Navdeep Sokhey is among 60 scholars nationwide to receive one of the most prestigious fellowships in the humanities.

Sokhey, an assistant professor of Arabic in the Virginia Tech Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, was recently awarded a 2022 American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship for her project, “Personae of Bahrain: The Survival of a Dialect through Social Media.”

With the $60,000 fellowship, Sokhey will have a year to devote to her research, with the ultimate goal of creating a major, impactful piece of scholarly work. For Sokhey, it is an opportunity both to dig deeper into a subject matter she is passionate about and to inspire others to do the same.  

“It was a whirlwind of writing, editing, learning, and re-learning,” Sokhey said of the application process. “The Middle East and many non-European societies are often portrayed through a militaristic lens. We need more work genuinely interested in the people, in understanding their culture and day-to-day lives, and how meaningful these practices are.”

With a focus on social media linguistics, Sokhey said her research explores how sociolinguistic processes of enregisterment — and the creation of personas — promote relevance among Baharna community members and contribute to the survival of dialectal features.

“My research posits that social media provides unconventional, inexhaustible venues through which these features can be attached to influential profiles and remain in constant circulation,” Sokhey said. “This project moves forward the traditional concept of a linguistic social network and redefines the manner in which these networks can drive linguistic change.”

The project, she said, examines the survival of a set of marginalized linguistic features in Shiite Baharna dialects, despite previous observations that those features were merging toward those of the socially dominant Sunni Bahrainis. Her research illustrates the ways in which language evolution reflects the very process of its survival.

“I hope this inspires more research on understudied societies, and that it empowers those directly from those societies to undertake similar research,” Sokhey said. “Specifically, there is a need for more research on Arabic dialects, and I hope this project sheds light on the importance of further research in this domain.”

The American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship program chose this year’s 60 scholars out of nearly 1,000 applicants. The fellowship is awarded to individuals who demonstrate excellent scholarship in the humanities or interpretive social sciences.

“This fellowship is a great boost for an early-career scholar,” said Janell Watson, a professor of French and chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures. “It’s a huge honor for Virginia Tech as well.”

To be eligible for the program, scholars must have earned their Ph.D. within eight years of the application deadline. This year’s program continued its focus on untenured scholars because of the disproportionate economic impact of COVID-19.

“This recognition affirms the quality, innovation, and impact of Dr. Sokhey’s scholarship, which uses social media to understand the survival of dialects in challenging circumstances,” said E. Thomas Ewing, a professor in the Department of History and the associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Sokhey, who earned her Ph.D. in Middle Eastern languages and cultures from the University of Texas at Austin, joined Virginia Tech in 2019. Her other research interests include the construction of gendered identities through speech in Egyptian Arabic.

“American Council of Learned Societies Fellowships are highly prestigious achievements for any faculty member in the humanities, as this very competitive process recognizes only the most outstanding scholars,” Ewing said. “This recognition of Dr. Sokhey’s research illustrates the scope and depth of humanities scholarship in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, as it connects linguistics as a scholarly field with area-studies methods and cultural studies.”

Written by Kelsey Bartlett