Dissertation Oral Presentation

Stylistic Variation in a Preschool Classroom

Emily Lake
Date Range
Tue May 17th 2022, 9:00 - 10:15am
Online (Zoom)


This dissertation explores what preschool children do with style at a time when their social and linguistic worlds begin to expand beyond the home, into the peer group. Grounded in a yearlong ethnography of a preschool classroom, I show how children positioned themselves within the emerging peer order, interacting with the material world—bodies, places, things—to engage in play that gradually moved from fantasy into real life. Drawing on a variety of sociolinguistic methods adapted for this age group, including picture naming games, map tasks and self-recordings, I analyze multiple linguistic features to argue that even young children engage in complex stylistic practice.

I first show that affective vocalizations were used to create meaningful difference between types of play and interaction. In an analysis of two children’s self-recordings, body work vocalizations co-occurred with play that foregrounded physical movement and internal state vocalizations with play that foregrounded the immediate conversational relationship. Then considering one child’s use of laughter across three interactions, I show how more acoustically extreme types were used to construct a high energy style with her best friend, differing from interactions with two adults. I argue that vocalizations should be considered stylistic resources and that affective performance is central to how children navigate style.

As this child had access to two varieties of English, I then turn to whether segmental variation was also implicated in her stylistic practice. I find that she adopted a more California vocalic pattern only in her best friend style, maintaining a more British system with both an American and a British adult. This suggests that dialectal features can hold stylistic meaning even in early childhood. A final analysis then considers the status of the prenasal split (a feature of California English) more broadly in the classroom. I find that variation within a larger cohort was conditioned not only by age and gender, but also by play practice, with outdoor players and older children producing TRAM further from FLEECE and closer to TRAP; a less extreme split pattern than the classroom average. I explore what this might tell us about the presumed linearity of sociolinguistic development as well as the more basic social meanings underpinning variation at this life stage.

Pulling these findings together, I ultimately propose that sociolinguistic development is an indexical process. As children gain access to new ways of being through play, the affective-indexical field expands and, so, children’s sociolinguistic systems expand also. This raises larger questions about how we conceptualize sociolinguistic acquisition, development, and change.