I’ve always been a little curious about what I’ve informally called “nerd cadence.” Probably best typified by the “Comic Book Guy” on the Simpsons TV show, nerd cadence is a form of ultra-precise, highly melodic speech with clipped enunciation that is performed in communities of self-identified nerds or geeks. Like most people, I’ve encountered it off and on over the years, and it was in full force at the new Star Trek movie showing in Emeryville last week. Finally, in a fit inspired by Final Cut crashing on me for the third time I decided to look it up. My knowledge of linguistic anthropology is weak at best, but I was able to find a few sources in pretty short order.
First, I found out that what I had called “nerd cadence” was termed “superstandard English.” In her article, “The Whiteness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness” (and also in earlier article, “Why be normal?”: Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls”) Mary Bucholtz calls the performance of superstandard English “central to nerdy practice… (there) is a particular emphasis on language as a resource for the production of an intelligent and nonconformist identity.” Superstandard English draws on both ideological and linguistic motivations, “contrast(ing) linguistically with Standard English in its greater use of ‘supercorrect’ linguistic variables: lexical formality, carefully articulated phonological forms, and prescriptively standard grammar” to distinguish the speaker from the umarked colloquial standard English and non-standard English. Bucholtz goes on to note the particular lack of current slang, and found that it was one of the “rare instances when the nerdy teenagers (she) spoke to were willing to admit to ignorance.” I wonder how much of that has changed with the growing prevalence of the internet and nerd culture.
Bucholtz frames a lot of her article in terms of the black/white racial divide at the Bay Area high school where she performed her research. This is particularly interesting to me, as I took an Urban Anthropology class with John Hartigan in…2002 (?) at the height of research on “whiteness” and have recommended The Possessive Investment in Whiteness and How the Irish Became White to several of my students who professed a perceived lack of ethnic identity. (Hartigan was great, but I don’t think I’ll ever forgive him for making me read The Future of Us All, Sanjek’s mind-numbing ethnography of the inner workings of meetings in a New York city district. Zoning laws. Parking meters. Ugh.) Anyway, nerds, Bucholtz writes, “inhabited an ambiguous racial position at Bay City High: they were the whitest group but not the prototypical representatives of whiteness.” They were “not normal because they were too normal.” They were not “white because they were too white.”
So, anyway, I looked up some of Mary Bucholtz’s newer work and she is currently studying “The Development of Scientist Identities and the Retention of Undergraduate Women in Science Majors,” funded by the NSF. Hey, cool.
10 thoughts on “Linguistics and Nerd Cadence”
See that’s interesting because I always thought that the precise speech of “nerds” and dearth of modern slang and cadence was an expression of their lack of skill with social cues. Or something like that.
Great post. But “The Development of Scientist Identities”? Uh-oh. I’m not sure I’m going to like what they find out. . .
I dont know about the nerd thing, but your hot!
“When listening to the speech of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, you can become aware of unusual aspects of pitch, stress and rhythm, i.e., the prosody or melody of speech. There can be a lack of vocal modulation such that speech has a monotonous or flat quality, an unusual stress pattern, or over-precise diction with stress on almost every syllable.”
another pop culture example…Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory. Gotta love him.
I think the idea of talking nerdy is to outcast anyone who isnt of the same intellect.
Sounds like high-functioning autism to me, or at least another way of marking your own, unique clique. My teen son with high-functioning autism fits this description to the nth degree. He ceaselessly champions Quechua and other obscure (to me) languages for their regularity; bandies about terms like ‘morpheme,’ and regularly immerses himself in the Web’s sub-sub-culture of constructed languages. Bucholtz is quite right about the unusual lack of slang in nerd speech; my son attacks slang with a vociferousness out of proportion to the misdemeanor of letting slip with an occasional ‘that’s cool.’
Oh yes, count me in. I have toned down my nerd speech, but a couple years ago some people couldn’t even tell what I was saying in my attempt to be precise.
While the material presented here is respected, the notion that the Irish or not Caucasian or “White” seemed offensive. The emphasis on “whiteness” and being male was troublesome too.
Have we already forgotten “Steve Urkel (from Family Matters), Carlton Banks (from The Fresh Prince of Bell-Air), as well as Amy Farrah Fowler, Bernadette Rostenkowski Wolowitz and Raj Koothrappali (from The Big Band Theory)? We need to remember, based on these evidentiary examples, if pop culture media related references can be used, as it appears they can, based on the comments of previous responders to this article, that the concept of one being or considering someone other than one’s self to be a “nerd” is not exclusivity of the Caucasian “White”, Male, Cultural, Ethnic & Socialogical Communities. The references previously mentioned, perhaps it can be contended, point to the universality rather the extreme, bordering on almost predicial, specifity of the articles theories and thus that there are flaws in the journalistic premise.
One point of contention with the above examples is that Carlton Banks was portrayed as being the “whitest black guy” in the show. Likewise, Raj is generally seen as being the most “Westernized” Indian down to playing the trope of metrosexual. Both traits of “Whitest” and “Westernized” were played more for laughs than straight, and Urkel as a character was similar; remember that “cool guy” Stefan wasn’t a nerd in the least and Stefan was also idolized by Steve Urkel as what he wanted to become, establishing a practice of trying to “de-nerdify” himself. It made being a nerd seem more like a disease than a subculture.
The women you mentioned from Big Bang Theory would be more appropriate, however both have a very “white” background to their characters. The show itself also exemplifies the current trend of “nerdy” becoming the new cool. Still, most of the cast can be seeing as coming from the traditional “white” background of money or at least middle class.
One of the best examples I can think of that defies the “nerd” trend would be Topanga from Boy Meets World. Arguably not a classic nerd, she was still shown to be a social misfit and outcast with a high intellect and hobby in literature. As the series continued on, she became more and more similar to the traditional nerd archetype. While white, her upbringing wasn’t normal and she wasn’t made into a joke about who she was. I would say she was one of the precursors of “nerdy” becoming seen as socially acceptable, and part of an established subgroup.
Don’t know if I would consider nerd culture to be “white,” just trying to show how it may better fit with the above article.