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.