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I am a linguistic anthropologist interested in the points of overlap between emotion, identity, and social power. I look at how people express emotion (linguistically), how these emotional expressions pattern along lines of cultural identity (gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc), and how these patterns fit into a society’s social hierarchy. My approach is to look at discourse – how people get and give messages, whether talking face-to-face, or viewing a film, or engaging with the internet – to try to understand how social structures are created, reinforced, and/or opposed and transformed.
My interest in anthropology - and linguistic anthropology in particular – stems from my family’s stay in Vienna, Austria, when I was 13 years old. When I went to Vienna I spoke no language other than English, but while there I developed a fascination with languages and with how people use them. I saw firsthand, for example, how ‘native Austrians’ used language style to make (then) Yugoslavian guest-workers (“Gastarbeiter”) feel their foreign-ness in Vienna. When I returned home, I suddenly saw that kids in my suburban Cleveland high school engaged in the very same sorts of identity marking, as white and black students collaborated to construct maximally separate linguistic identities.
Israel was the site of my first formal research project. I spent two years living in Haifa observing Jewish and Palestinian Israelis as they used language (talking, reading, listening to TV/ radio, etc.) to negotiate what it meant to be “Israeli.” I was particularly drawn to how Israelis used intonation (the patterned rise and fall of pitch in speech) while speaking Hebrew. In my book Words and Stones I describe how members of the two subordinate ethnic/class groups in Israel, Mizrahi Jews and Palestinian Arabs used non-standard pitch patterns (or tunes, and especially the tunes that ended phrases) to contest, or symbolically resist the dominance of mainstream ideas of ‘Israeliness’. Intonation was especially interesting because people (in Israel, as elsewhere) use it so much to express emotion.
I am currently writing a book about language (i.e., character speech) in Hollywood movies. This project stems from a general interest in the relationship between how people speak, how peoples’ speech is represented (eg, in media), and how people react to the images of speech they encounter. So it’s about what we call “language ideologies.” The book looks at the culturally meaningful varieties of English that movie characters are given to speak – and what these usages come to mean as components of the films’ messages about identity.
My interest in intonation has led now to research on what linguists call “stance” and “voice quality.” Specifically, the phenomenon of “creaky voice.” (All speakers tend to trail off a bit as they near the end of a phrase or utterance, and when they do so their voice begins to sound creaky. The phenomenon I’m interested in is the spread of this effect to other parts of an utterance.) This research aims to answer questions like: ‘How do people (really) communicate to others what they feel about what they’re talking about (what linguists call “stance”). While we THINK (and are generally taught to think) that we do this with the words we choose – in fact this project argues that we’re deeply mistaken about that, relegating the significant communication to such marginalized and troublesome domains of language as intonation, prosody, creaky voice (my focus to date), etc.
So, my research interests could be stated as: Social Dialectology (or how significant segments of society actually use language); Language Ideology (or how we’re taught to evaluate how people use language and the power/status/identity consequences of those evaluations); and Mediation (or how representations of languages and their speakers are structured).
I have always maintained an interest in the practical applications of linguistic anthropological research, and in the coming years I hope to return to my original interest: the role of language and identity in American schooling.