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Lecture | Sociolinguistics Series

Enregistering Lisa: names as a sociolinguistic resource

Friday 17 September 2021
LUCL Sociolinguistics Series 2021/2022
online | The link for accessing this event will be posted on the LUCL Sociolinguistics Series website


In exploring the concept of enregisterment since the foundational work by Agha (2003) and others, sociolinguists have examined linguistic material ranging from fine sociophonetic detail to macro semiotic categories. In this contribution, I want to engage with one underexplored linguistic resource, namely first names and the language ideologies that are constructed around them. In formal linguistic approaches, debates around if and how names mean are a traditionally difficult topic. Sociolinguistically speaking, it appears straightforward that first names are closely tied to the making and managing of social meaning – indeed, they are almost organically linked to the construction of what Agha (2003) calls “characterological figures”. This is evident, for example, in experimental evidence of name-based discrimination against marginalized groups (e.g. based on race and ethnicity, but also along lines of gender or social class) in sectors such as the job and housing markets (e.g. Carpusor and Loges 2006).

Here, I examine a specific linguistic practice in the use of first names for stylistic moves of exclusion, namely the attribution of fictitious first names to individuals or groups. I argue that these symbolic acts of naming are instrumental in moves of inclusion and exclusion. For example, North American public discourse has focused on the linguistic construction of Karen, as a White middle-class woman performing sociopragmatic moves of overstepping and linguistic acts of everyday racism. Similarly, such characterological figures based on imagined names and their social meanings are widespread in incel discourse (e.g. StacyBecky, and Chad – see Menzie 2020).

I present further evidence for this linguistic practice by analyzing the persona Lisa in German student discourse. Based on data from global and local social media platforms, as well as interview data, Lisa emerges as a young, shallow female persona perceived as entitled and annoying. In her incarnation as Lisa aus Australien (Lisa from Australia), Lisa is a gap year returnee who self-styles as mobile and linguistically fluid. I analyze the mediated material that goes into the construction of the social persona of Lisa, and I discuss some of the implications of this kind of social commentary on linguistic mobility. In particular, I argue that the fine detail of the parody – including its gendered trope of the shallow girl – enables the voicing of purist and territorial stances which are at odds with contemporary ideals of cosmopolitanism and mobility, and which point to uneasy debates about eliteness (Thurlow and Jaworski 2017) in late-modern publics (Heyd and Schneider 2019)

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