July 29, 2007

Language and identity

Simon Baron Cohen thinks that autism is a symptom of an "extreme male brain". In today's NYT, Benjamin Nugent ("Who's a Nerd, Anyway?", 7/29/2007) mentions Mary Bucholtz's hypothesis that nerd is a name for extreme white behavior:

What is a nerd? Mary Bucholtz, a linguist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has been working on the question for the last 12 years. She has gone to high schools and colleges, mainly in California, and asked students from different crowds to think about the idea of nerdiness and who among their peers should be considered a nerd; students have also "reported" themselves. Nerdiness, she has concluded, is largely a matter of racially tinged behavior. People who are considered nerds tend to act in ways that are, as she puts it, "hyperwhite."

If you want to read about this theory at the source, you could check out "The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness", Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 11(1) 84-100 (2001). The abstract:

Anthropological research has shown that identities that are "not white enough" may be racially marked. Yet marking may also be the result of being "too white." California high school students who embrace one such white identity, nerds, employ a superstandard language variety to reject the youth culture norm of coolness. These practices also ideologically position nerds as hyperwhite by distancing them from the African American underpinnings of European American youth culture.

[Update -- Andrew Brown at Helmintholog cites some contrary evidence from an authoritative source. (Actually, he alludes to it, but I think we can give him a little time to come up with the specific reference...)

According to Language log there is a study out suggesting that Nerds, or dorkenheimers, are identified in the Californian school system because they are “too white” and avoid all the “Black” stylings of speech and dress traditionally1 affected by white teenagers. But this can’t be true. I remember distinctly when Zonker, who is Californian, was advertising a Nerdcare anti-sun lotion, and it was minty green. I’m away from the family archive CD, so I can’t find the link.

1 on the “classic” timescale — ie since about 1959


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 29, 2007 04:47 PM