Stanford Linguistics
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Robert J. Podesva (Georgetown)
Thursday 21 May, 5:30pm (Snacks at 5:15pm)

Although one of the earliest urban sociolinguistic studies investigated tense-marking among Washington, D.C. African Americans (Fasold 1972), no large-scale studies have since revisited the intersection of linguistic variation and race/ethnicity in the district. Acknowledging the region's considerable diversity (Manning 1998), this ongoing work locates two patterns of sociolinguistic variation in locally significant discourses of ethnoracial identity and place. The analysis draws on sociolinguistic interviews with 24 residents representing a range of ethnoracial affiliations.

Pattern 1: Word-final (-t/d) deletion (e.g., wes' side) occurs most frequently in the speech of our African American interviewees. Some interviewees overtly equated using such "nonstandard" features with sounding African American, but several others challenged this indexical association. While variationist work often essentializes the link between deletion and African American identity, explanations grounded in the D.C. context are tenable. An examination of intraspeaker variation patterns reveals that Carrie, a 30-year-old African American woman, deletes (-t/d) most frequently when discussing gentrification in her own neighborhood. Given that gentrification is one of the district's most salient socioeconomic issues (Williams 1988, Modan 2007), it is suggested that deletion may serve as a linguistic means of expressing personal investment in the content of the talk. Carrie employs linguistic resources to emphasize her agency in combating gentrification, while Fred, a 41-year-old white man who exhibits low rates of deletion and who uses lower rates when talking about gentrification, linguistically distances himself from the gentrification process. Carrie's and Fred's (-t/d) deletion patterns are examined in relation to vocalic variables which also differentiate speakers along racial lines in D.C.

Pattern 2: Deletion also predominates in the speech of district residents, as compared to suburbanites, independent of ethnoracial identity. This pattern finds roots in discourses, expressed in our interviews, which cast the city as being of color and the suburbs as white (Modan 2007). This urban-suburban linguistic pattern thus recursively reproduces (Irvine and Gal 2000) the ethnoracial opposition motivating Pattern 1 above.

This paper illustrates that, as an alternative to essentialist explanations that unquestioningly associate linguistic features with race, explanations can also be sought in discourses salient to the local community. The analysis, couched in terms of indexical orders (Silverstein 2003, Anderson 2008), also suggests that it may be beneficial to consider not just the indexical relationships between ways of speaking and racial identity, but also how speakers orient to those indexical relationships.