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J. A. Wasserman
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Shirley Brice Heath's Ways with Words is an immersing ethnography of communication, detailing the language socialization practices of two working-class Piedmont South Carolina communities, Roadville and Trackton, and the effects of these practices on their children's success in school. The peculiar characteristics of these two communities lend themselves particularly well to Heath's presentation of them as gestalts: both are small, geographically limited and centralized, and community members spend most of their non-working time there. Heath's thorough ethnographic description allows her to critique the oversimplifications of other studies of education; in doing so, however, she overcompensates by neglecting issues of class. The greatest contribution that Ways with Words makes to the larger field of linguistic anthropology is its tacit focus on iconicity, which strongly suggests that the emphasis on indexicality to the exclusion of iconicity in contemporary linguistic anthropology is seriously counterproductive.
Language Socialization in Roadville and Trackton
The white working-class families of Roadville have had connections to local textile mills for four generations, their relatives having come from the Appalachian Mountains to work (28) . The black working-class families of Trackton, on the other hand, have only been working in the mills for the two decades since the advent of desegregation (29). Desegregation has had an effect on more than just work: in the 1970s, black and white children started attending the same schools with both black and white teachers, leading to major difficulties for educators
Roadville and Trackton are alike in many ways: both are somewhat isolated working-class communities, neither of which occupy more than a single block, within a larger town. Life of community members, excepting work, school, and church, centers on their respective communities. Although not everybody of working age works in the local textile mills, all families have some members who do. Moreover, both communities are positively oriented toward school, believing it critical for future success beyond the mills. Despite these similarities, children in the two communities are socialized into language quite differently.
In Roadville, babies are spoken to as potential conversational partners from the moment of birth (118). Their actions are assumed to be intentional and meaning-laden, and their utterances taken to be referential (120-2). As they grow older, children are told the labels for things, and adults expect to hear this appropriate label recited upon request (127). Roadville adults value this kind of `right' knowledge that can be memorized and routinely repeated precisely as told.
Trackton stands in sharp contrast; here, babies are not seen as potential interactional partners. They are spoken about rather than to (74-5). They are nevertheless surrounded at all times by multiple ongoing communications, as community life is centered on an open plaza between their houses in which can be heard the overlapping voices of adults, older children, and radios (73). In coming to be competent speakers, Trackton children are on the stage of the plaza where the artful embellishment of stories is highly valued. Whereas in Roadville the rote recitation of conventional scripts is positively evaluated, in Trackton verbal creativity receives the highest praise.
Both people in Roadville and in Trackton tell stories, but the content, context, and purposes of these stories are quite dissimilar. In Roadville, stories are purely truthful and end with a moral that is applicable to the faults of all present, thus building a mutual community identity. In Trackton, stories are fictions that blossom from an initial germ of truth in an attempt to extol one's virtues and gain attention on the plaza (183-4).
There are no books in Trackton except the Bible and lesson books from school, but reading is nevertheless an important aspect of children's lives. It serves functional purposes when interacting with the mailman, and especially when going to the store (191-2). Prices and product names must be read, but text is strongly rooted in its context and visual appearance: when `Kellogg's' is presented in small-capitals, in contrast to its usual looping script, children cannot recognize the word (193).
In contrast, Roadville residents highly value reading as an activity with intrinsic value, but talk about reading is rarely followed up with actual reading (220). Children are, however, read bedtime stories as preschoolers. During these stories, parents ask their children to label objects in the story or occasionally to connect what is seen in the story to real-world information (223-4). After the age of three, however, the active participation of children in reading stories subsides, and children are to sit and listen passively (225-6).
In her description of the oral and literate traditions of both Roadville and Trackton, Heath presents a critique of over-simplified classifications. Neither community can be reduced to a dichotomy of `oral' vs. `literate', as both communities engage in both types of practice. Moreover, the complex and multiple uses of both written and spoken text (only some of which are detailed above) proscribe grouping both all oral traditions and all literate traditions together as `essentially the same' (230). In characterizing these distinct and nuanced characteristics of the oral and literate practices in Roadville and Trackton, she sets the stage for explaining the different experiences and challenges of children from these communities in school.
Roadville and Trackton Children in School
In the early grades of primary school, Roadville children generally excel. They are seen as polite; understand the ties of single functions to single spaces (e.g. a place to keep puzzles, a place to play with sand, etc.) (273); and recall lessons, events, and stories verbatim (301). Trackton children, on the other hand, flounder on all of these counts. Instead, they behave as they would in Trackton, using stories to divert accusations of misconduct and approaching toys and spaces as bricoleurs. When expected to tell stories, both groups of children fail to meet the expectations of teachers, but in highly differentiated ways. Unlike in Roadville, in the classroom fictive stories with ongoing evaluations of events are valued. Instead of such stories, Roadville children tend to deliver chronological recapitulations of actual events (301). Trackton children neither tell entirely nonfictive stories, nor do they meet expectations of setting up the context for their fictive stories (296-7). In both cases, the children's understanding of `story' is conditioned by norms for story telling in their respective communities, which differ substantially from the mainstream values of their teachers (295).
