The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. If you would like to recommend an LSA member for a future Member Spotlight, please contact Brice Russ, LSA Director of Communications.

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Penelope Eckert, Stanford University

Penelope Eckert headshot


Penny Eckert is the Albert Ray Lang Professor in the Department of Linguistics at Stanford University, and Professor by Courtesy in the Department of Anthropology. She completed her PhD at Columbia University under the direction of William Labov, and wrote her dissertation on a moribund dialect of Gascon spoken in the eastern Pyrenees. Two years of fieldwork in a small village in a vast dialect continuum focused her on the social motivations for the spread of sound change, so she turned to the study of variation among adolescents, who are the movers and shakers in change.

She has pursued the study of variation in the context of extensive ethnographic work in high schools and elementary schools, focusing on the social meaning of variation. She is the author of Jocks and Burnouts, Linguistic Variation as Social Practice, and, with Sally McConnell-Ginet, Language and Gender.

Q: When did you first join the LSA?

That must have been my first year in graduate school, 1965. I remember feeling presumptuous joining the LSA, since I didn’t think I was a linguist yet.

Q: How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined?

Well, hmm. I’ve been to 10 Institutes, and taught at 9 of them. I’ve been on several LSA committees, but the memorable one was COSWL, which Sally McConnell-Ginet and I revived from a completely moribund state back in 1989.

Around that time I also co-edited, with Alice Davison, The Cornell Lectures, otherwise known as The Pink Book. This was a collection of papers published by the LSA on women in Linguistics. It grew out of an amazing NSF workshop that Alice organized at Cornell.

Q: How has the field of linguistics changed since you first started your work?

I won’t speak for the entire field, but it probably suffices to say that my first year of graduate school coincided with the publication of Aspects. But more important from my perspective is the emergence of the study of variation. When I was starting graduate school, Bill Labov was publishing his New York City study, and was working on his study of African American English in New York. Variation didn’t have a name.

Since then, the quantitative study of variation has mushroomed into a large and theoretically diverse field, and has spread beyond “sociolinguistics” to just about every other area of Linguistics.

Q: What are you currently researching?

I view variation as a robust social semiotic system, and my work focuses on exploring the full range of variables and the meanings associated with them. Variables take on meaning in the construction of styles, and stylistic practice is essential to the construction of the social world, and to social change. So at the moment, I’m working on the notion of a stylistic landscape, to understand how stylistic elements circulate and change.

I’m also deeply involved with Voices of California, our department's project documenting the English dialects of California. About a dozen of us go to a different big town each year for about 10 days, and conduct sociolinguistic interviews with a broad sample of residents. This project is nobody’s main research, nobody’s in charge, it’s completely collaborative, so it's fun. And we’ve built an amazing corpus that has already been the basis of a variety of papers.

Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today?

The big challenge is to develop integrated theories of language, to transcend disciplinary and sub-disciplinary boundaries. This is particularly acute in the exclusion or isolation of sociolinguistics in departments around the world. I’m fortunate to be in a department that is intent on integration, which makes it very exciting, and makes it hard for me to decide to retire. I’d like to see more people - sociolinguists and non-sociolinguists alike - approaching language as a practice rather than as a static structure, taking seriously the reproductive relation between structure and practice.

Q: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

I think the most important thing is to ask your own questions. Of course, this is true not just for linguists.

Q: What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field?

I don’t know of any other field that has as great a sense of community as Linguistics, and while it may be due partly to the relatively small size of the field, mostly it’s the Institutes. The Institutes are amazing, particularly the ones with good parties and places to hang out. The intellectual part of the Institutes is pretty consistently great, but it’s eating together, hanging out and relaxing together when the day is done that creates community.