Intra-Speaker Variation and Sociophonetic Identity Construction in Political Rhetoric

A Study of Barack Obama and Ben Carson's Speaker Design Strategies in High Performance Events with regard to Style-Shifting between African American English and General American English

Examination Thesis, 2018

130 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents


Chapter 1: Style & Style-Shifting
Labov's Attention To Speech
Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory
Bell's Audience Design
Speaker Design Approaches
Language, Identity And Politics

Chapter 2: African American English
Features Of African American English

Chapter 3: Persons Of Interest
Biography Barack Obama
Biography Ben Carson

Chapter 4: Contextualization Of Speech Samples
Barack Obama: Speeches And Interviews
Ben Carson: Speeches And Interviews

Chapter 5: Methodology And Variables

Chapter 6: Findings
Barack Obama: Speeches
Barack Obama: Interviews
Topic And Setting
Ben Carson: Speeches
Ben Carson: Interviews
Topic And Setting

Chapter 7: Discussion
Responsive-Based Approaches To Style-Shifting
Speaker Design Approaches To Style-Shifting
Linguistic Authenticity





Political speeches represent “public speaking events in which language form and usage are inherently foregrounded and highlighted” (Soukup 2012, p.84), events which Coupland refers to as “high performances” (2007, p.147). As such, it is all the more surprising that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was accused of speaking in a “ghetto-style [and] feigned accent” (Sowell 2012, n.p.), during one these high performance political events, which are usually considered “highly constrained stylistic contexts” (Hernández-Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa 2012, p.8). The event in question was a rally held at Hampton University in 2007 (while Obama was running for presidency for the first time) and caused controversy five years later. FOX News reporters and other commentators – such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity – accused Obama of “playing race” and employing a “fake accent” (Sowell 2012, n.p.) when speaking in front of the predominantly black audience. The idea for this study was initially sparked by this controversy surrounding Obama's linguistic choices during the 2007 Hampton University rally, and was furthered by other remarks made about his language use, such as a comment by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who stated that “[Obama] speaks with no Negro dialect, unless he wants to have one” (Alim & Smitherman 2012, p.1).

Similarly to the way in which bilingual speakers code-switch between different languages, speakers can style-shift if they control different varieties, registers or the like, of a single language (Ervin- Tripp 2001, p.44). Style-shifting is the selective production and exclusion of certain linguistic features from one's linguistic repertoire (Davies 2007, p.71) and individuals utilize these linguistic features as a way of negotiating and constructing meaning (Eckert 2001, p.119). Style-shifting can function to “indicate a change in the speech situation, such as topic, audience, or setting, or it may serve a speaker's 'metaphorical' or 'rhetorical' purposes” (Strand 2012, p.185). In the case at hand, style-shifting between the more vernacular variety African American English (AAE) and the 'standard' variety General American English (GAE) is under discussion.

Style-shifting within the political sphere is not uncommon. Many politicians have been observed to adjust their language on a regular basis, so as to make them appear more favorable in the eyes of their respective audiences; thus, the use of style-shifting to cultivate support among different speech communities is a known rhetorical tool for politicians. Bill Clinton, for instance, is known for successfully deploying a “folksy” (Alim & Smitherman 2012b, p.1) style when addressing predominantly black audiences and audiences in the South. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, has been mocked for “faking” (Bischoff et al. 2012, p.405) a Southern accent. This being said, the way in which a politician chose to say something had never caused more controversy than what they chose to say before the scandals surrounding Obama's conspicuous use of AAE at Hampton University; it can be argued that this happened because of the racial component that Obama's African descent added to the debate.

This study investigates the linguistic performances of two black politicians from the United States – namely, Barack Obama and Ben Carson – when addressing audiences of differing ethnic composition. Obama's use of vernacular speech at Hampton University was considered controversial due to the stigmatized nature of AAE use within formal contexts, which nevertheless enjoys covert prestige as a marker of solidarity and identity (Labov 2006, p.58). Ben Carson was chosen as a foil, due to crucial similarities between the two politicians. For each of them, speech samples from two speeches and two interviews were selected for analysis, whereby one speech/interview was given in front of a predominantly white audience and the other speech/interview was given in front of a predominantly black audience. In order to determine if, when, and to what extent Obama and Carson employ features of AAE in these 'high performance' political events, an acoustic analysis of three sociophonetic variables indexical of AAE is undertaken. Focusing on the patterns of these three phonological features of AAE versus their 'standard' GAE counterparts, the linguistic outputs of Obama and Carson are investigated individually and in comparison to each other. Additionally, research on style-shifting, contextualization of the speeches and interviews, insights about AAE and the biographical backgrounds of Obama and Carson are discussed to explain their respective stylistic choices. In summary, Obama and Carson's sociophonetic construction of identity and achieving of situational goals through style-shifting between AAE and GAE in 'high performance' political events is examined in this study.

The study at hand was initially designed to include interviews conducted by the author with the two ex-candidates, based on the model of a similar study conducted by Hernández-Campoy & Cutillas- Espinosa (2012). Unfortunately, it was not possible to conduct interviews with either Obama or Carson despite several inquiries. These interviews could have provided pivotal insights into the candidates' motivations to style-shift in political discourse, their general language ideologies, and their attitudes towards AAE and GAE. In addition – under the assumption that the answers would be given truthfully – the interviews could have revealed how consciously Obama and Carson style- shift during their 'high performances' and what they consider to be their personal 'vernacular/s' (in the sense of most natural speech). Methodologically, the information elicited in these interviews could have provided confirmation (or not) of the author's interpretations of the results; these diagnostic remarks must therefore remain speculative to a certain degree.

Chapter 1 situates the study in the context of traditional and present-day research on style and style- shifting, where a paradigm shift is currently underway. Traditional responsive-based approaches – such as Labov's Attention To Speech Theory – are being increasingly criticized for not being holistic enough and for being insufficient to account for all intra-speaker variation. A shift towards initiative-based approaches to stylistic variation is taking place – summarized under the collective term Speaker Design – where style-shifting is no longer seen as a mere response to external factors. This orientation towards a social constructivist framework sees the individual voice “as a potential agent of choice rather than a passive, socially constructed vehicle for circulating discourse” (Johnstone 2000, p.417). With reference to the Speaker Design Model, the study at hand focuses on language use and style-shifting as essential tools to create/project identity and to achieve situational goals. Especially within the political realm, speakers make use of their linguistic repertoire in order to make certain facets of their identity more or less salient,with the aim of gaining support among their constituencies (Podesva et al. 2012, p.61). The information gathered in this chapter is used later on in an attempt to explain the stylistic choices of Barack Obama and Ben Carson.

Chapter 2 provides an in-depth overview of the variety under investigation – namely, African American English. Its terminology, genesis and usage as well as its indexical phonological, grammatical, lexical and prosodic features are presented. This provides insights into the variety's history and the language attitudes connected to it, helping the reader to better understand AAE as a whole. The presented features provide the basis to recognize shifts between AAE and GAE in the acoustic analysis of the speech samples – the three phonological variables (ING), (AI) and (R) were selected for this purpose .

As Hernández-Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa have shown, it is impossible to understand how and why individuals style-shift without understanding their “political, social and linguistic identity and ideology” (2012, p.41). Chapter 3 gives insight into the lives of Barack Obama and Ben Carson by providing biographical information with special attention to the linguistic influences they have been exposed to throughout their lives. The chapter demonstrates that crucial similarities make Carson the ideal foil candidate for Obama, while certain contrasts promise to generate interesting results in the study's comparison of their stylistic choices and sociophonetic construction of identity.

