Dude, Guëy, Brah: taking a stance

 “How do speakers use linguistic form to create stances, why do they take these stances up, and how are forms associated with stances?” (Kiesling 2011)

In the 1982 film, Fast Times at Ridgemount High, Jeff Spicoli, (played by Sean Penn), is a perpetually stoned surfer with a complete absence of appreciation for any kind of authority.  In one scene, Spicolli even has a pizza delivered during one of his high school history lectures, which of course drives his teacher crazy. Kiesling (2004) writes about the impact this film had on his generation in the early 80s:

“I was a teenager at the time Fast Times  was released. The characters in this film resonated with me and my peers because they represented (and satirized) a distillation of the dominant identity types found in my high school of mostly middle-class European Americans. As such, these characters, especially Spicoli, became media “linguistic icons” in Eckert’s (2000) terminology” (p.289).


He goes on to tell how he and his friends adopted some of the linguistic features of Spicolli’s nonchalant, stoned-surfer attitude (a stereotype surfers have struggled to shed with little help from films like Fast Times or Point Break), not necessarily to imitate Spicolli, but rather “to emulate the stance Spicoli takes toward the world.”

Stance, in Kiesling’s words, is

“A person’s expression of their relationship to their talk (their epistemic stance–e.g., how certain they are about their assertions), and a person’s expression of their relationship to their interlocutors (their interpersonal stance–e.g., friendly or dominating)” (Kiesling 2009: 272). 

Exploring how you emulate a stance “toward the world” leads Kiesling to draw an interesting distinction between two types of indexicality: interior indexicality and exterior indexicality.

Take the cartoon from the “Zits” comic below for example:

Dude comic

In each situation, a single index, dude, is used in various male-male encounters to convey different stances, perhaps surprise at running into each other in the school hallway, or negotiating hostility when taking someone else’s candy bar (note the exclamation point and question mark in the second frame for different intonation conveying different stances).

By the way, Kiesling defines an index as

“…a type of linguistic (or other) sign that takes its meaning from the context of an utterance, with context understood fairly broadly, including aspects of the speaker, hearer, and speaking situation…Indexes thus both create and reflect context” (Kiesling 2009: 177).

It’s not necessarily the referential meaning of the word that’s the focus, but rather the stance taken up through the use of this word.  To give an example of an interior indexical use of dude, a stance that might be taken up with this, Kiesling writes, could be “in the middle of a confrontation between two men”… where “the use of dude could diffuse the situation by indexically communicating that the speaker means no harm” (Kiesling, 2009, p. 178).

These interior indexicalities of dude shift from situation to situation with the different stances taken up in each encounter.

But “dude’ doesn’t just index different stances through prosody or facial expressions, it also has ‘exterior indexicalities” which point to broader social meanings, one of which for dude, Kiesling argues, is masculinity.

This is where language ideology comes into the picture, as certain stances indirectly point to broader social meanings, but these broader meanings or identies (like surfer/nerd, masculine/feminine, or older/younger) are always secondary.  Mary Bucholtz puts it this way:

“The social meaning of linguistic forms is most fundamentally a matter not of social categories such as gender, ethnicity, age, or region but rather of subtler and more fleeting interactional moves through which speakers take stances, create alignments, and construct personas” (Bucholtz 2009: 146). 

An interesting point here is that dude, beyond interior indexicalities of stance that shift from moment to moment in interaction such as ‘cool solidarity,’ also ‘points to’ broader levels of social meaning or social identities indirectly, like “surfer” and “stoner.”

So while stance is always primary in interaction, the distance between a stance taken up by using dude and the broader category it suggests can be “short-circuited” through habitual use. 

That is to say, the stance isn’t just interpreted as a momentary interactional move, for example, of ‘diffusing a confrontational situation,” but as a stance seen to be habitually taken up by a particular social group: surfers, stoners, slackers, or skaters.

Kiesling describes how the portrayal of dude‘s use in popular media of “surfer” and “stoner” “counter-culture” and the interactional stances these social groups came to be associated with (laid-back, nonchalant, antiauthoritarian, etc…) was attractive to certain demographics of American youth in the 80’s “and that as the word has become used less and less exclusively by young men the stance meaning has widened” (p. 178).

But as ideologies of language use shift over time and Sean Penn’s Spicolli character fades from cultural memory (but perhaps not since it was recently inducted into the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”) different representations of ‘dude’ in the media and ideologies of who uses dude shift as well. And the sociolinguistics of stance can provide insight into how this happens:

“As sociolinguistics increasingly shifts toward an indexical view of linguistic variation, the notion of stance becomes a critical mediating concept between linguistic forms and larger social structures. At the same time, sociolinguistics has a great deal to offer other scholars interested in stancetaking in discourse, through its careful attention to the range of linguistic resources available to mark speakers’ interactional moves and their broader distribution across social categories and situations” (Bucholtz 2009: 165-166)

Being interested in how stance in interaction influences language variation, one of Kiesling’s claims is this:

“The example of the spread of dude also shows that stance is implicated as one of the driving forces behind language change. In short, people adopt stances when they adopt ways of speaking, and changes spread (in part) because stances spread.”

Below are commercials/skits where these stances indexed by dude, guëy (in Spanish, see Bucholtz, 2009), and brah (in Hawai‘i Creole), are used to convey a range of stances in a variety of situations. What might be the exterior indexicalities of the different uses of dude, guëy and brah?

Stance-taking with the use of dude in a Bud Light commercial:

Stance-taking with guëy in a Coors Light commercial out of Mexico City in Spanish, even explicitly equating dude and guëy at the end.

A skit along the same lines as the above two videos with brah (similar to bro(ther) in English) , produced by a local comedian in Hawai‘i:

One of the research projects I’ve been engaged in recently on language use in Hawai‘i, and in particular Pidgin or Hawai‘i Creole, has led me to explore the sociolinguistic concepts of stance and style from both an interactional sociolinguistic perspective and a variationist sociolinguistic perspective. The project explores how stances and styles are communicated in interaction and the possible variation in different situations and populations across the islands, I’m looking forward to seeing where this research goes.


Bucholtz, Mary. 2009. From Stance to Style: Gender, Interaction, and Indexicality in Mexican Immigrant Youth Slang. In Alexandra Jaffe (ed) Stance: Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 146-170.

Kiesling, Scott. 2009. Style as Stance: Stance as the Explanation for Patterns of Sociolinguistic Variation. In Alexandra Jaffe (ed) Stance: Sociolinguistic Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 171-194.

see also Kiesling (2004). 

the featured image is of me, taking up a Spicolli stance, on an epic wave/parking lot foam ball at the Oregon Surf Shop.

surfer dude

4 responses to “Dude, Guëy, Brah: taking a stance

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