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Review of  Indexing Authenticity

Reviewer: Laura M Callahan
Book Title: Indexing Authenticity
Book Author: Véronique Lacoste Jakob R. E. Leimgruber Thiemo Breyer
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.3008

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This volume contains fifteen papers, divided into three sections, preceded by a preface and introduction, and followed by an index. Thirteen of the papers were presented at the November 2011 conference entitled Indexing Authenticity: Perspectives from linguistics and anthropology, held at the University of Frieburg and sponsored by FRIAS, the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies.

Preface: Authenticity: Véronique Lacoste, Jakob Leimgruber and Thiemo Breyer. “A view from inside and outside sociolinguistics.” The editors set the stage for the volume, asking whether it is ever possible to achieve authenticity, whether it is a fundamental quality, or one that must be attributed. Is authenticity essential, constructed, and/or subject to validation—and moreover, must these even be mutually exclusive?

Introduction: Nikolas Coupland. “ Language, society and authenticity: Themes and perspectives.” The author (re)examines the possible meanings of the term authenticity, authentic language, the role of authenticity in indexical meaning, the role language plays relative to authenticity, and authenticity’s role relative to personal and social identities. Coupland characterizes authenticity as an “elephant in the room” that can no longer be ignored, but whose meanings are far from resolved (p. 35).

Section One: Indexing local meanings of authenticity

Chapter 1: Penelope Eckert. “The trouble with authenticity.” Eckert continues with the elephant-in- the-room metaphor, giving examples of which types of speakers would or would not be considered authentic under older criteria. In contrast, under the new “dynamic view of variation […] as constructing as well as reflecting social categories,” authenticity cannot be assigned (p. 44). Eckert presents data from fieldwork at two Northern California schools, in which preteens adopt vocalic variants associated with Chicanos or Anglos, variants which in turn index the quality of being “cool”, or socially desirable, on the local social market, in this case controlled by the crowd of popular youngsters whose actions and language determine what is considered fashionable speech and behavior.

Chapter 2: Lauren Hall-Lew. “Chinese social practice and San Franciscan authenticity.” Hall-Lew reports on the transformation of Chinese social practices in San Francisco from “authentically foreign” to “authentically San Franciscan” (p. 57). Social practices formerly seen as strictly Chinese have also been appropriated by young white San Franciscans. This gives rise to a situation in which these white youth have full access to resources that enable them to “construct a cosmopolitan, transnational-yet-local identity”, while the group from which the resources originated cannot escape a state in between “fully foreign” and “honorary white” (Tuan 1998) (p. 57). Hall-Lew examines the label ‘FOB’ through the lens of interviews with residents of San Francisco’s Sunset District, a neighborhood often described as New Chinatown due to its large Chinese population.

Chapter 3: Lefteris Kailoglou. “Being more alternative and less Brit-pop: The quest for originality in three urban styles in Athens.” Kailoglou investigates the use of innovative metaphors by three groups, composed of people 22-35 years of age. Data was collected at three sites in Athens, Greece, each frequented by individuals known to cultivate a particular style of dress, taste in music, and linguistic usage. Each group endeavored to project a distinctiveness from the other two, although each one also abhorred labels. Members of each group strove to achieve authenticity within the intra-group hierarchy. The primary inter-group distinction was between mainstream and alternative, with the group known (albeit to its chagrin) as mainstream using conventional metaphors, and the two groups considered to be alternative using “instant creations (Hapax Legomena)” which are never repeated or spread beyond the group (p. 90).

Chapter 4: Barbara Johnstone. “‘100 % Authentic Pittsburgh’: Sociolinguistic authenticity and the linguistics of particularity.” Johnstone points out that authenticity used to be deemed a quality with which only a very specific group of speakers were endowed, namely members of the working class who had had little to no contact with outgroup members. Such speakers were thought to offer the best data to study language variation and change. Authenticity is no longer conceptualized in such a static manner and forms of contact that once would have been seen as a source of contamination—such as wider, more flexible, social networks—are assumed. Johnstone analyzes a t-shirt that purports to list the traits of an authentic Pittsburgher. Her analysis makes use of the linguistics of particularity (Becker 1988), a set of heuristics that include such statements as “Texts evoke and reshape interpersonal relations” and “Texts are loud about some things and silent about others; they evoke and reshape conventions about the sayable and the unsayable” (p. 101).

Chapter 5: Britta Schneider. “ ‘Oh boy, ¿hablas español?’ –Salsa and the multiple value of authenticity in late capitalism.” Schneider studies the performance of multiple identities by socioeconomically mobile Australians, who speak Spanish as a second language and take salsa lessons taught by Latin Americans in dance schools owned by Australians of Anglo descent. Following Hannerz (1996), she notes that “[t]he contradictions in relation to ethnic authenticity that emerge in the discourses of Salsa informants […] are partly explainable through the privileged position that the cosmopolitan creates through accessing but not committing to Latin culture” (p. 129). Similar to Hall-Lew’s (this volume) young white San Franciscans, these Australian salsa aficionados are able to access another ethnic group’s authenticity from a transnational perspective, while the non-mainstream group that makes it possible for them to achieve this has no such opportunity to assume and divest themselves of their authenticity at will.

