Friday, February 25, 2011

Nerd Speak

by Emily Hacala

Standard English is that which is considered to be most correct, neutral, and unmarked. Although there is some debate as to whether this idealized "standard" is written or spoken (or even exists as more than the doctrine of linguistic prescriptivism), the notion that there is a right way and a wrong way to speak is prevalent amongst speakers of English. As a consequence of this idea, there stems a myriad of English varieties that are labeled "incorrect" because of the ways in which they deviate from the standard. Perhaps the most commonly recognized example of this is African American Vernacular English, which is considered by many to not even be a real language because of its supposed lack of grammar, citing copula deletion and use of double negation as a few of the reasons. However, many recognized "real" languages, such as Arabic, do not even contain a present tense copulative verb ("Ana taibana" = "I [am] tired") and in several Romance languages, such as French, it is ungrammatical to not use a double negative, as can be seen in the phrase "je ne sais pas," meaning "I do not know."

The linguistic features of varieties that are racially and culturally marked, such as AAVE, can then become decidedly marked as a result of these preexisting stigmatizations and stereotypes. In the article "Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence," Labov points out "we are obviously dealing with the effects of the caste system of American society - essentially a "color-marking" system. Everyone recognizes this" (Labov 65). In effect, the linguistic features of the speech of the most prestigious social group (typically white middle-class male) become the most prestigious - usually the standard. Members of less prestigious social groups, then, are marked as being "non-standard," which in turn results in similar prejudices and stereotypes being mapped onto their speech patterns.

Typically, "white speech" is considered to remain unmarked because it reflects the "unmarked status of whiteness" (Bucholtz 84). However, as Bucholtz points out, there is not simply one cohesive group of "whiteness;" rather, there are varying degrees to which a person can be white and speak white, and those that do not adhere to the "correct" degree are racially and linguistically marked as well. For example, one intra-racially distinct white identity, the hillbilly, is "racially and culturally marked because their class orientation and cultural style separate them from the middle-class white norm... hillbillies display a "degraded form of whiteness" (Hartigan 1999:90)" (Bucholtz 85). In this way, many non-dominant white social groups become marked as well, although in my opinion not quite to the same degree at which non-white groups can become marked.

In Bucholtz's article, "The Whiteness of Nerds," she presents an example of "a white identity that is nonnormative, nonhegemonic, and highly marked in the local racial economy. This identity, the nerd, is racially marked precisely because individuals refuse to engage in cultural practices that originate across racialized lines..." (Bucholtz 85). In effect, the nerd is being characterized as "too white" because he rejects "cool" social and linguistic practices, such as styles of dress and slang words or abbreviations. This further contributes to a racial dichotomy because more often than not, the notions of "coolness" in the white culture in Bucholtz's study were taken from African American culture and deracialized. As a result, these deracialized trends become unmarked and available for white students to adopt without the risk of being seen as "racially problematic" (Bucholtz 86). However, the nerd by definition rejects all "trendy" practices, regardless of racial marking.

This video is an example of the "white nerd" as is portrayed in the television series The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon, the white male nerd, is presented as a "social underachiever" (Bucholtz 85); he admits that he is having "difficulty bonding with a colleague at work" and takes a scientific approach (a questionnaire) towards remedying this. Sheldon differs from Penny (his pretty, sociable foil) in his speech patterns with particular respect to lexicon. He makes statements such as "the social sciences are largely hokum" (note: the word "hokum" is typically used synonymously with "nonsense" or "rubbish") or "short of putting electrodes in your brain and monitoring your response to my companionship..." rather than communicating in a more easily understood or commonly used manner. Although Sheldon is not a student, as were the subjects of the white nerd study, this is consistent with Bucholtz's idea that "in rejecting coolness, students who consider themselves nerds signal their distance from the practices and the stances of trendier youth. Instead, they embrace the values of nerdiness, primarily intelligence" (Bucholtz 85). Sheldon, through his language and subject matter, is doing precisely that.

Bucholtz's article also briefly address the concept of the "black nerd." However, this individual is somewhat of a rarity in many situations because of the extreme marked-ness that comes of being a black nerd. While discussing an ethnographic study conducted by Signithia Fordham, Bucholtz comments that "some high-achieving African American students were accused by their black peers of "acting white" precisely because of their intellectual performance... the term brainiac refers to an African American whose display of intellectual ability indicates a capitulation to European American cultural values" (Bucholtz 95). The concept of an intellectual overachiever has become so closely identified with being "hyperwhite" that it is difficult for this identity to apply to non-white people, with the exception of "model minorities" such as Asians.

This article from "the Onion" presents an ironic call for more "black nerds" to be represented in the media, noting that Steve Urkel and Carl Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air were the last that the current generation has seen. The article argues that we need "a new black nerd archetype that more accurately reflects the full spectrum of 21st century American dorkdom." Unfortunately, however, it seems unlikely that this will become a commonality until the nerd identity can be separated from the "hyperwhite" identity.

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