The Development of Indexicality: Perceptual evidence from 4- to 18-year-olds

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Despite the importance of the pre-adult developmental period to sociolinguistic theory (Labov 1972, Eckert 2000), children and teens remain understudied when it comes to understanding how indexicality develops. The present study seeks to bring the existing scholarship on child and teen evaluation of language varieties into a clearer dialogue with contemporary theories of indexicality focusing on the social meaning of individual variables. We conducted a matched guise task with listeners from age groups across the lifespan. From a larger dataset, we focus here on comparing the status ratings of adult listeners with those of children and teens, for six American English sociolinguistic variables. Listeners heard short audio stimuli containing unmarked or marked variants and were asked “Do you think this person would be a good teacher?”. Our results show that listeners as young as 4 years old can differentiate variants for status, and that teenagers aged 13-18 tend to pattern with adults in rating unmarked variants more positively for status. In addition, we identify a range of developmental patterns across variables: some, like creaky voice and /r/-insertion, show a unidirectional pattern, suggesting a linear development of status differentiation. For other variables, only listeners in middle childhood differ significantly from adults – for example, 10-12 year olds do not differentiate (ING) variants for status – highlighting the need for further research exploring the social meanings of variants in this developmental period in particular. Finally, 4-6 year olds differed from adults most often, but in varied ways, highlighting this period as one of transitions in which children begin to shift from a caregiver model to a peer-oriented one. In all, the results serve to bolster our call for increased attention to the indexical systems of children and teens, whose rich social-semiotic landscapes deserve further study.

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