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Sociolinguistics Summer School 3 (part 2)

Tuesday and time for part 2 of Sociolinguistics Summer School. We’ve still got two sessions to run through; Lauren Hall-Lew and Erez Levon.

Lauren’s session focused on language and indexicality; that is, how linguistic variation acquires meaning and the kinds of social meanings which are ‘indexed’ by language. The term was popularised by Michael Silverstein and is now a central tenet of social meaning theory. I’m not going to cover the theory behind indexicality, but you can read this link to learn a bit more about it. Lauren’s talk was on her work on Californian English and an area of San Francisco called ‘the Sunset District‘ (an area which is settled by both Asian Americans and European Americans). This area is especially interesting because it demonstrates a range of vocalic variation which is different from other areas of the Western U.S. The usual pattern in the Western U.S. is that the vowels of LOT ~ THOUGHT are merging while GOOSE and GOAT are fronting, and these changes are more advanced among younger speakers. In San Francisco, though, the distinctions between these vowel sets are maintained irrespective of age. Lauren’s thesis looks at this in a lot of detail, and her plenary was trying to unpack some of the reasons why Asian Americans and European Americans (particular female speakers) might have different correlational patterns for the three variables.

Lastly, Erez Levon’s session finished us up on Friday with a plenary which showed how we might be able to bring together perception and production in sociolinguistic research. Expanding on work by Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, Erez recorded a speaker and then manipulated a number of features which have been identified in the literature as features of ‘gay speech’ (including higher mean pitch, more sibilance in /s/ and TH-fronting). Manipulating the recording gave him the following settings:

-pitch -sibilance -TH-fronting
+pitch -sibilance -TH-fronting
+pitch +sibilance -TH-fronting
+pitch +sibilance +TH-fronting
+pitch -sibilance +TH-fronting
-pitch +sibilance +TH-fronting

He then had respondents fill out a questionnaire which tested whether they thought the speaker was neat, friendly,  and so on. By being able to monitor which manipulated features the respondent was listening to, he was able to show that changes in their perception of friendliness, neatness, gayness and so on were related to changes in the speech signal. Some of his findings were really interesting, including the negative correlation between effeminacy and friendliness (so the more effeminate a speaker sounds, the less friendly they are perceived), but the biggest thing was that we need to start thinking about how to relate production with perception, otherwise how do we (as sociolinguists) know whether our intuitions about things like social meaning and so on, are right? Thinking about how speech is perceived and accessing that in some way gives more reliability to our interpretations of the speech signal.

All in all, the week was a fantastic success, and the organisers did a great job in bringing everything together in the way that they did. More than anything, though, I was really glad to be around folk discussing sociolinguistic work and hearing about the kinds of research people are working on.

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