Chapter 4 presents the occasions and events of the four interviews and four speeches that are being analyzed. When it comes to public speech acts, context is vital (Batluk 2011, p.2). The contextualization of the speech samples provides necessary information on setting and purpose, as well as the affirmation of the appropriate audiences, while their content-related investigation ensures valid comparability among them. It was of crucial importance to find one speech and one interview in front of a predominantly black and predominantly white audience containing overlapping topics for each of the candidates – in order to find out what factors were key to Obama and Carson's style-shifting, and to allow for a comparison between the two.

Chapter 5 provides a detailed description of the methodology applied in this study and introduces the three sociophonetic variables chosen to distinguish between AAE and GAE passages within the speech samples. The three variables – (ING), (AI) and (R) – were selected because especially in high performance contexts have phonological variables “shown to play a key role in indexing a particular identity or persona” (Sclafani 2012, p.122). Furthermore, are their respective AAE and GAE variants easily distinguishable in an acoustic analysis.

The results of the acoustic analyses for both Obama and Carson's cases of speaker design practice in political discourse, whether or not they shifted between AAE and GAE, when these shifts occur, and to what extent they were present are presented in Chapter 6. This is based on whether features of AAE – strictly speaking, the variants indexical of AAE from the variables (ING), (AI), and (R) – are detected in the analyzed audio samples. A further, more in-depth analysis is undertaken of Obama's controversial speech at Hampton University in order to verify or debunk his use of highly vernacular – and therefore stigmatized – features of AAE (which are presumed to have caused the controversy and led commentators to use terms such as “ghetto-style” when describing Obama's language).

Chapter 7 discusses the presented findings in relation to the different approaches to style-shifting introduced in Chapter 1. The traditional responsive-based approaches and the more contemporary Speaker Design approach are applied to each candidate's results both individually and jointly, with the aid of the information gathered on the AAE variety, the politicians' biographical backgrounds, and the contextualization of the speech samples.

In closing, a conclusion summarizes the most important insights achieved by the study. Transcripts for the analyzed speech samples can be found in the Appendix.

Chapter 1: Style And Style-Shifting

In order to analyze if; to what extent; in what form; and why Obama and Carson speak differently when addressing different audiences, the concepts of style and style-shifting are introduced in this chapter.

Speech is influenced by multiple different factors, and sociolinguists have tried to pinpoint these in an attempt to analyze how strongly they can affect a given speaker's style 1. Language style is the variation present in the speech of any given individual speaker (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.387), meaning we can classify “style” as intra-speaker variation; inter-speaker variation, on the other hand, is the variation which is present across whole groups of speakers (Schilling-Estes 2008, p.375). Switching between a range of speech styles – for example by employing features of different varieties like AAE and GAE – within the same conversation or the same speech act is called style-shifting. Schilling-Estes (2008, p.376) defines style-shifting as “shifts into and out of different language varieties, and shifts in usage levels for features associated with these varieties[,]” which may be “deliberate and involve the self-conscious use of features of which the speaker and audience are very aware, or they may be unconscious, involving features that people do not even realize they are using.” These shifts might only last for a few seconds or make up large parts of a person's daily utterances, whether they are verbal or written. People engage in style-shifting, “because language variation is intricately tied to social meaning” and use it to “convey, shape, and re-shape social, interpersonal, personal, and sociolinguistic meanings” (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.387).

Within sociolinguistics, there is no unified theory to explain what exactly constitutes style, or why speakers use certain styles in certain situations. What has widely been agreed upon, however, is that style operates on all linguistic levels: phonological, grammatical, lexical, semantic, pragmatical and discoursive. Additionally, it is widely recognized that style may be influenced by a significant range of social factors and contexts, such as: type of audience, type of channel, topic, mode, age, gender, social class, genre, setting and situation (Patrick 2016, n.p.). Also agreed on is the fact that there are different types of style-shifting, including shifting between features associated with different registers, dialects ('crossing'), varieties and languages ('code-switching') (Mendoza-Denton 2008, p.482). Since the boundaries between these types of style-shifting are often unclear, it makes sense “to think about stylistic variation […] in terms of stylistic repertoires” (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.391) that speakers can draw on, rather than thinking about it as switching back and forth between certain categories. The term “repertoire” comprises the “collection of linguistic features that each individual has at his or her disposal at any given moment, to be employed as needed for different social, interactional and personal reasons” (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.391). The notion of the stylistic repertoire is an important one for the study at hand; an assessment of Obama and Carson's individual linguistic repertoires is given in Chapter 3.

Scholars in the field of sociolinguistics have developed various different approaches to explain what constitutes style and why speakers and interlocutors (choose to) speak in a particular manner on a particular occasion. This chapter introduces the most important approaches on the topics deemed relevant for this study. The early approaches on language style are closely linked to three big names in sociolinguistics: William Labov, who lay down the groundwork for the idea of style and stylistic variation in the 1960s, with his Attention To Speech approach (Labov 1966); Howard Giles, who developed the Accommodation Theory in the 1970s (Giles & Powesland 1975); and Allan Bell, who devised the theory of Audience Design in the 1980s (Bell 1984). Contemporary scholars developing theories on style and style-shifting in Speaker Design approaches include Coupland (1985, 2001), Schilling-Estes (1999), Eckert (2000), Podesva (2008) and Hernández-Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa (2012).

Labov's Attention To Speech

The idea of style and stylistic variation was first introduced by William Labov, based on his Lower East Side New York study, which was published in 1966 (though he did not use the terms “style/style-shifting” back then). He found that “there are no single style speakers” (Labov 1984, p.29) and produced empirical evidence that virtually every person engages in style-shifting. Labov's studies enabled him to observe that the use of a more 'casual' style is the result of unmonitored speech, whereas the subjects of his study made use of a more 'formal' style at times when they were more actively aware of their speech (Mather 2012, p.339). According to this first encounter with the concept of style, Labov described style and style-shifting as dependent on the attention paid to speech (Coupland 2007, p.36). Thus, one important factor influencing the way we speak is how self-aware we are at the times when we talk (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.391). This can be observed in everyday life: people mostly speak in more formal or more 'standard' speech during occasions such as job interviews, but when chatting to friends or family they tend to speak in a more casual and relaxed manner.

Labov conceived of the sociolinguistic interview in order to measure different speech styles, which he saw as ranging “along a single dimension, measured by the amount of attention paid to speech” (Labov 1984, p.29). The most natural speech was gathered through conversation about personal and emotional subjects – such as near-death experiences – while increasingly careful speech was obtained by having participants read out passages, word lists and eventually minimal pairs. Labov's main goal was to elicit the most casual and natural speech, since he assumed that each speaker had a single vernacular; which would provide “the most systematic data for linguistic analysis” (Labov 1984, p.29)2. These studies were among the first to produce regular patterns of stylistic variation across social groups. More specifically, “speakers used stigmatized dialect features […] at progressively lower frequency as they moved from casual style to minimal pair style[,] […] which mirrors the patterning of stigmatized features as one moves from the lowest to highest socioeconomic class” (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.391). If applying Labov's Attention To Speech theory to the study at hand, one would expect Obama and Carson not to use features of AAE in the analyzed speech samples for a few different reasons, including but not limited to: all of the interviews and speeches took place in formal settings; both Obama and Carson have a high socioeconomic background; and both were under public scrutiny (and can therefore be assumed to pay careful attention to their speech).

Although Labov's “Attention to Speech” is an important concept in the sociolinguistic study of style, it has been deemed insufficient as a lone-standing tool for the analysis of this study's speech samples. For starters, Labov's approach was interview-based, where speech was treated primarily as a responsive action – a methodology significantly different to that of this study. Additionally to this, several researchers have questioned Labov's theoretical and methodological assumptions (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.395) as well as the validity of the Attention To Speech theory as the only or primary cause for style-shifting (Bell 1984, p.149). As a result, looking exclusively at Labov's understanding of style and stylistic variation has been considered inadequate for the purpose of this study. As such, further theories of style in which other factors are taken into account – such as the abundance of self-conscious speech which Labov's initial Attention To Speech approach largely disregarded – are presented.

Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory

Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory – first compiled in the 1970s as Speech Accommodation Theory – focuses on the psycholinguistic mechanisms that are at work when people communicate. While Labov explained style-shifting through a speaker's internal perceptual process, Giles focused on the idea that style could be explained as the conscious designing of speech style in relation to audience (Coupland 2007, p.54). Through the Communication Accommodation Theory, Giles argues that “an individual can induce another to evaluate him more favorably by reducing dissimilarities between them” (Giles & Powesland 1979, p.157). This may happen by adapting to the speech partner's dialect, sociolect, accent, content of speech, speech rate, and others.

In most cases, speech accommodation takes place as a convergence meaning that a speaker changes his/her way of speaking (i.e. his/her style) in order to make it more similar to his/her speech partner's. Giles argues that this happens through people's “desire for social approval” (Giles & Powesland 1979, p.157) but also that it happens as a way to achieve increased communication effectiveness, a significant driver for linguistic variation among speakers. Divergence happens when a speaker wants to estrange himself/herself from their speech partner, and does so by employing linguistic features dissimilar to his/her speech partner's.

“[B]oth the motivations of the individual speaker and the social relations among speakers and addressees are essential” (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.397) to Giles' theory of style-shifting, which is rooted in theories of social psychology. This theoretical framework could help explain the potential use of AAE variants by Obama and Carson as an attempt to gain approval from the audience through converging into what they might assume to be the audience's way of speaking. Furthermore, Giles argues that “[a]ccommodation through speech can be regarded as an attempt on the part of the speaker to modify or disguise his persona in order to make it more acceptable” (Giles & Powesland 1979, p.158) to the person(s) addressed. It is no secret that Obama and Carson do not only want their audiences' approval, but their support and, ultimately, their votes. Whether the employment of certain features of AAE or even a potential full shift to AAE was natural for Obama and/or Carson; whether it was an attempt to achieve unobstructed communication; or whether the style change was a manipulative and calculating way to win votes cannot be determined in this study with certainty, but is nonetheless discussed later. In summary, Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory adds the notion of self-conscious speech to Labov's approach, but interprets this self-conscious style-shifting as a response of the speaker to his interlocutors.

Bell's Audience Design

Along with other sociolinguists, Allan Bell has openly criticized Giles' speech accommodation model for “its linguistic naivety […] [as] its language parameters are either quasilinguistic (speech rate, utterance length) or deliberately unsophisticated ratings of 'accent'” (Bell 1984, p.163). Bell's approach to style and style-shifting is similar to Giles' and was inspired by it, but includes linguistic mechanisms that are lacking in the Communication Accommodation Theory. Contrary to Labov's claims, Bell suggests that the listening audience is the main motivation for a speaker's style-shifting, not attention to speech. Bell argues that “[s]peakers design their style primarily for and in response to their audience” (Bell 2001, p.143).

According to Bell, style is what an individual speaker does with a language in relation to other people (Bell 1997, p.240). He argues that “variation on the style dimension within the speech of a single speaker derives from and echoes the variation which exists between speakers on the 'social' dimension” (Bell 1984, p.151). In other words, he suggests that style derives its meaning from the association of linguistic features with particular social groups. In order to explain the concept of style-shifting, Bell developed the idea of Audience Design, which he describes as follows:

It assumes that persons respond mainly to other persons, that speakers take most account of hearers in designing their style […]. [S]peakers design their style for their audience. Differences within the speech of a single speaker are accountable as the influence of the second person and some third persons, who together compose the audience to a speaker's utterances (Bell 1984, p.159).

According to Bell, speakers design their speech style mainly for and in response to their audience, consequently shifting their style as a reaction to a change in their audience. Studies even found that “[w]ithout a specific audience, speakers associated topics with an imaginary audience” (Mendoza- Denton 1999, p.239). As opposed to Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory, Bell's theory of Audience Design places emphasis on linguistic mechanisms and relations of communication, rather than psychological mechanisms. It is a different form of accommodation: Bell argues that “[s]tyle is essentially [a] speaker's response to their audience. In audience design, speakers accommodate primarily to their addressee” (Bell 1984, p.1).

Audience Design is especially relevant to this study because it applies to monolingual style-shifting, but even more importantly than any kind of shift taking place, “Audience Design applies to all codes and levels of a language repertoire” (Bell 2001, p.144). Applying Bell's original Audience Design approach to the study at hand, one would expect both Obama and Carson to shift between varieties depending on the audience they are addressing. In short, features of AAE would be expected to be employed in the addressing of predominantly black audiences and/or interlocutors, and the same would be expected of the employment of GAE in the addressing of predominantly white audiences and/or interlocutors.

In time, Bell expanded his theory further, adding aspects such as “style as initiative” and Referee Design”. All the factors influencing a speaker's style that have been mentioned thus far are referred to as the responsive dimension of style, however Bell went on to expand on the notion of self- conscious speech introduced by Giles by introducing an initiative dimension of style, whereby the speaker style-shifts not as a response to a change in audience or situation, but through his/her own initiative, thereby proactively “shaping and re-shaping interactional norms and social structures, rather than simply accommodating to them” (Hernández-Campoy & Cutillaz-Espinosa 2012, p.4). According to Bell, style can also be understood as an initiative by the speaker to actively influence or “redefine the existing situation” (1984, p.161). Closely linked to initiative style-shifts is the idea of Referee Design, “by which the linguistic features associated with a referee group can be used to express identification with that group” (Bell 2002, p.16); in this scenario, style-shifting occurs as a response to a referee group that is not present in the communication situation but still affects the speaker. Potential referee groups for Carson and Obama (while speaking in front of predominantly black audiences) could be the majority of white voters, the general public, the media and their fellow politicians – or a combination of any of those.

Bell's theory of Audience Design is useful because it applies to all codes and levels of a speaker's linguistic repertoire whereas the theory of Referee Design is useful because it understands style as a function to indicate affiliation with a specific community and an expression of shared identity (Bell 1984, p.16 & 193). Bell's idea of an initiative dimension of style has been developed further by scholars such as Coupland (1985, 2001), Eckert (2000), Schilling-Estes (1999), and Hernández- Campoy and Cutillas-Espinosa (2012) – to name but a few – whose approaches are collected under the umbrella term of “Speaker Design”. From a historical perspective, the Speaker Design approaches can be correlated with the third wave of variation study (Eckert 2012); while Attention To Speech and Audience Design can be correlated to the first and second wave of the development of quantitative sociolinguistic study, each having a different concept of the “interrelation between language and society, and linguistic and social meaning” (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.409).3

S peaker Design Approaches

The study of stylistic variation moved its focus from viewing style-shifting as a response to varying degrees of formality (Labov's Attention To Speech approach) or a change in audience composition (Bell's Audience Design approach) to multi-dimensional Speaker Design approaches (Hernández- Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa 2012, p.4). One of the most fundamental changes in this shift of paradigm is the perception of the speaker. In the Speaker Design model, the speaker is credited with a lot more agency than under older approaches – through it, style-shifting is seen as a “proactive means of shaping situations, interpersonal relations, and how we portray and even internalize our own sense of personal identity” (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.403). It is a shift from a responsive speaker, reacting to his/her environment, to an initiative one who actively shapes his/her environment; the focus is on how speakers use their stylistic resources to create social meaning, not how social realities are reflected in language (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.404). This creative and active use of linguistic features is used not only to “shape and re-shape the external situation” (Schilling-Estes 2008, p.378) but to construct, present and recreate speaker identity. These styles can be fleeting or more permanent, as can the identities and relationships that they help form (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.404). Speaker Design approaches are thus closely linked to social constructionist theories, and argue that identity is not fixed, but fluid – yet another aspect in which the Speaker Design is distinct from earlier approaches which were rooted in structuralism (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.405). With Speaker Design approaches, reified structures move into the background, while speaker agency and social practice gain importance (Schilling-Estes 2008, p.389).

