Phonetic variation in Washington DC: Race, neighborhood, and gender
This dissertation explores the speech of African American and European American residents in the District of Columbia, approaching from both variationist and discourse-analytic perspectives. The study investigates the linguistic and social factors conditioning the realization of two phonetic variables: the fronting of high and mid back vowels (/u/ and /o/ fronting) and the merger/distinction of low back vowels (/ɑ/ and /ɔ/). A sociophonetic analysis of these variables shows that DC is participating in the ‘mainstream’ U.S. change, in which high and mid back vowels are being fronted, and low back vowels are becoming less distinct. In DC, speaker race is one of the strongest predictors, with European American speakers exhibiting higher degrees of both fronting and merger. This does not mean, however, that DC African American speakers do not take part in the phenomena; a robust age effect among African American speakers suggests that African American speakers not only exhibit evidence of participation in these sound changes, but are moving towards higher degrees of fronting and merger in apparent time.One factor that affects the speech of African Americans in DC is speaker's neighborhood background, in which African American speakers from the Southeast (SE) neighborhoods exhibit different vocalic characteristics from those who are from elsewhere in the city (non-SE). Specifically, SE speakers do not participate in the mainstream back vowel trend of fronting and merger. There is also evidence that suggests further differences even among SE speakers, depending on speaker sex.To better understand the in-group variation among African American speakers in DC, the discourse of six African American speakers who are closely connected to SE neighborhoods, either as native residents or otherwise, is examined. Drawing on Positioning Theory (Davies and Harré 1990; Harré and van Langenhove 1999), I attend to how these six speakers position themselves and others in discussing some of the neighborhood issues, such as SE’s bad reputation and SE’s street-oriented culture. In particular, I illustrate the polarized positions between SE and non-SE speakers in their assessment of SE’s reputation, and also between SE women and SE men highlighted in their discussions of the neighborhood’s street culture.This dissertation contributes to an understanding of DC's vowel characteristics, and furthers the discussion of in-group variation among African Americans by illuminating the varied linguistic and social practices of African American residents of Washington, DC.
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