Reassembling Ethnicity: Stylistic Variation in African American English Prosody
This dissertation investigates the social meaning of prosodic rhythm (using the Pairwise Variability Index, or PVI) and falsetto phonation in African American English (AAE), and how these paralinguistic features vary within the speech of an individual. Although prosody is viewed as a salient factor of African American English (Spears 1988, Wolfram and Thomas 2002), sociolinguists remain to address how individuals use rhythm and falsetto as discourse strategies in specific moments of interaction to project personal identities and create positions in relation to sociocultural opportunities and constraints.In the present study, I address how sociolinguistic variation can benefit from being integrated with positioning theory and stance theory, by investigating prosodic features used by `Michael,' a fourteen year old African American male from Washington, D.C. `Michael' is a vivid storyteller, and the interview centers on topics involving the social issues with which he and his peers are faced in inner-city D.C., including teenage pregnancy, violence, police confrontations, and death (cf. Schilling-Estes 2007). I focus on how prosodic rhythm is used in constructed dialogue to recontextualize previous utterances in current narratives for the purpose of paralinguistic mimicry (Mitchell-Kernan 1972, Tannen 2007). Stylistic shifts in prosodic rhythm are measured using PVI to determine how Michael's speech fluctuates between more and less syllable-timed vs. stress-timed. Falsetto is investigated in various discursive positionings, and for this purpose falsetto is measured in terms of maximum f0 (Hz), f0 range (Hz), and duration of falsetto (ms).The analysis shows that Michael, in general, uses prosodic style-shifts to be expressive. However, a more fine-grained analysis demonstrates that a stylistic shift in rhythm for Michael is a stance taking strategy that occurs in oppositional alignment with authoritative figures (such as police officers). In addition, the most extreme instances of falsetto in terms of maximum f0, f0 range, and duration of falsetto voice index indignation towards antagonists in narratives told by Michael and, by extension, in Michael's real social world. The current study seeks to contribute to the understanding of African American English prosody by uncovering some of its social meanings, as revealed in intra-speaker variation.
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