Rising Stars: Meet Becca Peterson

Dear Readers,

For several years, we have featured linguists with established careers and interesting stories to tell. This year, we will also be highlighting “Rising Stars” throughout our Fund Drive, undergraduates who were nominated by their mentors for their exceptional interest in linguistics and eager participation in the global community of language researchers.

Selected nominees were asked to share their view of the field of linguistics: what topics they see emerging as important or especially interesting, what role they see the field filling in the coming decades, and how they plan to contribute. We hope you will enjoy the perspectives of these students, who represent the bright future of our field.

Today, we are featuring Becca Peterson, a sophomore at Northeastern Illinois University with a special interest in sociolinguistics and language attitudes. She is the author of the award-winning short play “Talking the Talk,” whose story hinges on “socioeconomic, racial, class, and regional communication disconnects (and connections) among four speakers of differing varieties of American English.”

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There are already numerous linguistic shifts and notions of awareness in terms of political correctness that pertain to the English language. We see this awareness when we think about the heightened awareness of gender as a non-binary entity of the human condition and the increased use of gender neutral pronouns. Many people are practicing these linguistic changes based on their own value of inclusivity that in turn shape language. In decades to come, my conjecture would be that a normalization of gender-neutral pronouns will occur not only in English but in some other languages as well.

A linguistic ‘hot topic’ that I personally would like to see emerge is how sexism is ingrained into the English language, both colloquial and formal. In the media and in casual conversations, it is often normalized to refer to women using animalistic terms such as ‘chicks’ and ‘bitches,’ or infantilizing terms like ‘doll.’ We often hear of both men and women being referred to by the term ‘bitch’ when that person exhibits a particular state of emotionality; but having emotion is a human characteristic and not one exclusively of women. However, people use the term in a derogatory sense to shame men and women for displaying emotion by using a strictly female term, as ‘bitch’ refers to a female dog. Many times, also, women’s occupational titles include their gender – such as with the terms ‘actress’ or ‘waitress’ – which seems to me irrelevant to a woman’s ability to hold and excel in any occupation. I do not believe that it is at all necessary to make the distinction that the person holding the job is a woman.

Another topic in linguistics that I feel is very important is the dismantling of the idea that certain dialects are considered to be more standard or have greater prestige compared to others. Dialects, regardless of which, have a structure and certain logic to them that makes each unique and conveys a sense of identity about the speakers of that dialect. There is no ‘standard’ English dialect, and believing that there is such a thing perpetuates stigmas against speakers of other varieties. Prescriptivist attitudes of language emerged in order to separate social groups and assign a greater value to individuals who learned, wrote, and spoke using prescriptive grammar. I would like to see this fallacy that speakers of certain varieties are inherently uneducated fall off and for a more descriptive view of English grammar to be accepted, particularly in academic environments where students’ adherence to prescriptive grammar is often held to a greater importance than students’ ideas and creative accomplishments.

As a creative writer myself, I attempted to bring this destigmatization of so-called ‘non-standard’ dialects to light in a play that I wrote called “Talking the Talk.” In the play, there are two characters in a hospital waiting room, one who speaks African-American English dialect and one who speaks a variety of Appalachian English. While both characters speak the same language, they have trouble communicating with and understanding one another due to their dialectical differences, particularly in terms of the slang they use. At the end of the play, the doctor’s character, who speaks in some highfalutin medical jargon, is introduced to give the impression that she is highly educated, but then she ends up making some very miniscule grammar mistakes that prescriptivists would criticize. I think the meshing of these three characters in the end conveys my point that dialect is not an indication of education or prestige.

I am an aspiring English teacher and I am fortunate to be able to work in an environment where these conversations about language are relevant. Having an awareness of how language might convey certain values is important, and the great thing about the English discourse is that if the language we use does not match our own values, we can modify our language use and in turn shape the language. Languages naturally evolve in order to reflect the people who speak it as well as their morals and values, so the power is not in the language itself but in the speakers of the language. I intend to instill in my students a sense of awareness and mindfulness regarding language.

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If you have a student who you believe is a “Rising Star” in linguistics, we would love to hear about them! We are still accepting nominations for exceptional young linguists. Please see the call for nominations for more information: https://linguistlist.org/issues/29/29-831.html

If you have not yet–please visit our Fund Drive page to learn more about us and why we need your help! The LINGUIST List relies on your generous donations to continue its support of linguists around the world.

https://funddrive.linguistlist.org/

Gratefully,
The LINGUIST List Team

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