- Meaning and linguistic variation: The third wave in sociolinguistics by Penelope Eckert
In Meaning and linguistic variation: The third wave in sociolinguistics, Penelope Eckert brings us her ‘intellectual autobiography’: a curated sequence of papers from her career wrapped in firstperson narratives about the social and personal context in which each paper was written. While the book covers the full span of E’s career, the focus is on third-wave sociolinguistics, which she defines as ‘a theoretical perspective that puts the meaning of variation, in all its dynamism and indeterminacy, at the center of analysis’ (xi). In tracing the origins of key third-wave theoretical constructs to earlier work by both herself and others in the first and second waves, E builds up an unmistakable narrative arc covering the full span of her career.
The first two chapters of the book, presented under the heading ‘Beginnings’, deal primarily with E’s years studying Gascon in St. Pierre de Soulatan at the time when the region was shifting from Occitan varieties to French dominance. In contrast to the historical phonological focus of her M.A. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation, the papers she chooses for inclusion here focus on the politics of multilingualism. Ch. 1, ‘Gascon’, discusses how minority nationalist projects such as the Occitan movement crucially rely on linguistic unification, but in doing so inevitably erase the finer-grained sources of linguistic diversity within their own borders (Eckert 1983). Ch. 2, ‘Stigma and meaning in language shift’, uses the relationship between French and Gascon to illustrate how diglossia involves not the peaceful coexistence of two varieties but rather the oppression and stigmatization of the ‘low’ variety; the introductory material here situates the paper’s inception in the political context of the Ann Arbor Black English trial (Eckert 1980). This pair of papers captures the beginning of E’s concern with the nuances of language’s ideological force. Although they are distinct in flavor from the rest of the chapters, their inclusion effectively foreshadows the themes of locality, identity, and the semiotic landscape found in the later chapters about the third wave.
The second section, titled ‘My participation in the second wave’, is dominated by the Jocks and Burnouts of Belten High (Eckert 1989a). Chs. 3–6 lay out E’s analytic insights into the social and linguistic practices of these high school social groups in suburban Detroit. Ch. 3 (‘Jocks and Burnouts’), E’s study of the width of blue jeans as a signifier of different social groups occupying different parts of the high school (Eckert 1982), marks the first appearance of ‘style’ as a central theoretical construct that transcends linguistic practice. In Chs. 4 (‘Jocks, Burnouts and sound change’), 5 (‘The local and the extra-local’), and 6 (‘On the outs’), E delves progressively deeper into the territory laid out in Ch. 3, persuasively weaving the social life of adolescents into the study of sound change in progress (Eckert 1988, 1989b). In this, probably E’s best-known work, she argues that macrosocial structures like class and gender shape language change only insofar as they are indirectly realized on the ground through hegemonic oppositions between identifiable, locally specific social categories. The narrative portions of this section lay out clearly why the classic Jocks and Burnouts research, with its continued focus on static categories as opposed to [End Page 462] the agentive construction of meaning through stylistic practice, is not itself of the third wave. At the same time, the bracketing of the section with chapters about style nonetheless makes it evident that this work directly laid important foundations for the emergence of the third wave.
The final section, ‘The third wave’, arrives at the thesis of the book: that social meaning and stylistic practice are central to understanding sociolinguistic variation (Eckert 2012). E’s cadre of notable graduate students come to the fore at the start of the section with Ch. 8, ‘The SLIC generation’. SLIC stands for the Style, Language and Ideology Cooperative/Collaborative, a studentled seminar with...