This new approach broadens the horizon of the investigation of style-shifts but simultaneously makes it more complex, since there are more factors to be taken into account. In order to find out why a speaker makes certain stylistic choices on certain occasions, scholars are not only analyzing traditional segmental pronunciation features and external factors (like audience and topic), but additionally, features such as discourse markers and speaker-internal factors (like frame, key, purpose, intonational contours and even non-linguistic features) (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.405; Schilling-Estes 2008, p.389). Furthermore, ethnographic studies are no longer simply correlating linguistic variables with social ones; these now investigate “how various elements of style are used […] as well as what these elements actually mean to the people who use them” (Schilling-Estes 2008, p.390). This consideration of additional factors – as well as the more in-depth analysis of traditional ones – is a crucial development to a better understanding of intra-speaker variation, stylistic meanings and the reification of styles. It has shown us that:

[…] people utilize stylistic resources not only to indicate relatively longstanding group affiliations and personal attributes, but also to make temporary meanings in ongoing interaction – in other words, to accomplish various conversational purposes” (Schilling-Estes 2008, p.390).

Another way in which the paradigm shift to speaker agency has changed the investigation of style- shifting are the samples that are chosen for analysis. While older approaches – Labov's Attention To Speech in particular - focused on the most natural and vernacular speech, Speaker Design studies pay more attention to highly self-conscious or stylized speech, such as media and stage performances (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.406). This is due to the fact that linguistic usages within these contexts are focal points of performativity which remind us that “all linguistic usages, and the social and personal identities they in large part comprise, are 'performed', in the sense that they are fluid, enacted in moment-to-moment interaction” (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.406). During highly stylized performances (as well as regular conversational interaction), speakers make use of a range of features from their linguistic repertoire, drawing on the meanings associated with these features and thereby “shaping and re-shaping interactional norms and social structures” (Hernández-Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa 2012, p.4), constructing and reconstructing their identity and re-positioning themselves within society.4 These stylistic choices always happen in relation to group styles (and vice versa do these individual styles shape group styles) Therefore, in order to understand the individual speaker and his style-shifting, a “thorough ethnographic understanding of individual and group meanings in the community” (Schilling-Estes 2008, p.393) is necessary. Applying the Speaker Design approaches to the study at hand is a complex undertaking, which is attempted later on in this paper. In order to make valid assumptions about their motivations to style- shift and about what identity they might want to construct in front of certain audiences and in certain situations, it is thus crucial to gather information about Obama and Carson, which is done in Chapter 3.

As much as the Speaker Design model has helped increase the understanding of intra-speaker variation, even this holistic and multi-dimensional approach has its limitations and leaves questions unanswered. Taking into account additional factors that are thought to affect stylistic choices makes studies more complex and speaker-internal factors are often hard to identify. New techniques that go beyond previously existing quantitative variationist studies need to be developed in order to tackle these hurdles. Furthermore, the question on how the different factors should be weighted arises. If this is successful and a speaker's style-shifting has been analyzed and interpreted, the question remains of whether those results can be generalized for a larger group of speakers, thus linking intra-speaker variation and inter-speaker variation (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.407; Schilling- Estes 2008, p.394).

Labov's Attention To Speech approach; Giles' Communication Accommodation Theory; Bell's theory of Audience Design; and the Speaker Design approaches are all prominent theories that attempt to answer the question “Why did this speaker say it this way on this occasion ?” (Bell 2002, p.139). Although they are among the most influential and important theories, they do not cover all the aspects that should be considered; a few other factors shall be mentioned here (which are often part of the multi-dimensional model that is the Speaker Design theory). Brown and Fraser (1979) stress the role of “scene” (setting, location, time) and “purpose” (goals, task, topic) of speech. Irvine reminds us that a certain style is always the result of a choice between several possibilities, and also discusses the distinctions between register, dialect and style (Irvine 2001, p.25). Yaeger-Dror (2001, p.173) states parameters influencing a speaker's style include “topic, purpose, setting, […]” and many more. Additionally to sociolinguistic and social psychology approaches, stylistic variation has also been studied from the perspective of linguistic anthropology. This includes early studies on the code-switching and style-shifting of bilingual speakers of German and Hungarian in Austria (Gal 1979) and cross-cultural ethnographic research in White and Black communities in the United States (Heath 1983) (Alim 2004, p.16). Similar to the Speaker Design theory, Johnstone proposed the “Style as Stance” theory, where the speaker is seen “as a potential agent of choice rather than a passive, socially constructed vehicle for circulating discourses” (Johnstone 2000, p.417). These additional approaches illustrate the wide range of theories and considerations regarding a speaker's style within a communicative context. They all help to complete the “mosaic of the sociolinguistic presentation of self” (Bell 2007, p.91) that is each utterance of each speaker.

Language, Identity And Politics

Language and style are used to negotiate identity and the way we use language plays an important role in how we present ourselves to others, which is why the relationship of language and identity has been intensively studied in sociolinguistics (Coupland 2001, p.106). Coupland (2007) states that people actively use language to do 'identity work' – i.e. they use language to express social identities. Particularly under the Speaker Design framework, speech is seen as performance and identity is seen as dynamic. The research on identity formation through language shows that “[l]inguistic variation reflects the multifaceted shaping of human relationships for the transmission of social meaning, and accents, dialects and their styling are markers of this social meaning” (Hérnandez-Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa 2012, p.5).

The construction, reshaping and presentation of a multifaceted and fluid identity is a crucial skill for politicians, and language is one of the most powerful tools they can use to adjust the impression they make on their audience, in order to gain its support (Podesva et al. 2012, p.65). Consequently, it becomes evident that style-shifting as a rhetorical tool is “one of the oldest political skills” (Beam 2010, n.p.) and can be considered a trick of the trade. Just like any other speaker, politicians use a certain style to create a “particular role or identity for specific communicative purposes” (Hérnandez-Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa 2013, p.81). However, it can be assumed that politicians like Carson and Obama – being experienced orators – are more aware of their speech than the average person, additionally to their being trained in rhetoric. The communicative purpose for politicians in presidential election campaigns is to construct their identities as “an authentic, credible, and popular public [figure], appearing confident but not self-satisfied, passionate but not zealous” (Cameron & Shaw 2016, p.29) in order to gain as many potential followers and future voters as possible.

Closely connected to the concept of identity is the concept of authenticity. Both of these concepts are difficult to define, however, relevant for this study is the following understanding: Politicians use a certain way of speaking to shape their identities. While constructing their identities, it is vital for politicians to appear authentic, or in other words, to appear original and true in a specific social or cultural matrix (Hérnandez-Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa 2013, p.81). Only if politicians appear authentic can they achieve a high degree of acceptance and affiliation among different groups of voters. When politicians style-shift and employ features that they do not 'own' (in the sense that these features are not a genuine part of their stylistic repertoire), they can seem phony and inauthentic. For example: both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been criticized and mocked for their performances of Southern American accents during the 2008 presidential campaign (Hammons 2008, n.p.). Linguistic authenticity – also with regards to Obama and Carson's stylistic choices examined in the study at hand – is discussed in greater detail in Chapter 7.

