Regionality in African-American Hip-Hop Communities. A Case Study of Philadelphia and New York

Master's Thesis, 2018

80 Pages, Grade: 1,0



List of figures

List of tables

1. Introduction

2. Background to the study
2.1 Regional variation in AAVE
2.2 Regionality in hip-hop

3. Analysis
3.1 Remarks on selected artists and songs
3.2 Remarks on selected variables
3.2.1 Phonological variables
3.2.2 Syntactical variables
3.3 Philadelphia
3.3.1 Phonology Fronting of GOOSE and GOAT vowels Vocalization of /l/ Postvocalic /r/ Realization of TRAP/BATH/DANCE Raising of THOUGHT Dental fricatives Glide weakening/monophthongization of PRICE hill/heel merger DRESS/KIT merger
3.3.2 Syntax Copula deletion Invariant be Negation
3.3.3 Conclusion
3.4 New York
3.4.1 Phonology Fronting of GOOSE and GOAT vowels Vocalization of /l/ Postvocalic /r/ Realization of TRAP/BATH/DANCE Raising of THOUGHT Dental fricatives Glide weakening/monophthongization of PRICE hill/heel merger DRESS/KIT merger
3.4.2 Syntax Copula Deletion Invariant be Negation
3.4.3 Conclusion

4. Discussion of the results

5. Conclusion

Appendix. Supplementary Tables

Appendix A Total numbers (Philadelphia)

Appendix B Total numbers (New York)


Regionalität in afro-amerikanischen Hip-Hop-Communities in Philadelphia und New York 75

List of figures

Fig. 1. The Philadelphia area (Labov 2001: 122)

Fig. 2. Jones' "Northeast Region" (Jones 2015: 424)

Fig. 3. The Southern Shift (Thomas 2007: 462)

Fig. 4. Environments for tense short-a in NYC and Philadelphia (Labov, Ash & Boberg 2006: 173)

Fig. 5. The African American Shift (Thomas 2007: 465)

Fig. 6. Realization of GOOSE vowel (Philadelphia)

Fig. 7. Vocalization of /l/ in environments (2a)-(2c) (Philadelphia)

Fig. 8. Realization of postvocalic /r/ in environments (3a) and (3b) (Philadelphia)

Fig. 9. Realization of short- a in environments (4a)-(4f) (Philadelphia)

Fig. 10. Realization of THOUGHT vowel (Philadelphia)

Fig. 11. Realization of LOT vowel (Philadelphia)

Fig. 12. Realization of dental fricatives in environments (6a)-(6c) (Philadelphia)

Fig. 13. Realization of PRICE vowel in environments (7a)-(7g) (Philadelphia)

Fig. 14. Realization of FLEECE vowel before /l/ (Philadelphia)

Fig. 15. Realization of DRESS vowel in environments (9a)-(9f) (Philadelphia)

Fig. 16. DRESS as KIT in environments (9a)-(9f) (Philadelphia)

Fig. 17. Copula be absence in environments (10a)-(10e) (Philadelphia)

Fig. 18. Negation (Philadelphia)

Fig. 19. Vocalization of /l/ in environments (2a)-(2c) (NYC)

Fig. 20. Realization of postvocalic /r/ in environments (3a) and (3b) (NYC)

Fig. 21. Realization of short- a in environments (4a)-(4f) (NYC)

Fig. 22. Realization of THOUGHT vowel (NYC)

Fig. 23. Realization of dental fricatives in environments (6a)-(6c) (NYC)

Fig. 24. Realization of PRICE vowel in environments (7a)-(7g) (NYC)

Fig. 25. Realization of FLEECE vowel before /l/ (NYC)

Fig. 26. Realization of DRESS vowel in environments (9a)-(9f) (NYC)

Fig. 27. DRESS as KIT in environments (9a)-(9f) (NYC)

Fig. 28. Copula be absence in environments (10a)-(10e) (NYC)

Fig. 29. Negation (NYC)