When discussing mainstream townspeople, the community from which these teachers generally come, Heath unhelpfully skirts around the issue of class. Although she does not hesitate to label both Trackton and Roadville as `working-class', she only ever hints at the fact that these particular townspeople are middle class, despite labeling mainstreamers as so in general (12). This omission is likely part of her anti-simplification project, which encompasses not only class, but dichotomies of oral vs. literate traditions (as explained above), race (3), and other single-factor explanations for children's success or failure in school (344). In rejecting class and race and embracing complexity, Heath attempts to dismiss both race and class as simple determiners of school success, which she does successfully by connecting the specific ways Roadville and Trackton children struggle in school to specific practices of language socialization and use in their home communities. By entirely neglecting class and race, however, she impinges on her own ability to connect her ethnography with a larger discourse concerning the reproduction of class. She criticizes `critics of education' for `arguing that the preschool language socialization patterns of the middle class ensure their preparedness in the knowledge and skills of symbolic manipulation of language required for school success' `with more abstractions than linguistic or cultural data' (404, note 1), s. Although she does not describe the middle class aspect of the process of class reproduction, she elegantly elaborates with abundant `linguistic and cultural data' two instances of the working-class side of class reproduction by showing how `preschool language socialization patterns' in working-class Roadville and Trackton ensure the unpreparedness of their children `in the knowledge and skills of symbolic manipulation of language required for school success'.
A Tale of Latent Iconicity
Because Heath is writing in part for a non-specialist audience, she largely refrains from using specific linguistic anthropological terminology. Nevertheless, latent within Ways with Words is a tale of iconicity, which infuses the story Heath tells about the way people use language: iconicity undergirds the linguistic ideologies of Trackton, the language habits of Roadville, and the judgments of students by mainstream teachers. In exploring the ways in which iconicity pervades language in Ways with Words, I hope to demonstrate the necessity for an awareness of iconicity in the description of language practices in Roadville and Trackton and the problems children encounter in school, thereby showing that the focus on indexicality to the exclusion of iconicity in contemporary linguistic anthropological discussions of pragmatics and metapragmatics is seriously counterproductive.
Iconicity In Trackton
One aspect of language use about which Trackton residents have a metalinguistic discourse is the variability in the meaning of signs that are iconic of each other over different contexts and with different intonation. A Trackton woman comments on the importance of understanding context, not merely text, for interpretation: `"Ain't no use me tellin' `im: `Learn dis, learn dat, what's dis? what's dat?' He just gotta learn, gotta know; he see one thing one place one time, he know how it go, see sump'n like it again, maybe it be de same, maybe it won't"' (105, Heath's emphasis). Children must be able to recognize contexts, then, in order to understand language (or indeed any signs), and part of language socialization is encountering tokens of different types of contexts. Building a model of these types is an important part of language socialization as children `continually have to draw analogies from one situational context to another, and to determine how the situational context gives the form its particular meaning at that point' (105). These analogies themselves are diagrammatic icons: the similarities (or differences) in relations between elements in the current context and those in previous contexts encountered lead to similar (or different) understandings.
Moreover, analogy questions that call for the child to drawn on his or her experiences to deliver an open-ended response are the kind of question most frequently asked of preschoolers in Trackton (105). Imagic and metaphoric icons, both formulaic and otherwise, are common parts of adult discourse. For example (106, my emphasis outside of slashes):
Ted: I hear Doug got hisself a new car.
Cuz: Yea, he total his las' one.
Ted: What'd he git dis time.
Cuz: Ya know Robert's car? /looking at Ted/
//Ted gives an affirmative nod//
It's like dat, `cept red.
Children in Trackton are keenly aware of iconicity. Even `preverbal but mobile children, upon seeing a new object, often go and get another which is similar' (106). Older children spontaneously comment on things that are like others, pointing out `"Robert's car'" or `"'nother Hardee's'" while on drives (106).
The importance of context in Trackton, and the way meaning (or even what something is perceived as) is dependent on context, affects interpretation of written text, as briefly mentioned with the example of the transposition of `Kellogg's' above. Text that is presented in a typeface, location, or position other than that in which it is usually encountered inhibits interpretation. This context dependence prevents Trackton children from transferring skills and knowledge previously learned between contexts (192).
Although Heath does not describe it as such, she performs an informal neo-Whorfian experiment akin to those of John Lucy. On the functional level, which `concerns whether using language in a particular way (e.g. schooled) may influence thinking' (Lucy 1997: 292), her trial is essentially a test of how Trackton children perceive things to be iconic of each other. She asks the children to group together wooden blocks that are `alike', and the children invariably first separate out pieces with small amounts of glue on them. When asked to sort them further, they distinguish between darker or lighter grains for both the glued and non-glued pieces (Heath 1983: 107). Interestingly, they pay no attention to size and shape characteristics, counter to what might be expected from Lucy's comparative study on Yucatec and English (1992, cited in Foley 1997: 209-211).