Generally, language in politics is a constrained stylistic context of public performance (Hernández- Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa 2012, p.8). When giving speeches and interviews in front of differing audiences, politicians must demonstrate – partly via their verbal performances – that they understand and empathize with the current audience, but they must also strike a balance between this appeal to the present audience and the general public or referee groups of other sorts (Hall-Lew et al. 2012, p.45). This area of conflict became exemplarily visible when Obama allegedly deviated from the shared linguistic and social practices that some expect of a politician aiming to become President of the USA at his Hampton University speech. This controversy – which erupted five years afterward – illustrates that the accessibility of political performances through television and internet highlights this split and puts political style-shifters under more scrutiny than ever. It also means that “subtle shifts may acquire more accessible social meaning” and – as previously mentioned – “in turn, the social meaning of variables is shaped by these highly constrained public contexts” (Hall-Lew et al., p.45). However, such controversies appear to confirm the statement above: Generally speaking, political discourse – especially when publicly televised – seems to be highly constrained, therefore only highly restrained acts of style-shifting away from GAE (and no stigmatized features at all) are expected to be employed by Obama and Carson.

Chapter 2: African American English

In this chapter terminology, genesis and usage of AAE are presented before describing its most common phonological, grammatical, lexical and prosodic features. It is demonstrated that AAE is a complete full-fledged variety of English, which is systematic and rule-based.


Before giving an overview of the characteristics and features of AAE, a few words should be said about its terminology and evolution. Throughout the years, both linguists and ordinary people alike have used several expressions to refer to the variety of English “used by a majority of US citizens of Black African background[,]” which consists of “a range of socially stratified urban and rural dialects” (McArthur 1998, n.p.). Some call it African American English, others African American Vernacular English (AAVE); a few scholars use these terms interchangeably, while others distinguish between the two, placing AAE closer to GAE and AAVE further away from it on a dialect continuum: African American Vernacular English:

[…] is often distinguished from African American English (AAE). AAVE relates specifically to a vernacular form, spoken principally by working-class African Americans. AAE refers to the speech of all African Americans, including middle-class African Americans. Middle-class AAE most often lacks the more stigmatized morphosyntactic variants (Thomas 2007, p.451).

Additionally, there are linguists who refer to it as Black English (BE), Black Speech, Afro- American English, Black English Vernacular (BEV) or Ebonics. The latter was employed in the 1970s by a group of black academics who wanted to find a replacement for the existing term 'Nonstandard Negro English', a widely used expression that incurred negative connotations (Rickford 2002, p.2). As a result of this desire for replacement terminology, Social psychologist Robert Williams coined the term Ebonics (a blend of ebony= 'black' and phonics ='sounds') in 1973 (Williams 1975, p.4). Originally devised with the intention of creating a positively connoted alternative and to reclaim the discussion for the black community, the term Ebonics got little attention by the public and academia until the Oakland Ebonics Controversy5 in 1996. While there was support from some scholars (and parts of the population), to recognize Ebonics as a variety of English in its own right, others such as linguist John McWhorter pointed out that this would increase the divide between black and white Americans and propel attitudes and beliefs that “preserve[d] and reinforce[d] [the Black Americans'] status as 'other' […]” (McWhorter 2000, p.17). It should be noted that the debate about language in Oakland veiled underlying issues; “[t]he Ebonics resolution opened discussions on race relations, education, and a variety of social problems” (Baron 2000, p.12). Since this controversy, the term Ebonics is rarely used in the academic field and when used, it is mostly to describe the linguistic variety when there is motivation to highlight its African origins or when referring specifically to the Ebonics debate. As a result, the most commonly used terms today are Black English, African American English or African American Vernacular English. These varieties of AAE “reflect the social background and personal aspirations of individual speakers as well as the social circumstances in which different dialects thrive” (McArthur 1998, n.p.). Throughout this paper the denomination African American English is used as a collective term, since it is deemed most appropriate for this study.6

The different terminology mentioned above generally depicts the same matter, but despite the great overlap in meaning, they highlight different aspects of the same concept and set the boundaries differently. The question exactly what AAE is, arises. There are multiple ways of describing how a certain group of people speaks: for example accent, register, jargon, dialect, sociolect, ethnolect, variety. Under appropriate circumstances, most of these – except maybe for jargon – could be and are used to describe AAE. Prima facie, the term ethnolect seems to be the most suitable and indeed was extensively used to refer to AAE or other varieties of non-white ethnic groups. However, this denomination is questionable, since it presents ethnic identity as fixed7 (Benor 2010, p.160) and reinforces a white/non-white binary, “in which non-white speakers are marked and stand in contrast to a super-ethnic category of whiteness that is privileged and unmarked” (Becker 2014, p.44). Due to the accompanying marginalization and 'othering', the term ethnolect is not used in this study 8. An accent is only restricted in its deviation from the 'standard' with regards to pronunciation, therefore this term is not applicable. The speech community of AAE is not limited by factors like age, gender or socioeconomic background, therefore the term sociolect is not generally apt in its description either. A dialect – in its linguistically narrow definition – is a regionally specific variation (Mair 2008, p.161). However, taking into account both the important role of attitudes, perceptions and ideology when talking about language in the political sphere and the fact that this paper focuses on style-shifting and the performance of language, the term 'dialect' may appear in quotes occasionally, because it is the term utilized by most speakers and within the public debate. Generally, the neutral term 'variety' is applied in this study when referring to AAE.

Although the term 'dialect' is being employed by most people, it needs to be emphasized that AAE meets the criteria to qualify for a variety in its own right, as is shown below. The reason it generally is not recognized as such, can be boiled down to the following humorous maxim popularized by Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich9 and later adapted by Randolph Quirk: “A language is a dialect with an army and a flag” (McArthur 1998, p.5). This statement illustrates that a “language usually has an orthography, geopolitical boundaries, a heritage, and a history, but becomes a language due to the power and resources available to its speakers or perceived speakers” (Bassiouney 2018, p.5). With the globalized English language in particular, a language that has roughly 350 million native speakers worldwide, there exists no single standard with regard to which varieties or dialects could be measured. AAE is a variety of English that is equally valuable and significant as other major varieties of the language such as GAE, British Received Pronunciation, Australian English, etc. (Crystal 2012, p.9) - it is therefore not a deviation from the norm; it is a variety among equals.


Over the years there have been several controversies connected to AAE, and its origins have been a topic of discussion among scholars for many decades. One group of linguistic researchers argues that the roots of AAE are found in the English once spoken by plantation overseers and other white population that the first African slaves were in contact with (Thomas 2007, p.450). They back up their arguments with facts on speech level, claiming that most of the lexicon – as well as pronunciation and grammar features – point to this theory (Rickford 2002, p.3). It is called the dialectal or Anglicist Hypothesis. Introduced by dialectologists in the mid-twentieth century, the Anglicist Hypothesis argues that the African slaves who were brought to North America lost their native tongues little by little – a process comparable to what many modern day immigrant families and communities go through – and replaced them with English. Through acquiring the English spoken by the people around them such as plantation owners or indentured slaves, the African slaves also adopted their dialects. Supporters of the Anglicist Hypothesis argue that since most slaves worked the cotton plantations in the South of the United States, the AAE of today still shares many characteristics with Southern American English (Wolfram & Schilling-Estes 2006, p.220). As American linguist Hans Kurath stated it – in nowadays certainly outdated terms:

By and large the Southern Negro speaks the language of the white man of his locality of area and of his education […] As far as the speech of uneducated Negroes is concerned, it differs little from that of the illiterate white: that is, it exhibits the same regional and local variations as that of the simple white folk (Kurath 1949, p.6).

The discrepancies between AAE and other varieties such as Southern American English and GAE are explained in part by the segregation of the African American community. According to the Anglicist Hypothesis, this isolation has preserved features from colonial British English. Examples of these features include but are not limited to the unmarked third person singular verbs (He talk too much) and the usage of the copula BE to mark habitual action (He be talking all the time). This hypothesis has been criticized often for its Euro-centric stance and was challenged by linguists such as Walt Wolfram and Dan Beckett (2000). Wolfram and Beckett argue that due to the heterogeneity of the African slaves – namely their languages and the places they were displaced to – AAE could not possibly have become a homogenized variety as quickly as the Anglicist Hypothesis claims.