Fig. 30. Percentages of non-standard realizations

List of tables

Table 1. Philadelphia artists

Table 2. New York artists

1. Introduction

In a newspaper article titled “5 ways Wu-Tang Clan changed hip-hop”1, an author of USA Today listed “sticking with their own language” as one way that the New York hip-hop2 group changed the genre, stating that “Wu-Tang painted vivid pictures of urban life using the language of the streets” and that “[r]ather than simplifying their speech for a mass audience, they brought that audience into their own world.” In fact, this article reveals deeper structures of the US hip-hop community than one would expect at first sight. The performance of hip-hop music is strongly associated with the performance of an authentic hip-hop identity, which is often referred to as “keeping it real” by members of the community (cf. Ogbar 2007: 37). This “realness” fundamentally implies “an intimate familiarity with the urban, working-class landscape that gave rise to hip-hop in the 1970s” (Ogbar 2007: 39). The previously stated “language of the streets” therefore appears to refer to a specific linguistic code that prevails among members of the hip-hop community. This code is mainly associated with African-Americans, as hip-hop came out of black urban culture (cf. Ogbar 2007: 40). This confirms the notion that “hip-hop has long predicated its popular understanding of authenticity in highly racialized terms” (Ogbar 2007: 38) as “a generation of young people – mostly black and brown – crafted a rich culture of words and songs, of art and movement” in the South Bronx of the 1970s (Bradley & DuBois 2010: xxix).

These affiliations of hip-hop toward the urban African-American culture and the impact that it has across racial boundaries (see Ogbar 2007: 55ff.; Sweetland 2002; Guy & Cutler 2011) allow the assumption that hip-hop artists are well aware of their language and its effects.3 In this regard, language choice is seen as being a crucial part of musical experience, leading to recurring questions that artists ask themselves, such as “[w]hich […] dialects will best express my ideas? Which will get me a record contract or a bigger audience?” (Berger 2003: x). The conscious choice of one language – or a social or ethnic dialect, respectively – can then be seen as one phenomenon of “language ideology”, a term that Berger labels as referring to “meanings associated with particular languages, dialects, registers of speech, or ways of talking” (2003: xiv). Hence, the choice of one particular dialect for a performative context such as rap music in hip-hop culture has to be acknowledged as a conscious performance of ethnic identity through the use of an ethnically marked dialect, hereafter referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE). The fact that black communities were seen as synonymous with poor communities during the emergence of hip-hop in the Bronx (cf. Ogbar 2007: 39) supports the increasing sense of an ethnic identity associated with AAVE during the second half of the twentieth century. Other authors go as far as to call AAVE a “transregional” and “supraregional, ethnically based” variety (Wolfram & Torbert 2006: 231).

However, the choice of this dialect in a performative context within the hip-hop culture might have wider implications. Rapper JT the Bigga Figga regards social implications rather drastically:

The Black Language is constructed of – alright let me take it all the way back to the slave days and use something that’s physical. All the slavemasters gave our people straight chittlins [meaning animals’ intestines] and greens, you feel me, stuff that they wasn’t eatin. But we made it into a delicacy. Same thing with the language. It’s the exact same formula. How our people can take the worst, or take our bad condition, and be able to turn it into something that we can benefit off of (Alim 2006: 1).

It might be debatable whether African-Americans indeed choose their dialect as they are mostly associated with speaking AAVE as their native dialect, a myth that is in fact neglected by Pullum who states that “[m]any African Americans neither speak it [AAVE] nor know much about it” (1999: 55). In addition, Alim calls the practices of hip-hop both contradictory and conscious (2006: 3), therefore confirming a certain degree of choice of dialect across hip-hop performances. In this regard, one basic part of language ideology is to “highlight AAE and working class regional features” (Morgan 2001: 194), which emphasizes the role of regionality within the hip-hop community and its conscious quality. Accordingly, the conscious use of language – being an essential part of “rappin” as the “aesthetic placement of verbal rhymes over musical beats” (Alim 2004a: 388) – allows a deeper understanding of “various cultural activities of the Hip Hop Nation (HHN)” and refers to the global hip-hop community. In this respect, Alim also coined the term “Hip Hop Nation Language” (HHNL).4 Regarding the identity of speakers within the hip-hop culture, Alim lists two intriguing tenets of HHNL:

(7) HHNL is central to the identity and the act of envisioning an entity known as the HHN.

(8) HHNL exhibits regional variation […] (2004a: 394).

Overall, it appears that the identification of members of the hip-hop community mostly works along racial lines, as writer Toure’s answer to the question “The Hip-Hop Nation: Whose Is It?” was that its “leadership is and will remain black. As it should” (Ogbar 2007: 40). This racial point of reference is often seen as a result of an American society that is obsessed with race, leading to an evaluation of “realness” in the hip-hop culture that implies that the realest is often the blackest (cf. Ogbar 2007: 42).

