Voices, bodies, and the cultural organization of meaning

Reading by Professor of sociolinguistics Erez Levon (Universität Bern).


In this talk, I examine the relationship between the “arbitrary content of culture” (Bourdieu 1977) and some of the non-arbitrary ways in which linguistic variation takes on meaning. Studies of non-arbitrary meaning in linguistics have focused on the iconic properties of the speech signal itself (e.g., an association between higher-frequency sounds and smallness). I discuss these ideas about sound symbolism with research on embodied behavioural codes, which link particular forms of bodily comportment and their associated qualia to specific social categories and positions. Certain claims about sound symbolic meanings may be better interpreted as derived effects of socially meaningful bodily hexis. My arguments are illustrated through a consideration of two variables, both of which have received widespread attention in the literature on variation in English: the backing and lowering of the short front vowels and the fronting/backing of /s/. I discuss how treating these variables from the perspective of socially inculcated bodies can provide a unified account of their observed sociolinguistic patterning and help to shed light on how variables accrue social meaning and the role of the body in the process.