Emerging Adulthood in Sociolinguistics



In her landmark paper Age as a Sociolinguistic Variable, Eckert states that “age is a person’s place at a given time in relation to the social order: a stage, a condition, a place in history” (1997:151). Speaker age has long been one of the primary social categories within sociolinguistics, and may be argued to be the sociolinguistic category. Indeed, many of our theories about how language varies and what becomes of that variation are built upon notions of how speaker age relates to and reflects language use, including age-related cut-offs for the acquisition of sociolinguistic variation (Payne [1980]Locating language in time and space, New York: Academic Press), the apparent time hypothesis of language change (Bailey et al. [1991]Language Variation and Change, 3, 241–64), and the relationship of age to linguistic style (Bakht [2010]Lexical Variation and the Negotiation of Linguistic Style in a Long Island Middle School. New York University). However, as Eckert points out, we often do not go deeply enough into the theoretical background that such uses of age entail and that “the study of age as a sociolinguistic variable … requires that we focus on the nature and social status of age and aging” (Eckert [1997]The handbook of sociolinguistics. Oxford: Blackwell:152). Over the course of the last few decades, however, the nature of age has changed significantly for one specific group, that of emerging adults (Arnett [2004]Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. Oxford: Oxford University Press). The theory of “emerging adulthood,” as developed by Arnett over the last decade (i.e., Arnett [2000]American Psychologist 55(5), 469–80; Arnett [2004]; Arnett [2007]Childhood Development Perspectives 1(2), 68–73; Arnett et al. [2011]Debating emerging adulthood: Stage or process? Oxford: Oxford University Press), is a “new and historically unprecedented period of the life course” (2004:4) that has only recently arisen within “industrialized or ‘postindustrial’ countries” (2004:21) and, therefore, could only have been experienced as a specific life-stage by those individuals born after 1975 or so. In broad terms, emerging adults are those individuals in industrialized societies who exist in a transitional period between the parental care and stability experienced during adolescence and the self-sufficiency and stability experienced during adulthood. Though typically made up of individuals aged 18–25, emerging adulthood can span a number of years on either side, encompassing for some a period of life stretching into the mid-thirties, or for others, a short period of only one to 2 years after leaving secondary school. The emerging adulthood stage is composed of individuals who have not yet settled into the long-term choices and life-paths that make up adulthood. Emerging adults often are university students, are highly mobile, engage in large but not necessarily dense social networks, and are generally unmarried (or, perhaps, not in the long-term marriages that are associated with adulthood). If we accept Arnett’s theory that emerging adulthood is a distinct and relatively new psychological-developmental period, then we must recognize that these people, “trying out different experiences and gradually making their way toward enduring choices” (Arnett 2007), also represent a new kind of sociolinguistic actor – an age group that may at once challenge and provide a rich proofing ground for our theories on sociolinguistic identity, variation, and change. In this paper, I describe why the theory of “emerging adulthood” should be incorporated into studies of sociolinguistic variation, describing how some of the basic concepts of sociolinguistic theory may need to be reconsidered in light of this new stage of the life course. I begin by providing background on “emerging adulthood” and the characteristics of “emerging adults” as developed by Arnett and others, focusing on the argument that emerging adulthood is not simply a new way of marking an age-group, but an entirely new developmental stage. Next, I show how emerging adulthood relates to the sociolinguistic concepts of “place” and “network”, arguing that the societal shifts that have brought about emerging adulthood have likewise changed the assumptions of permanence, intimacy, and physical geography that these concepts are built upon. The social categories of “class” and “gender” are then discussed, highlighting how the understanding of these terms among emerging adults is neither predictable nor necessarily consistent across individuals. Especially difficult when discussing the sociolinguistics of class is the intersection of advantage and age that emerging adulthood seems to entail. Finally, I argue that because the characteristic features of emerging adulthood – exploration, instability, and change chief among them – are shared by sociolinguistic innovators, current and future sociolinguistic studies would do well to attend to the theory of emerging adulthood. This is especially true of studies regarding language change and the sociolinguistic leaders of variation. Examples throughout are drawn from my own work with university students in Illinois from 2005 to 2007 (Bigham [2008]Dialect contact and accommodation among emerging adults in a university setting. University of Texas at Austin). My stance in this paper is one of support and full recognition for the validity of the theory of emerging adulthood; for further reading on the debate surrounding emerging adulthood overall, the reader is referred to Arnett et al. 2011.