Looking back at the times in which hip-hop emerged presents an impression that further explains the racially charged character of the hip-hop culture, as the 1970s still meant racial segregation for most African-Americans in cities outside the South, from where only a few years earlier many African-Americans had migrated. A common point of identification for most “immigrants” to northern cities was most likely their vernacular dialect that was still influenced by southern vernacular properties, as their ethnical variety might have served to find an “’oppositional identity’ in which behavior with strong associations with white norms is avoided” (Wolfram & Torbert 2006: 231). Based on Wolfram’s Detroit study, it can be confirmed that African-Americans predominately lived in relatively isolated communities. Moreover, the author remarks that

[t]he speech patterns in some of these communities differ greatly from the existing speech pattern of the white community. It has been noted, however, that within the Negro population there is a considerable range of differences between speakers, i.e. from those whose speech approximates the local variety of standard English to those who speak a variety sometimes referred to as “Nonstandard Negro English” (Wolfram 1969: 1).

However, moving on two or three decades of co-existence between white Americans and African-Americans in urban city centers such as New York as the origin of hip-hop has the potential of telling a different story. Contact between different social networks – in this case between black and white residents – can lead to a “wider variety of other speaking styles” (Meyerhoff 2006: 196). Labov introduced the term diffusion in a sense that contact between speech communities can lead to “the transfer of features from one to another” (2007: 347). Thus, African-American members of the hip-hop community at that time were placed between two opposing forces with respect to their language: First, artists within the HHN seem to strive for realness within the community, which is partially accomplished by corresponding to the linguistic norms of the peers, i.e. the use of AAVE or HHNL, respectively. Second, most community members were likely to come in contact with white Americans or even white members of the same community, who brought along linguistic features of the local white vernacular.

This clash between an identification through the use of an authentic African-American vernacular and linguistic impacts of the surrounding white vernacular(s) then leads to the role of Alim’s eighth tenet of HHNL, i.e. regional variation. Celebrating location appears to be an essential trope in hip-hop (cf. Ogbar 2007: 44), which is, however, mostly limited to lexical choice.5 The more intriguing question, which is often cited in various linguistic research (for example Thomas & Yaeger-Dror 2007: 2), deals with the degree of differentiation between AAVE and the predominant local vernacular in a given area. Earlier studies suggest a rather homogeneous character of AAVE (Labov et al. 1968; Wolfram 1969), whereas more recent work seems to prove the opposite (Wolfram & Kohn 2015; Jones 2015), as will be illustrated in the following chapter of this thesis.

As a result of these debates, this thesis will address the question whether regional variation across members of the hip-hop community is measurable in terms of regionally distinct phonological and syntactical properties. As a starting point, New York City has been selected as it marks the origin of hip-hop. Philadelphia, as part of Labov’s Mid-Atlantic region6 (Labov, Ash & Boberg 2006) and Jones’ self-coined “Northeast region”, which itself is said to be characterized by “nonhomogeneity” (Jones 2015: 428), serves as a point of reference for the comparison of distinct regional features. Figure 1 specifies what Labov (2001: 121) refers to as the “Philadelphia dialect area”, which is clearly separated from New York in the North.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 1. The Philadelphia area (Labov 2001: 122)

The data for the analysis will be retrieved from randomly chosen songs performed by selected African-American hip-hop artists who are representative of their respective city and who can be considered authentic members of the local hip-hop community. Further information on the selection will be provided later on.

First, the theoretical background to the study of this thesis will be provided, mainly referring to the role of regionality in AAVE by giving an overview of earlier and current research. Second, after narrowing down the selection of artists and their songs, the relevant phonological and syntactical features will be listed and explained before they are analyzed for both Philadelphia and New York City. Finally, the results will be interpreted and discussed with respect to the guiding question of this thesis.

2. Background to the study

2.1 Regional variation in AAVE

The potential importance of regional variation among AAVE speakers as an explanatory variable has only recently come to the attention of linguists. In earlier research, African-Americans were believed to speak a relatively uniform vernacular, regardless of their regional context. Accordingly, Labov (1972: xiii) specifies that AAVE, especially in urban centers, shows little variation across the United States, including New York and Philadelphia. Wolfram and Fasold (1974: 79) argue similarly when they speak of the maintenance of southern vernacular features that African-Americans brought to northern cities during the Great Migration and their following residency in urban city centers.7 However, as seen earlier, Wolfram (1969) argues that African-Americans show the potential of approximating the local variety. With respect to these earlier studies of regional, urban properties of AAVE, Thomas and Yaeger-Dror (2010: 6) remark that data collected as early as the 1960s were not able to reflect potential geographical differences as these were yet to be fully developed over the following decades. Morgan (2001: 188) argues similarly, stating that language ideology did not have consequences until the middle 1980s.

