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Week 2—Pronunciation guides, or Where do you think I’m from?

Week 2—Pronunciation guides, or Where do you think I’m from?

Main reading: Newman (2002)

Other reading: Ahearn (2021b); Ahearn (2021a); Blommaert (2009); Moore (2011); Silverstein (2022); Thorpe (2015)

Slides for Week 2

“People Judge You By the Words You Use”—Self-help is all about making people feel inadequate, so what better slogan for self-improvement could there be (see, e.g., Elster 2016). I would bet that billions of dollars are made by selling people products to “increase their word power” (Flexner 1971; Funk 1968). We know it’s wrong, but in fact it’s hard to avoid feeling judged not just for what you say but how you say it.

Why do words have power? What power do they have?

Funk’s book says that it will help people master “the most popular language in the world—English!” (Funk 1968, inside cover). Do speakers of other languages also want to have more word power? Why or why not?

Everyday language use is a site of unequal social relationships. But is this inequality permanent?

This week’s discussion is important for defining the scope of this class. It is where two different approaches to language and communication part ways. On one side are people who are interested in language as a system with its own inner logic that can be discovered through the analysis of the form that people’s speech takes. On the other side are people engaged in the social study of the use of language. This view recognizes that languages have a grammar and structure, but also starts from the assumption that speakers of one language don’t have to speak the same way, and that language is a spectrum of variation. To see this, and to investigate what it means for communication, we have to see communication as part of society and connected to social processes. Language is alive and it has a social life of its own: language use has meaning beyond what is conveyed in words and sentences.

For this week, start with the chapter from Ahearn’s text, “The socially charged life of language” (Ahearn 2021b). This is a useful orientation to the scope of this class, and also provides a useful set of concepts with which to understand why people judge you by how you speak. For other, deeper introductions to the field of linguistic anthropology, see Duranti (1997) and Hanks (1996). A good task for the class wiki would be to work together on a summary of the Piercean trichotomy of symbol, icon, and index and to find examples in the ethnographic case studies of the indexical meaning of speech.

Our discussion can cover whatever the group wants to discuss but I imagine that people will want to discuss their thoughts on the other assigned essays and ethnographic cases.


Ahearn, Laura M. 2021a. Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Malden, Mass.: John Wiley & Sons. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444340563.

———. 2021b. “The Socially Charged Life of Language.” In Living Language: An Introduction to Linguistic Anthropology, 3–30. Malden, Mass.: John Wiley & Sons. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781444340563.

Blommaert, Jan. 2009. “A Market of Accents.” Language Policy 8 (3): 243–59. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10993-009-9131-1.

Duranti, Alessandro. 1997. Linguistic Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Elster, Charles Harrington. 2016. Verbal Advantage Success Edition, Levels 1-5. Unabridged edition. Brilliance Audio.

Flexner, Stuart Berg. 1971. How to increase your word power. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader’s Digest Association. http://archive.org/details/howtoincreaseyou00flex.

Funk, Peter. 1968. It pays to increase your word power. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. http://archive.org/details/itpaystoincrease00funk.

Hanks, William F. 1996. Language and Communicative Practices. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press. https://search.alexanderstreet.com/view/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cbibliographic_details%7C1677272.

Moore, Robert. 2011. “‘If I Actually Talked Like That, I’d Pull a Gun on Myself’: Accent, Avoidance, and Moral Panic in Irish English.” Anthropological Quarterly 84 (1): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41237479.

Newman, Barry. 2002. “Accent.” The American Scholar 71 (2): 59–69. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41213291.

Silverstein, Michael. 2022. Language in Culture: Lectures on the Social Semiotics of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009198813.

Thorpe, David. 2015. “Who Sounds Gay?” The New York Times, June 23, 2015, sec. Opinion: Op-docs. https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000003757238/who-sounds-gay.html.

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