There are more scholars who oppose the Anglicist Hypothesis and argue that AAE evolved from a Creole formed by the many African languages spoken by the slaves on the plantations of the South10 (Thomas 2007, p.450). They base this claim on the many similarities present between US AAE and West African English, as well as other phonological and morphosyntactic findings (Rickford 2002, p.3). The underlying theory is that the first generation of slaves spoke a pidgin. This pseudo- language was a mixture of their mother tongues and the English language (which they were forced to learn on the plantations) in order to communicate with their foreseers and the locals since there was no Lingua Franca at hand. Due to being widely used, this pidgin soon developed its own patterns and rules. The children of this first generation of slaves grew up with this mixture as their mother tongue, at which point, the pidgin developed into a full natural language – now a widely spoken Creole. As a result, this theory is called the Creolist Hypothesis. The aforementioned group of scholars argues that this Creole is the basis of modern day AAE. According to the hypothesis, these Creoles developed in the slave trade hubs in the Caribbean – mostly islands such as Haiti – and appeared with the slaves all throughout the Southern United States. An important pillar supporting the Creolist hypothesis is the fact that Gullah, a Creole, is to this day spoken by some inhabitants on islands close the the shores of Georgia and South Carolina (Falkenstein 2006, p.3). Geographically isolated islands and other remote places often preserve a variety or dialect because of their limited contact to the outside world and its linguistic influences. The Creolist Hypothesis states that on the mainland, a process of decreolization took place, a process of assimilation and mixture with surrounding dialects, eradicating most of the features of the original Creole languages. The Creolist Hypothesis fell out of favor among many scholars in the 1980s, after the discovery of written texts from ex-slaves, showing that AAE was not as disconnected from GAE as the Creolist Hypothesis speculated it to be (Wolfram & Schilling-Estes 2006, p.221). Additionally, scholar Salikoko Mufwene (2003, p.71) made the argument that the limited contact among slaves in the Southern United States would not allow for the development of a Creole.

The two main theories surrounding the origin of AAE, the mid-century Anglicist Hypothesis and the 1960s Creolist Hypothesis have both provided important insights and findings. However, they have also been exposed to justified criticism, resulting in revisions. These modifications were then developed into updated contemporary versions of the original theories. The Anglicist Hypothesis revision resulted in a modified theory that was popularized in the 1990s, known as the Neo- Anglicist Hypothesis. Like the original Anglicist Hypothesis, it maintains that the origin of AAE was British English, namely the British dialects spoken in the United States. However, unlike its base theory, the Neo-Anglicist Hypothesis recognizes that “as the African American community solidified, [AAE] innovated specific features” hence becoming “the result of evolution, by its own unique, internal logic” (Poplack 1999, p.27). Criticism surrounding the Neo-Anglicist Hypothesis points at the “nature of the earlier language contact situation between Africans and Europeans and the general sociohistorical circumstances that framed the speech of earlier African Americans[,]” and there is evidence for a “ethnolinguistic divide that is not generally acknowledged under the Anglicist or Neo-Anglicist positions” (Wolfram 2009, p.335).

This gave rise to the Substrate Hypothesis, which suggests that the initial contact between Europeans and Africans had a lasting effect on the language even when speakers adopted local dialect features. For example, the short exposure to a Creole on an island like Haiti which served as slave trade hub for the Middle Passage, could have had long-lasting effects on the development of AAE (Wolfram & Thomas 2002).

None of these hypotheses can holistically explain the origin of AAE on their own, yet. Wolfram points out that “[g]iven the limitations of data, the different local circumstances under which African Americans lived in the antebellum South, and the historical time-depth involved, there will probably always be speculation” (Wolfram 2009, p.335). Consequently, there is no single truth about the genesis of AAE; only a combination of all four hypotheses (and possibly even more in the future, as more data is examined) can give a convincing explanation as to the regionally and temporally diverse developments. It also has to be kept in mind that the complexity of the issue – in geographical, social and historical terms – complicates the research on AAE. Due to the history of slavery, the ongoing discrimination against Black Americans and the stigmatization of certain language features, the topic of AAE has always been a topic of high political sensitivity in the United States.11


While the debate regarding the provenance of AAE has yet to be resolved, there are certain characteristics which are generally recognized by the linguistic research community today to identify it. Although AAE is very close to GAE (since it shares most of its vocabulary and grammar with this variety of English and most others), it is unique in many ways (Labov 2009, p.17). Not only does it differ substantially from every other North American variety of English, but it is also believed to be the variety furthest away from 'Standard English' there (Thomas 2007, p.450). AAE shares a lot of similarities with dialects spoken in the American South, probably due to the extensive interactions of black slave families with white slave owners and overseers. For example, female slaves were often nannies for white children, and what is more, white and black children were often in contact, thus exchanging linguistic features amongst themselves. Labov states for instance that “the most striking features of AAVE syntax are shared by White Southern States dialects used by white speakers” (Labov 1998, p.110). Having said that, the uniqueness of AAE is nonetheless explained by the social segregation and exclusion that black people had to endure for hundreds of years in the United States. For a long time, AAE was spoken and developed mainly in the Southern part of the country. Only with the Great Migration between 1910 and 1970 did it spread from the rural areas of the South on to the rest of the country, including the big cities of the North and of the West (Thomas 2007, p.451). As a consequence, despite having its roots in the rural South, contemporary AAE and its evolution are mostly associated with non-Southern urban areas (Wolfram 2004, p.111).

Today, innumerable variations of AAE are spoken by approximately 80% - 90% of all Black Americans in the United States (Lippi-Green 1997, p.186). For two reasons, these numbers have to be taken with a pinch of salt: firstly, it has be to kept in mind that there is a wide spectrum of AAE features. This means that if someone employs just one or two of these features, he or she can already be considered a user of AAE. Secondly, it needs to be stressed that most speakers of AAE can adjust the amount of features they employ or choose not to speak AAE at all. A young black man – let's call him Andre – might speak GAE at work, a 'light' version of AAE at home and a 'stronger' version with his friends. Andre may also choose to to use a mixture of different varieties within the same conversation – he style-shifts. Due to the use of these communicational flexibilities, Andre can be defined as a style-shifting 'bi-varietal' speaker. This variability in the utilization of AAE both by individuals and groups mirrors the “complex social attitudes” (Sidnell 2007, n.p.) surrounding AAE and reveals the appeal this variety has to sociolinguists.