Chapter 6: Monica Heller. “The commodification of authenticity.” Heller analyzes the strategies of Francophones in Canada to sell “Frenchness” to tourists and to confront potential challenges to Francophone claims to authenticity and legitimacy. Phenomena observed include the successful representation of authentic “francité” for Anglophone consumers with a minimum of linguistic accommodation to the latter, the appropriation of First Nations peoples’ indigeneity, and ironic humor in reaction to Francophone elites’ imposition of language standards that devalue the vernacular used by many younger and ethnic minority Francophones.

Section Two: Indexing authenticity in delocalised settings

Chapter 7: Michael Silverstein. “The race from place: Dialect eradication vs. the linguistic “authenticity” of terroir.” Silverstein explicates the phenomenon of regional and socioeconomic speech varieties having indexical functions. He traces the urbanization of the US population and its impact on socio-cultural privilege for the few and the social prestige of their speech. This historical outline sets the stage for the author’s analysis of a 2010 New York Times article detailing speakers’ attempts to eradicate a Brooklynese accent, as well as of the themes that emerged from readers’ comments on this story.

Chapter 8: Graham M. Jones. “Reported Speech as an authentication tactic in computer-mediated communication.” Jones demonstrates how reported speech— at times in combination with emoticons—brings text messages and other interpersonal channels of computer-mediated communication closer to face-to-face conversation. His corpus comes from U.S. teens and young adults. Quotative ‘like’ and ‘all’ serve to index “phatic authenticity” (p. 204).

Chapter 9: Andrea Moll. “Authenticity in dialect performance? A case study of ‘Cyber-Jamaican’.” The author outlines challenges to some of the assumptions of earlier sociolinguistic work. More recent studies, including hers, are predicated on the supposition that authentic speech need not necessarily be spontaneous, that “authentication [is] the outcome of discursive negotiation”, and that globalization has given rise to “processes of deterritorialisation and the recontextualisation of languages and linguistic resources” (p. 210). Using the Corpus of Cyber-Jamaican, Moll finds a jocular or frank stance as well as certain linguistic features to be factors that mark a particular passage of cyber-text as authentically Jamaican for her survey participants.

Chapter 10: Theresa Heyd and Christian Mair. “From vernacular to digital ethnolinguistic repertoire: The case of Nigerian Pidgin.” Heyd and Mair continue with the focus on computer mediated communication and authenticity in diasporic vernaculars. In their examination of Nigerian Pidgin in an online forum, the authors demonstrate how four scenarios figure into the propagation of this vernacular: the Internet functions as a stage, classroom, resource, and infrastructure. Heyd and Mair conclude that Nigerian Pidgin in an online context has become a mobile resource (Blommaert 2010), one that is not bound by the more fixed standards or criteria of face-to-face interaction in order to achieve or index authenticity.

Chapter 11: Akinmade T. Akande. “Hybridity as authenticity in Nigerian hip-hop lyrics”. Akande draws on the concept of ‘glocalization’ (Robertson 1995). Rather than imitating all aspects of African American hip-hop artists’ music, Nigerian performers’ work is characterized by a hybridity in which their style and lyrics contain global elements with references to local places and issues. Akande quotes Omoniyi, who states that “Nigerian hip-hop departs significantly from mainstream norms by excluding features such as gangsta, heavy sexualization, misogyny, politics and monolingualism” (Omoniyi 2006: 198 in Akande, p. 271). Although Nigerian hip-hop lyrics may include some African American Vernacular English, they often also contain codeswitching between Nigerian Pidgin English, Yoruba, and English.

Section Three: Authenticity construction in other mediatised contexts

Chapter 12: Florian Coulmas. “Authentic writing.” Coulmas elucidates the original and enduring role of written language in notions of authenticity from the individual to the national level. He observes that everyone except linguists “tend to regard writing as more genuine and trustworthy than speech [an…] attitude [that] manifests itself in various practices and institutions” (p. 289). Coulmas’ overview of some of these practices and institutions traces spelling reforms, the adoption of new writing systems, the movement away from multilingual empires to nations officially defined by a common language. He points out that the references used for most projects of normativization have been written texts.

Chapter 13: Anna Kristina Hultgren.”Lexical variation at the internationalized university: Are indexicality and authenticity always relevant?” Hultgren questions whether referential and social meanings can always be disentangled, and whether social meaning may in some cases play a smaller role or no role at all in language use. The use of Danish instead of English is advocated by various groups for various motives, ranging from nationalist to egalitarian. However, in the workplace referential meaning seems to be prioritized; and, according to Hultgren’s Danish university science instructor informants, this is the main factor in their decision to use English more than Danish for certain technical terms.

Chapter 14: Martin Gill. “‘Real communities’, rhetorical borders: Authenticating British identity in political discourse and on-line debate”. Gill examines “the definition and production of authentic Britishness” (p. 331, footnote), which, as he points out, is not limited to Britain. Politicians and anonymous bloggers contribute to the construction of an imagined, idealized nation, to be an authentic member of which requires not only the ability to speak English but also adoption of the host country’s customs and culture. Gill shows how this is framed in the discourse of public figures and online newspaper readers as ‘common sense’, thus naturalizing the views expressed and rendering further debate impossible.