The aspect of the role of regional variation and accommodation among African-American speakers of AAVE is directly linked to the social context of African-Americans within their cities, meaning the degree of racial segregation and the degree of contact to white peers. With regard to Philadelphia, Labov and Harris (1989: 1) show that the level of segregation was at its highest by 1970 – interestingly at the time at which the artists of the Philadelphia data set were born – and remains stable until today (cf. Labov 2010: 349). They conclude that, while white varieties appear to show rapid divergence from each other, AAVE among African-American communities remains relatively stable and, by this, diverges from the local variety (cf. Labov & Harris 1989: 18) – a position that is confirmed by other linguists (for example Fasold et al. 1987).8 Residential segregation is eventually regarded as the main reason why surrounding dialects exert minimal influence on AAVE (cf. Labov 2010: 349; see also Thomas & Yaeger-Dror 2010: 8).

Many years later, Wolfram and Kohn (2015:141) speak of a lack of dialect sensitivity of most researchers with respect to intra- and inter-community variation of researchers, which is likely to have led to the “homogeneity myth”. The authors include various configurations for the regional alignment of AAVE, one of which is the “accommodation to the generalized regional cohort variety by African Americans” (Wolfram & Kohn 2015: 142), adding that this cannot be treated as an all-or-nothing phenomenon.

Moreover, phonological accommodation may show different degrees of alignment than morphosyntactic or lexical levels of language (cf. Wolfram & Kohn 2015: 142). Labov (2010: 348) speaks of a considerable phonological variation within AAVE but a nation-wide uniformity of AAVE grammar.9 On a broader geographical level, studies show that African-American speakers accommodate key features of AAVE according to perceived ethnic differences in the local community (see Scanlon & Wassink 2010 for data from urban Seattle). However, these accommodations appear to be a conscious reaction toward perceived dialect contact with other ethnic varieties. Therefore, this can rather be considered a form of style-shifting (cf. Scanlon & Wassink 2010: 219).

In Philadelphia, on the other hand, the surrounding r-full dialect of the white community seems to partially influence the rather r-less speech of African-Americans (Myhill 1988). The same feature was analyzed by Wolfram and Kohn (2015: 145f.), whose results indicate that within North Carolina, AAVE speakers vary significantly in their degree of rhoticity, depending on the region they are situated in. Above that, apparent time data indicate that surrounding r-full European American communities lead to a reduction in the level of r-lessness within the African-American community over time (cf. Wolfram & Kohn 2015: 146). Findings by Childs, Mallinson and Carpenter (2010) suggest similar regional differentiation, as some regions, such as Hyde County or Roanoke Island, show considerably less alignment to local vernacular vowel patterns than regions in western North Carolina, where strong persistence of regional features can be observed. Other data from Pennsylvania seem to illustrate that African-Americans in fact align with the local variety as shown by the loss of the distinction between the low-back vowels in Pittsburg (Eberhardt 2008). In contrast, African-Americans are said to also show resistance toward other vowel phonologies, such as Philadelphia’s short- a system (Henderson 1996).

As for New York, data signalize that African-Americans show both converging and diverging tendencies (see Coggshall & Becker 2010). They state that “African American speakers are in a sense picking and choosing among variables available to them via ethnicity and region to create an identity based on both” (Coggshall & Becker 2010: 118). Thus, African-Americans could be regarded as neither tending to converge with a supraregional AAVE nor converge exclusively with their surrounding white vernaculars but rather create individual (regional) varieties.

With respect to the overall use of AAVE, Rickford et al. (2015) present data suggesting that African-Americans who change their surroundings away from high-poverty neighborhoods tend to reduce their use of AAVE features. These results lead to the impression that even within the aspect of inter-regional differentiation, other driving factors, such as neighborhood effects, can lead to intra-regional differentiation.

Therefore, it appears that accommodation of African-Americans to the surrounding vernacular works differently concerning different linguistic features and that mixed alignment predominates (cf. Wolfram & Kohn 2015: 150). Overall, participation in local European American features must be seen as only one source for regional differences in AAVE, as independent innovations are also possible (cf. Wolfram & Kohn 2015: 148). The most recent – and, in addition, most detailed – contribution to the field of regionality in AAVE has been made by Jones (2015), who defines several distinct AAVE dialect regions, based on the analysis of nonstandard AAVE orthography on Twitter.

