Political corrections : Language activism and regimentation among high school youth

Abstract: This thesis is concerned with senior high school students’ language activism and their efforts to navigate linguistic norms and language ideological geographies in contemporary Sweden. Guided by the traditions of child and youth studies (e.g., James & Prout, 1990) and linguistic anthropology (e.g., Bauman, 2003; Duranti, 1997), and inspired by the field of linguistic landscape (e.g., Thurlow & Jaworski, 2011), this thesis explores language regimentation as it plays out in the everyday lives of youth. Study I addresses the affective dimensions of language activism and language socialization. Applying affective theory (Ahmed, 2004; Sedgwick, 2003; Wetherell, 2012) enables an analysis of the workings of shame/pride in practices of verbal hygiene (Cameron, 1995) at the high school. Study I shows that shame is pivotal in the processes of language activism at the school, and explores how this activism, being an emancipatory project, produces both political subjectivities and new linguistic normativities and hierarchies. Study II draws on work on linguistic citizenship (Stroud, 2001, 2018) and graffiti as a semiotic mode (e.g., Cover, 2002; Karlander, 2019) in an analysis of bathroom graffiti. ‘Where are all the queers at the school?! I want to hug you’ was scribbled on the door of one of the school toilets, and the scrawl sparked a discussion, unfolding on the door, on whether ‘queer’ should be regarded as an offensive slur or not. The study of the unfolding debate illustrates Butler’s (1991) point about the difficulty of fixing the meaning of identity labels as they travel through discourse. Furthermore, the analytical lens of turbulence (Cresswell and Martin, 2012) captures the interplay and entanglements of ordering and disordering in students’ efforts to assert power over the terms that in turn define them.Study III focuses on youths’ negotiations of who counts as an authentic speaker of the contemporary urban vernacular (Rampton, 2015) ‘förortsslang’. The paper explores students’ resemiotizations (Iedema, 2003) and recontexualizations (Bauman & Briggs, 1990) of US political activist discourse as they insert the notion of ‘cultural appropriation’ into the linguistic landscape of their senior high school. This semiotic work is part of the production of a social space and a local discursive regime that structures and polices behavior at the school, including linguistic practices. Drawing on the circulating discourses on cultural appropriation, students articulate criticism of the way middle class youths at the school appropriate the urban vernacular. Taken together, these studies contribute to a body of research on youth’s lived experiences by investigating the social workings of language policing and language regimentation among youth. In particular, this thesis contributes to the study of youth activism by underscoring the interplay of a political socialization of youth (Yates & Youniss, 2006) and language socialization (Aronsson, 2011; Jonsson, 2018; Schieffelin & Ochs, 1986b). Furthermore, the thesis adds to the long-standing discussion within youth studies on young subjects’ potential to act and assert power over issues that they themselves find important in their everyday lives. The studies show the complexities of situated language activism and offer a more nuanced picture of youth as agentive participants in language policy processes, but also as actors situated in a nexus of forces that condition their subjectivities and thus their ability to act. The studies show that the activism under study is entangled with processes of subjectification and that the youths’ language activism entails a struggle for an authentic voice and the right to define how a progressive ideology should be materialized in everyday language. Thereby, the studies demonstrate the key role that politics of language and language ideology play in the lives of youth. 

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