split, while kids in the Chicano-dominated crowd at Steps (again, regardless of ethnicity), show no split at all. On the other hand, many of those who are not in the crowd at Steps show a split, while a few who are on the outs with the crowd at Steps show a fairly dramatic split. Further, there is evidence of a style effect at Fields, as girls increase the split when involved in drama.

Drama. Personal drama is a big part of life in the crowd in both elementary schools. The formation of a crowd involves both a collaboration between boys' and girls' friendship groups, but an expansion of the girls' group. The girls' side of the crowd is formed by a series of alliances among otherwise competing small friendship groups, and involves both forging new friendships and leaving behind friends who aren't accepted by the other groups. As a result, considerable drama is part of everyday practice in and around the crowd. I am investigating drama episodes to uncover the role of linguistic variables in emotional expression. In work with Katie Drager and Kyuson Moon, we found a highly significant correlation between pitch range and the degree of /ae/ split in the speech of girls and boys at Fields Elementary. Assuming that pitch range is an indication of expressivity of some kind, this suggests that the /ae/ split (among Anglos) is an expressive resource as well.

Sound Symbolism.I have also noticed the workings of sound symbolism in the speech of a few girls, and am exploring it further. So far there's evidence that the fronting of /o/, /ay/, and /ow/ indexes some kind of 'sweet innocent' girlhood, whereas backing carries a fairly complex set of negative meanings.

Publications so far on the preadolescent work:

Eckert, Penelope. (in press). Affect, sound symbolism, and variation. In: Selected papers from NWAV 37. Penn Working Papers in Linguistics. 15.2.
Eckert, Penelope. (2008). Where do ethnolects stop? International journal of bilingualism.12:1.453-76.
Eckert, P. (1996). Vowels and nailpolish: The emergence of linguistic style in the preadolescent heterosexual marketplace. Gender and belief systems. J. Ahlers, L. Bilmes, M. Chenet al. Berkeley, Berkeley women and language group.