Variation at the edges: A liminal approach to assessing social meaning in borderlands

Hazenberg, Evan (2018) Variation at the edges: A liminal approach to assessing social meaning in borderlands. In: Language and Borders: Rethinking Mobility, Migration and Space, 27-28 March 2018, University of Bristol, Bristol, UK.

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Borders are dividing lines – traditionally geographic, but also social – associated with a sense of identity: sameness on one side, and otherness across the threshold. People who inhabit borderlands are particularly attuned to the minutiae that define these edges, arguably more so than people who live deeper inland. This heightened awareness makes borderlands fundamentally interesting to sociolinguists because of the significance of language in defining category boundaries (e.g., Watt & Llamas 2014).
The inherent variability of language poses an analytical puzzle, however: how should we separate social correlates of structural change from socially-driven, identity-laden variation? Structural changes can move through a language system without becoming imbued with strong social meaning (e.g., Labov 1994), such that patterns coinciding with social categories aren’t necessarily indexical of those categories. Stereotypes can offer a starting point for investigating social meaning, but language attitude (e.g., Baker 1992) and dialectology (Labov, Ash & Boberg 2006) have demonstrated that we attune to more than easily-articulated stereotypes (e.g., Preston 2002). In any given borderland, how do we know which variation is doing locally-meaningful identity work?
This paper presents an analytical approach focusing on the linguistic practices of liminal people – border-crossers – as a way of identifying which features are perceptually relevant to the border in question. I explore the socially-reified borderland of gender, considering liminality within the context of transsexuality. A sociophonetic analysis of young trans men (female-to-male transsexuals) in urban New Zealand shows that they are selective in which variables they have adapted in their transition: they have triaged their linguistic landscape and picked out which features are interpretable in their community as indexing gender. This methodological approach is extendable to linguistic exploration of more traditional borders, by drawing on geo-politically liminal people to identify variation that is likely to be relevant in the borderland communities themselves.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Schools and Departments: School of English > English
Subjects: P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics > P0101 Language. Linguistic theory. Comparative grammar
Depositing User: Evan Hazenberg
Date Deposited: 19 Apr 2018 16:07
Last Modified: 19 Apr 2018 16:07

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