Penelope Eckert is a professor of linguistics at Stanford University in Stanford, California. She is a prominent scholar of variationist sociolinguistics, and is the author of several scholarly works on language and gender. She received her PhD in linguistics in 1978 from Columbia University, where she was a student of William Labov.
Her more recent work focuses on the relation between variation, linguistic style, social identity and social practice. She has an interest in adolescents and pre-adolescents, "the movers and shakers in linguistic change," and language and gender, which she calls "the big misunderstood in studies of sociolinguistic variation”
Theories of sociolinguistic variation overwhelmingly accept the view of language as a cognitive structure existing for the expression of propositional meaning. Variation occupies the edge of this structure as it interfaces passively with an external social world. It reflects the speaker’s relation to macro-social categories (e.g. class, gender, ethnicity, age), and it is a necessary mechanism for linguistic change. But it is also viewed as a potential problem, interfering with lexical processing. This view treats the social meaning of variation as limited and peripheral, almost incidental.
Presenting a wide variety of data, this talk will present the view that socially meaningful variation is anything but limited and peripheral. Language and the social are learned together, hence are inseparable. Variation is a design feature of language, a robust system of indexical signs enabling the continual construction of social meaning. Thus variation does not simply reflect, but constructs, the social.