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Fig. 2. Jones' "Northeast Region" (Jones 2015: 424)

The data leads to the definition of “The Northeast Region” (see figure 2), which comes close to a combination of Labov’s Mid-Atlantic dialect region and New York (Labov, Ash & Boberg 2006: 122).

2.2 Regionality in hip-hop

It has been mentioned that language functions as a point of identification for many African-Americans. Accordingly, regionality is understood in terms of language use and, more specifically in this paper, in terms of African-Americans’ use of language. Moreover, the hip-hop speech community is regarded as a community that “highlights region, ideology, and language style” (Morgan 2001: 193). Within hip-hop communities, a commonly used term is slang, which can be understood as “the language of the streets” (Alim 2015: 852). Slang functions as a means for “developing local identities […] within a national Hip Hop Culture that is paying much more attention to regional distinctions within the form” (Alim 2015: 852). It appears that the lexical repertoire of speakers is often highly individualized (i.e., regionalized) (cf. Alim 2004a: 397). Speakers, then, often take pride in this regional lexical repertoire. In Philadelphia, this is the case for the word jawn, a noun that substitutes for any other noun and that is also present in Jones’ analysis (2015: 429), contrasting the prevalent jont in Washington, D.C., for instance. With regard to the data set, the hip-hop group The Roots, which will be included in the analysis of this thesis, has handed out T-shirts with “JAWN” written on the front (Alim 2004a: 398), indicating that they tend to affirm their local identification with Philadelphia.

Although it is mostly lexicon that is cited as functioning for regional differentiation between speakers within the hip-hop community, Blake and Shousterman (2010) have conducted a study focusing on regional vowel phonology in St. Louis. More specifically, they studied vowel centralization before /r/, which they call the “urr variable” (Blake & Shousterman 2010: 231). The authors finally argue that “for the local community, the urr variable is one order of indexicality down from what it is for rappers who use it to perform an authentic local identity” (Blake & Shousterman 2010: 242). Unlike the rest of the community members, however, rappers explicitly perform a St. Louis identity through the use of this variable. The usage of this variable by rappers is, in addition to its implications for identification, also regarded as being linked to accommodation to the local community (cf. Blake & Shousterman 2010: 243). The authors go as far as to point out that it was hip-hop as a form of mass media that made the urr variable salient to the local St. Louis African-American community.

Overall, both lexical and phonological items play a central role in the construction or affirmation of identity within the hip-hop community. As Morgan (2001: 188) states,

the introduction of Hip Hop cultural beliefs and values has resulted in a significant reclamation and restructuring of African American language practices by youth who have, for the first time in urban African American communities, intentionally highlighted and re-constructed regional and local urban language norms.

Furthermore, she confirms that hip-hop language ideology has resulted in an increase in locally marked lexicon and “an awareness of the importance of phonology […] – especially the contrasts between vowel length, consonant deletion and syllabic stress” (Morgan 2001: 188). Language in the context of hip-hop culture is viewed as “a series of choices that represent beliefs and have consequences” (Morgan 2001: 190). In terms of lexicon, the author presents data dealing with the creation of new words across various hip-hop albums (cf. Morgan 2001: 200). The far-reaching implications of language choice within the hip-hop community are best depicted by Morgan (2001), stating that

[t]he representation of African American culture, popular culture, language, and history as well as social, economic, and political life mediate Hip Hop’s notions of reality. Thus, urban African American life is not simply represented in relation to in-group intersubjectivities, but through cultural symbols and sounds, especially linguistic symbols, which signify membership, role, and status […] (Morgan 2001: 205).

Bradley and DuBois state, in this respect, that various “varieties of slang” (2010: xxxvii) serve as geographical markers. They speak of different terms that rappers use to refer to their friends, for instance “homies”, “dawgs”, “gods” (which is connected to Wu-Tang Clan), or “pardners”. Other words, among them “phat” or “fly”, both of which can be found across lyrics that are part of this paper, appear to be part of a transregional lexicon of hip-hop culture. Despite the verbal character of these words, Morgan (2001: 202) also stresses the importance of the inherent “spelling ideology” – the term “phat” (instead of “fat”) is only one example. In addition, names of songs that will be included in this paper reflect the same ideology: The Roots use “ya” instead of “your” in “Push up ya lighter”, which also applies to all other artists (Wu-Tang Clan ’s “Protect ya neck”). The extensive use of question and exclamation points (“Do you want more??!!?”) by The Roots can also be seen as a realization of spelling ideology and for stressing a sense of aggressiveness. Wu-Tang Clan, in addition, regularly use word-final z as in “It’s Yourz”. Lastly, Nas visualizes one of the phonological features of the analysis, the realization of dental fricatives as dental stops, by writing “Watch dem niggas” instead of “Watch them niggas”.

