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  • Phonological Correlates of Ethnic Identity:Evidence of Divergence?
  • Matthew J. Gordon

Like clothing, hairstyles, and other culturally variable phenomena, language offers a wealth of resources on which people may draw to meet their sociosymbolic needs. As a result, linguistic features of all sorts may come to serve as markers of whatever social distinctions are seen as important to a society's members. Among the distinctions marked in this way are those drawn in terms of broad categories such as gender, social class, and age, as well as others based on categories that may be relevant only in a given community.

The research reported here examines the linguistic marking of distinctions constructed by ethnicity. The importance of ethnicity as a social factor shaping variation in American English is hard to deny. The sociolinguistic ramifications of ethnic divisions have been explored in numerous studies and have often been found to involve considerable linguistic differences. This is certainly the case with the best-known-and best-studied-ethnically defined variety in the United States: African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which has been shown to incorporate several linguistic features that distinguish it from vernacular varieties used by European Americans (see, e.g., Bailey and Thomas 1998). Of course, in many American communities, ethnic categorization goes well beyond black and white, and so too may the linguistic marking of these categories. There is value in considering the relationships among a range of ethnically defined varieties, as has been shown in studies conducted by Walt Wolfram and his research team in a North Carolina county populated by roughly equal numbers of speakers of European, African, and Native American descent (see, e.g., Wolfram 1996; Dannenberg and Wolfram 1998). A comparable ethnic complexity exists in the community discussed here, and the present study seeks to examine some of that complexity by sampling speakers representing different ethnic groups.

The linguistic correlates of these ethnic categories are examined through a study of phonological variables. A variety of pronunciation [End Page 115] features are investigated, but the focus lies with a set of variables associated with the Northern Cities Shift (NCS). The NCS denotes a pattern of sound change that is currently active across the traditional Inland Northern dialect region, from upstate New York across the Great Lakes area and westward into Minnesota and the Dakotas (see Labov 1996). The NCS involves movement of up to six vowels as depicted in figure 1. The present study focuses on three of the vocalic variables shown here: the raising and fronting of (æ) (the vowel of bat), which results in a mid or higher vowel sometimes accompanied by ingliding; the fronting of (ɑ) (the vowel of box), which approaches an [æ]-like quality; and the shifting of (ε) (the vowel of bet), which sometimes appears as lowered to an [æ]-like quality and sometimes as backed to an [Λ]-like quality.

This study examines the use of these three NCS variables by speakers representing four different ethnic backgrounds. As will be elaborated below, the speakers compared include European Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, and a group of speakers from mixed ethnic backgrounds. The motivation for this study stems from two main factors. First, virtually all the previous work on the NCS has examined only the speech of European Americans. Thus, very little is known about possible ethnic differences regarding participation in these innovative pronunciations.1 This study, then, helps fill a gap in the research on this particular pattern of language change.

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Figure 1.

The Northern Cities Shift (based on Gordon 1997)

The second motivation stems from larger issues in the study of American English. In recent years, many linguists have been debating the relationships among ethnically based patterns of vernacular speech. This debate was sparked by suggestions that American speech varieties are diverging along ethnic lines (Labov 1987; Bailey and Maynor 1989). In particular, this DIVERGENCE HYPOTHESIS refers to putatively growing differences between African American and white vernaculars. The linguistic divide between [End Page 116] blacks and whites is said to widen as language changes develop within one group and fail to spread to the other. The divergence issue is relevant because the NCS is one of the changes that...


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pp. 115-136
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2005
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