linguistic anthropology

Words have flavors: indexicality, heteroglossia, intertextuality

Let me start with an obvious point: we all have boatloads of resources at our disposal for making meaning. Not just our words — we’ve also got our clothing, our posture, the way we walk — but for now, I’m mostly going to talk about words.

All these resources communicate through indexicality. Basically, they point to other meanings. Classically, smoke indexes fire: it doesn’t look like fire, but it points to it by means of long association. Of course, smoke could mean that there’s a smoke machine rather than a fire. But most of the time, it doesn’t.

When we talk about indexicality and language, we’re generally talking about different ways of saying the same thing, which carry different meanings.

For example:

  • Using a higher pitch indexes femininity. It doesn’t resemble a woman in any way, but it’s connected by regular proximity. When men want to make it clear that they’re imitating women, the first thing they do is raise the pitch of their voices.
  • If I stop someone on the street and ask them for the time, do I say, “Yo” or “Excuse me, sir”? In fact, both are correct — but they tell you different things about me, that person, and our relationship.
  • Speaking a particular language or dialect often indexes group affiliation.
  • Accents index a particular region.
  • Slang indexes a particular age, among many other personal characteristics.

In short, words have flavors.

Consider the word “dude.” These days, it indexes a sort of laid-back Californian vibe, in addition to heterosexual masculinity. It’s not a quotation from a specific original source, but it’s connected to a way of talking, a voice in the broadest sense.

Or consider the words “beget” and “Sabbath.” They’ve both got Judeo-Christian Bible flavor. “Wack,” “talk to the hand,” and “the bomb” have ’90s flavor. “Actionable” and “productize” have corporate flavor. “Occupy” indexes leftist politics and inequality — and it’s only done so for about five years.

As you can see, a single language — in this case, English — always contains multiple voices and varieties. And it doesn’t matter how self-contained and original a single stretch of language is; it contains elements that index various contexts, norms, and voices.

When we talk about this sense that language always contains multiple voices, we’re talking about heteroglossia (lit. “different voices”). (The term was coined by Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin and promptly appropriated by linguistic anthropologists.)

We also often talk about a special case of heteroglossia, which we call intertextuality: the borrowing, quoting, or reworking of a recognizable (oral or written) text.

  • The movie Clueless is a reworking of Jane Austen’s Emma.
  • If I say “Accio pencil,” what am I referring to? What will you do? (I once heard a student say this in class, and another student picked up the pencil she’d just dropped.)
  • Internet memes often blend multiple texts, as do parodies.

So what? Why is this interesting?

Here’s why: both heteroglossia and intertextuality only work as devices if we can assume that some voices and texts are shared. “Accio pencil” is only meaningful if you’re also familiar with Harry Potter; this faux-mercial is only funny if you’ve seen this (real) commercial; a man raising the pitch of his voice to imitate his mother-in-law only makes sense if you share the knowledge that women have high voices.

Language isn’t homogeneous within a group of people, and language is never neutral. Heteroglossia makes visible our knowledge and assumptions of just how that diversity is organized.