Chapter 15: Johanna Sprondel and Tilman Haug. “What’s in a promesse authentique? Doubting and confirming authenticity in 17th-century French diplomacy”. Sprondel and Haug examine the notion of authenticity in early modern Europe, specifically the case of royal ambassadors. They show how acting in an authentic manner could take various forms, and was closely linked to possessing authority—either one’s own or by association. The enactment of one’s authenticity required the regular and strategic use of deception—or dissimulation—thus differing greatly from later senses of authenticity, in which truthfulness is at all times considered paramount. Sprondel and Haug also highlight the ability of written language to enhance claims to authenticity (see also Coulmas, this volume).


This collection of papers provides an engrossing orientation to and application of newer paradigms in the field of sociolinguistics as concerns the question of authenticity. It is directed at an audience in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, in particular although not limited to researchers interested in language and identity, globalization, hybridity, and place-based identities. In terms of organization, the chapters are arranged in a logical fashion, such that concepts encountered in one are often reinforced, developed or refocused in a subsequent chapter. Each paper can also be read in isolation, with or without having first read the preface or introduction, both of which however greatly enrich the reader’s experience.

In terms of content, as editors Lacoste, Leimgruber and Breyer state, the book’s contributors “problematise the ‘authentic speaker’ as a reflection of a complex, dynamic, deployment of socio-linguistic and socio-pragmatic resources” (p. 4). The automatic assignation of authenticity to speakers—or even membership in pre-determined groups—on the basis of attributes such as native language, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, for example, is no longer considered tenable (see Callahan 2012). Membership in or identification with a community of practice may serve as an alternate form of categorization. For example, Kailoglou’s (Chapter 3) subjects are organized into three groups according to lifestyle, while Schneider’s (Chapter 5) groups are based on devotion to a particular type of salsa dancing.

The question arises as to whether authenticity that is discursively constructed and performed is nevertheless subject to validation. As an example, for the evaluation of the Jamaicanness of texts posted on an Internet forum frequented by members of the Jamaican diaspora, Moll (Chapter 9) turns to “native and near-native speakers of JC [Jamaican Creole], whom ‘first-wave’ sociolinguists would accept as ‘authentic’ speakers of the language” (p. 226; see also Eckert 2012). This serves as a reminder of the tension that remains between older and newer means of categorization. In a similar vein, Schneider (Chapter 5) cites a case in which a speaker who would be considered more authentic under first-wave criteria protests—but is unable to effectively contest— the privilege enjoyed by an Anglo “dance school owner, who partly constructs her identity and the image of her school on the connection to ‘authentic’ Latin culture” (p. 125).

Eckert argues that “authenticity is always a claim—whether a claim made by the researcher who assigns speakers to analytic categories, or a claim made by speakers as they define, and orient to, their own categories. The speaker’s claim expresses desire, and is transformative both of the speaker and of the category on the basis of which he or she claims authenticity” (p. 53).
This volume is replete with topics worth further investigation. Among the many questions suggested is: When does self-authentification via discursive negotiation and performance become appropriation, and can authenticities be licensed by one group to another?


Becker, Alton L. 1988. Language in particular: A lecture. In Deborah Tannen, ed. Linguistics in context: Connecting observation and understanding. Norwood, NJ: Ablex: 17-35.

Blommaert, Jan. 2010. The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Callahan, Laura. 2012. Pre-imposition vs. in-situ negotiation of group and individual identities: Spanish and English in US service encounters. Critical Multilingualism Studies. 1(1). 57-73.

Coupland, Nikolas. 2007. Style: language variation and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Eckert, Penelope. 2012. Three waves of variation study: The emergence of meaning in the study of sociolinguistic variation. Annual Review of Anthropology. 41. 87-100.

Hannerz, Ulf. 1996. Cosmopolitans and locals in world culture. In Ulf Hannerz. Transnational connections. Culture, people, places. London: Routledge. 102-111.

Omoniyi, Tope. 2006. Hip-hop through the world Englishes lens: A response to globalization. World Englishes 25(2). 195-208.

Robertson, Roland. 1995. Glocalization: Time-space and homogeneity-heterogeneity. In Mike Featherstone, Scott Lash and Roland Robertson, eds. Global modernities. Thousand Oaks: Sage. 25-44.

Tuan, Mia. 1998. Forever foreigners or honorary whites? The Asian ethnic experience today. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Laura Callahan is Professor of Hispanic Linguistics in the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at The City College, City University of New York (CUNY). She is a member of the doctoral faculty in the Ph.D. Program in Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures & Languages at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and has given seminars on Language & Identity and Language & Intercultural Communication. She is author of the books Spanish and English in U.S. Service Encounters (2009) and Spanish/English Codeswitching in a Written Corpus (2004). Her articles have appeared in various journals, including Intercultural Pragmatics, International Multilingual Research Journal, Heritage Language Journal, Language & Intercultural Communication, and Journal of Multilingual & Multicultural Development.