Whether, when and by whom AAE is employed is the subject of investigation of many studies. Like with other varieties, the use of AAE features varies significantly depending on factors such as age, gender, social status, region and style of the user (Wolfram & Kohn 2015, p.140). While too many generalizations should be avoided, tendencies are that people of the lower and working classes employ more features of AAE than of higher classes (Horton-Ikard & Miller 2004, p.468). Furthermore, are the “most non-standard varieties […] used by poor blacks with limited education, who have restricted social contact beyond their native communities” (McArthur 1998, n.p.). Men tend to use more 'non-standard' features than women (Charity 2005, p.7) and younger people more so than older ones; these tendencies are no different when it comes to AAE (Romaine 2003, p.117). The language variety is used to greater extent in informal contexts and oral conversations than in formal situations and writing. Rickford expresses this in his work, stating that features of AAE “are used most often by younger lower- and working-class speakers in urban areas and in informal styles, but the extent to which this is true, and how often the features are used varies from one feature to another” (Rickford 1999, p.9). The fact that AAE is more prominent in informal contexts is partly caused by the socioeconomic discrimination of Black Americans, which manifests itself in “poverty, […] crime, shorter life spans, and low educational achievement” (Labov 2010, p.15), resulting in stigma attached to this variety of English. Unfortunately, there are many negative stereotypes linked to AAE. Responses to languages, varieties and dialects are “biased by cultural, social, political, economic or historical facts or other kinds of extralinguistic circumstances” (Hernández-Campoy & Cutillas-Espinosa 2013, p.80). The negative perceptions of AAE are mostly spread by the media, which has “conveyed the impression that Black speech was the lingo of criminals, dope pushers, teenage hoodlums, and various and sundry hustlers, who spoke in 'muthafuckas' and 'pussy-copping raps'” (Smitherman 1988, p.84). A statement made by Joe Biden in 2007, when he referred to Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” (Podesva 2015, p.62) illustrates that these stereotypes still persist today and are not only internalized and spread by the educationally deprived. Despite such negative connotations relating to AAE, many Black Americans actively choose to speak AAE under certain circumstances, because it enjoys covert prestige as a marker of solidarity and identity. Language plays a crucial role in identity creation and group membership. 12 At this point it should be noted though that (vernacular) language loyalty within Black American social networks played an important role in the evolution of AAE. The marginalization and exclusion of Black Americans as well as their utilization of language as in-group, identity and solidarity marker are two important factors that lead to the uniqueness of AAE (Milroy & Margrain 1980, p.68; Labov 2010).

Features Of African American English

AAE shares many characteristics with GAE, but it is also distinct in many ways 13 (Alim 2004, p.233). It should be noted here that there is no universally recognized Standard American English and that a 'standard' in the sense of a specific language does not exist. According to Milroy & Milroy, this is merely an “idea in the mind rather than a reality” (1985, p.22). Josef Fruehwald has come up with an illustrative comparison in a 2014 article on the issue:

Linguists call this general pattern “standard language ideology.” It's the idea that somewhere out there, there's a perfect, unadulterated version of English, and what your everyday person speaks is a poor copy. I call it the kilogram model of language, because there is literally a physical object in France by which the unit kilogram is defined, and there are in fact multiple and worryingly imperfect copies of it around the world. But what linguists have discovered is that language is definitely not like the kilogram. The only place where English really exists is in the minds of its everyday speakers. To the extent that varies geographically and socially, so does English. There are no imperfect copies (Fruehwald 2014, n.p.).

Unfortunately, this is not known or accepted by the general public. For many people, a lot of the syntactical and phonological features of AAE appear to be unsystematic errors. 14 These assumptions – as well as the negative prejudices connoted to AAE – are without any factual foundation. They are “subjective social and political evaluations that reflect prejudices and preconceptions about the people who usually speak [AAE]” (Rickford & Rickford, p.92.). In reality, AAE is as systematic as GAE and the perceived 'errors' are simply variations (McWhorter 2010, p.2). In fact, AAE has “a more complex verbal system than any other White American variety of English” (Alim & Smitherman 2012, p.8). AAE is spoken by people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, and most of these speakers are able to deploy it variably (Lippi-Green 1997, p.186).

To give the reader a comprehensive overview of the features of AAE, a list encompassing its phonological variation, grammatical variation, prosodic variation and lexical variation follows. This collection of features of AAE is largely based on a paper by Dr. Anne Harper Charity (2008), but is expanded using the work of other scholars where deemed necessary. Please be aware that the list of features of AAE presented here is by no means exhaustive and makes no claim to completeness. Listed here are the most common or most prominent features of the variety.

Phonological Variation In African American English

Up until the Ebonics controversy in 1996, the AAE lexicon had been studied and recorded in a significant amount of scholarly works15, while research surrounding the phonological differences between AAE and GAE or other varieties of the English language was scarce. 16 The Ebonics controversy sparked newfound public interest on the topic and catalyzed the research on AAE, including phonology and grammar, “aspects which are more systematic and deep-seated” and “less regionally variable” (Rickford 1999, p.2). Since then in-depth analysis has been done and numerous studies have been conducted, giving way to countless articles, books and monographs describing almost every aspect of AAE; but of course this does not mean that no further research is necessary, since the object of investigation is a living and constantly evolving variety. The following tables identify some of the main distinctive phonological features of AAE. It should be noted that these tables are not complete, that there is regional as well as speaker-to-speaker variation, and that knowledge about the different variables varies greatly (Thomas 2007, p.450). As mentioned before, many of these features are shared with Southern American English as well as other varieties of American English. The following table shows common consonantal variations of AAE and provides examples of their usage (Charity 2008, p.2).

Table 1: Examples for consonant variation

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Charity 2008, p.2)

Grammatical Variation In African American English

The grammatical features of AAE have been widely studied as some are unique to the language variety and thus of ample interest to scholars in the sociolinguistic and linguistic field. It is also important to note that the grammatical features of AAE are often more noticeable and distinct than the phonological features previously described. However, remembering that despite their uniqueness, the features are systematic and regular and thus not indicative of a degraded or defective form of School English is of the utmost importance (Charity 2008, p.3).

Table 3: Examples of grammatical variation

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Charity 2008, p.3)

Concerning the grammatical variations of AAE, it should be noted that six of the eight features which are distinctive to this variety are of grammatical nature – the most well-known among them probably being copula deletion (e.g. She funny).

Lexical Variation In African American English

Naturally, AAE shares most of its lexicon with GAE and other varieties of English. What is referred to here when discussing the African American lexicon, are the areas where it differs from that of other varieties17. Furthermore, the Black American community has added countless items to GAE. These range from words of African origin – such as yam or banjo – to words that were once considered slang and are now established items of mainstream English all over the world such as cool. Hart defines the word lexicon as “words that are unique to a group or individual and that have specific rhetorical power […] and by using preferred words a speaker can establish the right to address the audience” (Hart 1997, p.156). The lexicon is probably the most well-researched and most well-known element of AAE. As mentioned above, the vocabulary received scholarly attention early on, with two major works by Major (1994) and Smitherman (1994), which had lesser-known predecessors. These lists of lexical items, ranging from single words (saditty = conceited) to complex phrases (get my chill on = to chill out = to rest), are either distinct to AAE or have unique meaning in the variety that differs from that of other varieties. The variety's lexicon is a kind of “abstract dictionary in which meaning and other information such as pronunciations of words can be found” (Green 2002, p.12). Primitive versions of these collections, such as phrase books and glossaries bear the risk of reinforcing the impression that AAE is scarcely more than 'street slang' (Rickford 1999, p.12). The misconception that AAE is only spoken by young black people in urban areas is unfortunately still prevalent, especially because the “lexicon used by many young African American males is emphasized and frequently represented in popular culture” (Charity 2008, p.5) and the general media.

The tenet that holds true for the other fields of variations also applies to the lexicon: Speakers may choose to apply none of the words and phrases, some of them or a lot of them. Speakers may apply varying amounts of these words and phrases with varying amounts of phonological and grammatical features. The vocabulary of AAE in particular is often utilized by speakers outside the Black American community, since it is easy to adopt some of the words and phrases that are popularized by the media and in popular culture, especially Hip Hop music. While the AAE lexicon serves as a stratification device between some groups, it also brings some groups of people together (Green 2002, p.13): “One of the many fascinating features of black vocabulary is how sharply it can divide blacks and whites, and how solidly it can connect blacks from different social classes” (Rickford & Rickford 2000, p.93). However,this creation of group identity is neither strictly limited to ethnicity nor vocabulary.


1 Another term closely related to 'style' is 'performance', which was first introduced by Labov and also refers to “the way the individual goes about using language” (Mey 2008, p.5).