Iconicity in Roadville
Iconic language use in Roadville varies greatly from that in Trackton. Whereas ideologies of iconicity in Trackton are focused on context, practices in Roadville are more text-centric. In summarizing how Roadville children's language use is like their parents', Heath lists three features, all of which are related to iconicity: Roadville children and parents `report exactly how something is said, maintain a single consistent label for items and events, and render stories in absolute chronological order with direct discourse' (165).
`Report exactly how something is said': all reported speech is to be delivered as an icon on two counts. Signs should be tokens of the same type (imagic iconicity) as those being reported, and those signs should be recounted in the same order as originally delivered (diagrammatic iconicity). `Maintain a single consistent label for items and events': a picture of a dog in a book is a `dog', not a `mutt' or `hound dog' or the name of a specific dog, like `Blackie', unless that label has previously been specified as the `right' one (227). In nursery school, children used to their teacher inviting them to `"work with playdough"' will correct a substitute teacher inviting them to `"play with clay"' (165). `Render stories in absolute chronological order with direct discourse': a story should essentially be a diagrammatic icon of a real-life event, with all its parts recounted in the proper order.
The kind of teaching Roadville children encounter in church is iconic of that in the home (and vice versa), reinforcing the same kinds of memorization and labeling patterns. The practices valued in church are the abilities to memorize and recite passages, books, characters, dates, and places from the Bible (140). This kind of fixed knowledge exhibited through exact repetition is precisely what is also valued in Roadville. Even the stories told in Roadville are iconic of Bible parables, sharing such features as moralizing summations, little emotional evaluation, and formulaic openings (154).
Iconicity in School
In school, teachers judge their students on the basis of implicit models for correct behavior and speech. When students deliver performances that are iconic of these models (i.e. tokens of these types), they are judged positively. As mentioned above, children from both Roadville and Trackton come to school with a repertoire different from that expected by the school, and their performances are often judged negatively. Heath focuses heavily on oral and written stories presented by students, and diagrams the features valued for both fictive and nonfictive stories in the school, and those for stories from Roadville (nonfictive only) and Trackton (`modified nonfictive'), in a chart (295).
In preschool, Roadville and Trackton children encounter many indirect questions from teachers that model their teachers' models for politeness, but not their own (279-80). Because they have never encountered questions comparable to these in their home settings, their lack of a type-level understanding makes it impossible for these children to follow the rules indirectly referred to by these questions. Although Roadville children are accustomed to time-delimited tasks such as they encounter in preschool, Trackton children are not. When they finish tasks early, or wish to continue them for a longer period of time, they become frustrated (275)
The difficulties Trackton children have with decontextualization and recontextualization make learning to read particularly challenging, but one first-grade teacher, Mrs. Gardner, uses Heath's ethnographic data to build lessons that work with these children's strengths. Instead of beginning to teach reading based on sounding out elements, she emphasizes the shape of words (286), drawing on the strength of Trackton children's visual acuity (106). Heath details other such teaching strategies that emphasize the strengths students bring to the classroom and that make learning activities relevant to the contexts of their lives in the last chapter of her ethnography, which inspire hope that creative and innovative teachers might be able to overcome some of the difficulties failure-track students encounter in schools.
Linguistic Anthropology Needs Iconicity
Iconicity is not constrained to the language of Trackton and Roadville; it pervades all speech. Any discussion of context is essentially one of iconicity, comparing one set of circumstances to those previously encountered, building models or types of contexts. Whenever communication between people speaking `the same language' fails, it should be to iconicity, and not indexicality, that analysts first turn: interactional participants fail to recognize the context recognized by the other, to know how to speak and act in a given context, or perceive the context as tokens of different types. These are issues first and foremost of similarity (or lack thereof), of iconicity.
In this review of Shirley Heath's ethnography of communication, Ways with Words, I have tried to give it a fair reading, pointing out how it could have been connected to larger class concerns, but generally appreciating its detailed presentation of the gestalt of two small Piedmont Carolina communities, Roadville and Trackton, and their language socialization practices. Because of the unusual connections Heath had with these communities and their especially centralized natures, a comparable ethnography will be difficult to find. The contributions Heath makes to education studies and linguistic anthropology, however, lie less in the specifics of her ethnography and more in its general focus. For education studies, she shows that thorough ethnographic research methods can be applied to increase the success of children in school. For linguistic anthropology, Ways with Words tacitly demands an invigorated emphasis on iconicity. It could be possible to critique my review on the basis of focusing on iconicity to the exclusion of indexicality; however, my goal is not to dismiss the importance of indexicality, but to assert the importance of a ground that has been recently neglected: iconicity.
William Foley, Ed. 1997. Anthropological Linguistics: An Introduction. Massachusetts:
Shirley Heath. 1983. Ways with Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
John Lucy. 1997. `Linguistic Relativity' in Annual Review of Anthropology. Vol. 26.