Linguistics and Nerd Cadence

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"Geek Girl Blogger" - normalized nerd performance?

I’ve always been a little curious about what I’ve informally called “nerd cadence.”  Probably best typified by the “Comic Book Guy” on the Simpsons TV show, nerd cadence is a form of ultra-precise, highly melodic speech with clipped enunciation that is performed in communities of self-identified nerds or geeks.  Like most people, I’ve encountered it off and on over the years, and it was in full force at the new Star Trek movie showing in Emeryville last week.  Finally, in a fit inspired by Final Cut crashing on me for the third time I decided to look it up.  My knowledge of linguistic anthropology is weak at best, but I was able to find a few sources in pretty short order.

First, I found out that what I had called “nerd cadence” was termed “superstandard English.”  In her article, “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” (and also in earlier article, “Why be normal?”: Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls”) Mary Bucholtz calls the performance of superstandard English “central to nerdy practice… (there) is a particular emphasis on language as a resource for the production of an intelligent and nonconformist identity.”  Superstandard English draws on both ideological and linguistic motivations, “contrast(ing) linguistically with Standard English in its greater use of ‘supercorrect’ linguistic variables: lexical formality, carefully articulated phonological forms, and prescriptively standard grammar” to distinguish the speaker from the umarked colloquial standard English and non-standard English.  Bucholtz goes on to note the particular lack of current slang, and found that it was one of the “rare instances when the nerdy teenagers (she) spoke to were willing to admit to ignorance.” I wonder how much of that has changed with the growing prevalence of the internet and nerd culture.

Bucholtz frames a lot of her article in terms of the black/white racial divide at the Bay Area high school where she performed her research. This is particularly interesting to me, as I took an Urban Anthropology class with John Hartigan in…2002 (?) at the height of research on “whiteness” and have recommended The Possessive Investment in Whiteness and How the Irish Became White to several of my students who professed a perceived lack of ethnic identity. (Hartigan was great, but I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for making me read The Future of Us All, Sanjek’s mind-numbing ethnography of the inner workings of meetings in a New York city district.  Zoning laws.  Parking meters. Ugh.)  Anyway, nerds, Bucholtz writes, “inhabited an ambiguous racial position at Bay City High: they were the whitest group but not the prototypical representatives of whiteness.”  They were “not normal because they were too normal.” They were not “white because they were too white.”

So, anyway, I looked up some of Mary Bucholtz’s newer work and she is currently studying “The Development of Scientist Identities and the Retention of Undergraduate Women in Science Majors,” funded by the NSF. Hey, cool.

Any thoughts?

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9 responses to “Linguistics and Nerd Cadence

  1. See that’s interesting because I always thought that the precise speech of “nerds” and dearth of modern slang and cadence was an expression of their lack of skill with social cues. Or something like that.

  2. Great post. But “The Development of Scientist Identities”? Uh-oh. I’m not sure I’m going to like what they find out. . .

  3. I dont know about the nerd thing, but your hot!

  4. “When listening to the speech of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, you can become aware of unusual aspects of pitch, stress and rhythm, i.e., the prosody or melody of speech. There can be a lack of vocal modulation such that speech has a monotonous or flat quality, an unusual stress pattern, or over-precise diction with stress on almost every syllable.”

    http://books.google.com/books?id=qJZmsp3ZVG8C&pg=PA218&lpg=PA218&dq=prosody+aspergers&source=bl&ots=lDswpMwFvr&sig=EYJLcJ7p9ywh5yxDKzr1NL8PsRw&hl=en&ei=RC-BS4vwJ8jU8Qab7dmfBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=8&ved=0CCYQ6AEwBw#v=onepage&q=&f=false

  5. another pop culture example…Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory. Gotta love him.

  6. I think the idea of talking nerdy is to outcast anyone who isnt of the same intellect.

  7. Sounds like high-functioning autism to me, or at least another way of marking your own, unique clique. My teen son with high-functioning autism fits this description to the nth degree. He ceaselessly champions Quechua and other obscure (to me) languages for their regularity; bandies about terms like ‘morpheme,’ and regularly immerses himself in the Web’s sub-sub-culture of constructed languages. Bucholtz is quite right about the unusual lack of slang in nerd speech; my son attacks slang with a vociferousness out of proportion to the misdemeanor of letting slip with an occasional ‘that’s cool.’

  8. Oh yes, count me in. I have toned down my nerd speech, but a couple years ago some people couldn’t even tell what I was saying in my attempt to be precise.

  9. Ponderously Perceptive

    While the material presented here is respected, the notion that the Irish or not Caucasian or “White” seemed offensive. The emphasis on “whiteness” and being male was troublesome too.
    Have we already forgotten “Steve Urkel (from Family Matters), Carlton Banks (from The Fresh Prince of Bell-Air), as well as Amy Farrah Fowler, Bernadette Rostenkowski Wolowitz and Raj Koothrappali (from The Big Band Theory)? We need to remember, based on these evidentiary examples, if pop culture media related references can be used, as it appears they can, based on the comments of previous responders to this article, that the concept of one being or considering someone other than one’s self to be a “nerd” is not exclusivity of the Caucasian “White”, Male, Cultural, Ethnic & Socialogical Communities. The references previously mentioned, perhaps it can be contended, point to the universality rather the extreme, bordering on almost predicial, specifity of the articles theories and thus that there are flaws in the journalistic premise.

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