2 Note that vernacular here refers to the most natural and least self-conscious speaking style, which will differ from person to person and may range from a highly stigmatized version of AAE to British RP.

3 Of course these third wave variation studies scholars draw heavily on groundwork laid by their predecessors, whose concepts and research are valuable and in ways highly topical, such as Gumperz' (1982) notion of 'contextualization'. Gumperz argued that certain speech styles function as contextualizing cues, with which the speaker equips his/her utterances. The selected variants carry specific social meaning, decoded by the listener in turn, if the listener is capable of doing so; the message thereby contains additional conversational meaning in form of a meta-message (Soukup 2012, p.83).

4 Wolfram and Schilling point out that „[a]s various forms of media become increasingly prevalent in people's everyday lives, and as people gain increasing exposure to a wider range of language features, language varieties, and types of personal and group identities, self-conscious linguistic and identity performances are likely to become increasingly common“ (Wolfram & Schilling 2015, p.407).

5 On December 18th 1996 the Oakland School Board decided to recognize Ebonics as a language in its own right and as the primary language of African American children. The school wanted to get more funding to teach African- American children because statistically they were not doing as well as children from other backgrounds. The goal was to maintain the richness and legitimacy of Ebonics but at the same time provide the pupils with more and sufficient skills of GAE. The result was nation-wide controversy and discussion about Ebonics/AAVE, with mixed reactions from the public, educators and linguists (Rickford 1999, p.268). The following abstract from a New York Times article published on December 24th 1996 titled „Linguistic Confusion“ illustrates one prevalent perspective on the debate: „The school board in Oakland, Calif., blundered badly last week when it declared that black slang is a distinct language that warrants a place of respect in the classroom. The new policy is intended to help teach standard English and other subjects by building on the street language actually used by many inner-city children and their parents. It is also designed to boost self-esteem for underachievers. But by labeling them linguistic foreigners in their own country, the new policy will actually stigmatize African-American children – while validating habits of speech that bar them from the cultural mainstream and decent jobs“ (NYT 1996, n.p.). American civil rights activist Jesse Jackson was quoted saying that in Oakland, “madness has erupted over making slang talk a second language” (Smith 2017, n.p.). Democratic politician Joseph Lieberman commented on the Oakland School Board's decision that “[i]t is a teaching down instead of a raising up. […] Some kinds of language are unacceptable, some are acceptable and preferable” (Vuolo 2012, n.p.). Unfortunately, many of the participants in the debate did not comprehend the Oakland School Board's decision and/or did not have the linguistic knowledge to participate reasonably, but chose to do so anyway.

6 However, some of the statements made about what is referred to hear as AAE, rather apply to AAVE; furthermore do the features that are presented in this chapter include features of AAVE.

7 The category of ethnicity is difficult to define scientifically and partly socially constructed (Milroy & Gordon 2003, p.108). Additionally, people from mixed ethnic backgrounds, like Barack Obama, are impossible to categorize since they might identify themselves with both their parents ethnicities, one of them or neither of them (Fought 2008, p.444).

8 A self-critical contemplation of the present paper reveals the questionable perspective that this study has employed in that it elevates ethnic identity to the forefront, „suggesting it is the organizing principle for the analysis of individual speaker practice“ (Becker 2014, p.44).

9 The original phrase coined by Max Weinreich in 1945 was in Yiddish: A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot, which translates to: „A language is a dialect with its own army and navy“ (Chambers 2017, p.2).

10 This is the so-called strong version of this theory. The weak version does not argue that a Creole like Gullah was the basis for AAE, but that some pidgin was utilized and that AAE is a descendant or remnant of it (Davis 2003, p.288).

11 Consciously or subconsciously, researchers can be limited by their own political views, by current political debates or by contemporary dominant opinions of the public. Euro-centric and Afro-centric or Creolist theories did not emerge coincidentally during the periods in which they did. Another factor that might interfere with the implementation of a more inclusive and holistic hypothesis is the nature of the academic world. The competitiveness of academic arguments tends to evoke polarizing stances: a new radical idea gets published more easily than a summary of old ones willing to compromise. Of course this is also highly valuable since it ensures a vibrant debate and propels the continuous search for truth. Nevertheless, a holistic comprehensive view of an issue often seems to be able to be adapted only after the focus has shifted to a new subject.

12 It needs to be mentioned here that speaking AAE is of course not limited to Black Americans. People of any ethnicity may employ features of AAE. If a person grows up in a community where AAE is the predominant variety spoken, it is only natural for him or her to speak it as well, no matter the ethnicity. But people can also choose to adopt features of AAE deliberately, because they deem it desirable for any reason, for example to affiliate themselves with a certain image or community. This can sometimes be seen as inauthentic or even as cultural appropriation. Then again many expressions that originated in the black community have made their way into mainstream America, such as „givin five“ or „whassup?“ (Rickford 1999, p.323).

13 In fact, there is a debate among linguists, discussing „to what extent AA[V]E and vernacular varieties of European American English are converging or diverging” (Bauer 2003, p.470).

14 That this is sadly still the case was proven once more in Florida in 2013, during the trial of George Zimmerman, who was accused of murdering Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African American. The main witness in the case was Rachel Jeantel, a 19 year old African American woman, who gave her testimony predominantly in AAE and was subsequently compared to “a junkie,” an “animal,” and “the missing link between monkeys and humans” as John Rickford writes in his commentary on the website Language Log (Rickford 2013, n.p.). Only one of many cases where linguistic prejudice translates into real discrimination with grave consequences. Especially in formal settings – in this case a courtroom – AAE seems to be prone to generate hostile reactions. Rickford was not the only linguist to comment: John McWhorter explained on television and on the Time magazine website that Jeantel's “Black English […] has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley” (McWhorter 2013, n.p.). Unfortunately, these attempts to educate the general public on the topic are mostly not very fruitful.

15 See for example Clarence Major (1994): Juba to jive: a dictionary of African-American slang, or: Geneva Smitherman (1994): Black talk: words and phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner.

16 One often cited example is an article by Ralph Fasold and Walt Wolfram (1970): Some linguistic features of Negro dialect. In: Fasold and Shuy (eds.), pp. 41 – 86. It has to be noted though that the terminology used in this article was already far outdated in the 1990s, since it refers to AAE as 'Negro Dialect'. Another important work is John Baugh (1983): Black street speech: its history, structure, and survival.

17 This includes overlap with some lexical items present in other varieties, such as y'all, which is also common in Southern American dialects.

Excerpt out of 130 pages


Intra-Speaker Variation and Sociophonetic Identity Construction in Political Rhetoric
A Study of Barack Obama and Ben Carson's Speaker Design Strategies in High Performance Events with regard to Style-Shifting between African American English and General American English
University of Freiburg
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Zulassungsarbeit/Abschlussarbeit mit Note 1,0; 85 Seiten Text inklusive Grafiken und Tabellen, plus Appendix (Bibliography, Transcripts, Online-Ressources).
Intra-Speaker Variation, Style-Shifting, Sociophonetics, Sociophonetic Identity, Sociophonetic Identity Construction, Speech Repertoire, Labov, Bell, African American English, General American English, African American Vernacular English, AAE, AAVE, Political Speech, Political Rhetoric, Style, Attention to Speech, Communication Accommodation Theory, Giles, Audience Design, Speaker Design, Language, Identity, Politics, Barack Obama, Ben Carson, Speeches, Public Speeches, Interview, Linguistics, Linguistic Authenticity, Sociolinguistics, Sociolinguistic Variable, Variant, Phonology, (ING), (AI), (R), Analysis, Soziolinguistik, Phonologie, Identity Construction, Phonetics, Phonetik
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Silvan Wilsch (Author), 2018, Intra-Speaker Variation and Sociophonetic Identity Construction in Political Rhetoric, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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