“100% Authentic Pittsburgh”: Sociolinguistic authenticity and the linguistics of particularity
journal contributionposted on 01.01.2013 by Barbara Johnstone
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As Bucholtz (2003), Coupland (2007, pp. 25-26), and others have pointed out, what counts as an authentic linguistic variety or an authentic speaker depends on who is counting and why. Sociolinguists have often unthinkingly privileged as their object of study the most unselfconsious, “vernacular” speech in relatively closed, homogeneous communities like traditional working-class neighborhoods, with their dense, multiplex social networks, and in the relatively self-contained symbolic economies of schools. This has allowed us to explore social correlates of variation and processes of change in communities where these things appear least muddied by outside influences, and doing so has given us a solid foundation for understanding patterns of variation and change. But it has also obscured some of the complexity of our topic. By now, however, many sociolinguists are shifting their focus to situations in which authenticity seems a great deal more problematic: situations in which different groups of speakers may have very different sets of sociolinguistic resources, situations in which talk is mediated and performed, situations in which social networks are often looser and more changeable, situations in which the issue of what it means to say something one way or another is more complex. The fact that we no longer take the existence of sociolinguistic authenticity for granted does not mean, however, that the idea is never relevant. We may be skeptical that some varieties and some speakers are more authentic than others, but the people we study may not share our skepticism. They may indeed think of some variants and some speakers as more authentic than others, and these judgments can be consequential, as people choose or avoid particular variants, emulate or fail to emulate particular speakers, and argue about what varieties are really like. In this paper I explore the meanings of sociolinguistic authentiticy in a community where this concept is often in play. My analytical methods are discourse analysis (the close, systematic interpretation of texts and records of talk) in the context of ethnography (rigorous, long-term exploration of the local systems of meaning in which texts make sense.) My primary text is a t-shirt on which appear the words “100% Authentic Pittsburgh.” Under this heading is a description of Pittsburghers that alludes to their putative characteristics (friendliness, generosity, warmth), pastimes (sports and celebrations), and food and drink (beer, pierogies, kielbassi, and chippped ham sandwiches). By means of respelling, it also makes some claims about how Pittsburghers talk (town is spelled TAHN, and ‘N, and wash WORSH). I explore the processes by which all these claims about Pittsburghers are semiotically woven together into a “characterological figure” (2006, p. 177) that evokes the city and which combines images of class and place. Following Roman Jakobson (1960), I suggest that metonymic relationships between linguistic variation, class, and place are both evoked and created by juxtaposition in discourse, on artifacts like this shirt and in many other genres and exemplars of texts and talk.