The central role that linguistic symbols appear to play demonstrate the key essence of this thesis, as these symbols are most likely used to communicate and demonstrate regional identification. In the end, membership in the local hip-hop community is most likely affirmed through the use of local varieties, which is, in addition, a confirmation of one’s own “realness”.

3. Analysis

3.1 Remarks on selected artists and songs

The analysis will be based on the performative linguistic data of artists from Philadelphia and New York. It must be noted that the language of rap lyrics and performances of rap music only constitute one aspect of Alim’s HHNL (2015: 852). For instance, spoken album interludes are not included in the data of the analysis, which is exclusively based on musical performances of the artists. In order to be able to compare the data, two artists or hip-hop groups have been chosen to represent each region. The selection of artists aimed at excluding factors that are irrelevant to the study of regional differentiation. Therefore, it seemed necessary to choose artists who have nearly the same age and same sex.10 As a final step, fourteen songs have been randomly chosen for each region so that the data set allows a valid basis for comparison.

The artists of the Philadelphia data set are, first, The Roots with their lead rapper Black Thought who was born in 1972 in Philadelphia. Their first album is said to have showcased The Roots ’ Philadelphia soul (cf. Bradley & DuBois 2010: 491), therefore allowing the assumption that they deeply identify with their city of origin. Songs were selected from various albums plus one freestyle by Black Thought from 2017, which has gained much attention within the hip-hop community. Although different members of the band regularly perform throughout the songs, the data will be treated as an aggregate for the whole group. Second, based on their feature in “Adrenaline”, Beanie Sigel, born in 1974 in Philadelphia, was selected. Table 1 lists all selected artists with their respective songs and year of release.

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Table 1. Philadelphia artists

The New York data set consists of Wu-Tang Clan on the one hand, and Nas on the other. The former is said to be the first group ever to practice hip-hop as a martial art and has gained much attention and respect in the hip-hop scene (cf. Bradley & DuBois 2010: 532). All rappers of the group were born in Brooklyn around 1970, therefore serving well for the analysis as they have the same age and were raised in the same neighborhood.

The latter was also born in Brooklyn in 1973, therefore eliminating potential neighborhood effects as mentioned above (see Rickford et al. 2015). Nas has gained much respect for his poetic rhymes (cf. Bradley & DuBois 2010: 459) and features in Wu-Tang Clan ’s song “Let my niggas live”, showing that the two artists have close ties. His two songs “New York State of Mind, Pt. I” and “New York State of Mind, Pt. II”, which are both included in the analysis as can be seen in table 2, show a deep identification with his home city.

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Table 2. New York artists

3.2 Remarks on selected variables

The variables of the analysis can be categorized into four main groups. First, as part of the phonological analysis, features (1)-(3) represent features that are often assigned to English in Philadelphia. Second, features (4)-(6) behave similarly with regard to distinct New York features. Finally, as for the phonological analysis, features (7)-(9) constitute characteristic AAVE features. The last group of variables consists of features (10)-(12), all of which are syntactical features that can be found in AAVE. In order to compare the data, all features will be analyzed with regard to both regions. Distinct regional lexical items, as has been stated by Morgan (2001: 188), will not be included as this thesis tries to provide a quantitative rather than a qualitative approach to this topic of regional differentiation.

3.2.1 Phonological variables

The phonological variables that will be included in the analysis of this paper are threefold. First, features that are distinctive for the Philadelphia area will be analyzed for both regions:

(1) fronting of GOOSE and GOAT vowels;
(2) vocalization of /l/ in (a) word-final, (b) pre-consonantal, and (c) intervocal position, resulting in realizations close to [o], [w], or even deletion;
(3) realization of postvocalic /r/ in (a) pre-consonantal and (b) word-final position.

As for (1), the fronting of the GOOSE and GOAT classes are described as characteristic for the Philadelphia area as well as for the South among white speakers (cf. Gordon 2008: 77). The fact that AAVE shares many features with Southern White Vernacular English (SWVE) leads to potential significance of AAVE speakers’ participation in general developments of the Southern Shift (see figure 3). It is noteworthy, however, that this participation in various developments of several variables is far from consistent (cf. Thomas 2007: 462) and varies significantly, depending on the respective vowel. With regard to variable (1) of this paper, earlier analyses of AAVE in Philadelphia suggest that fronting of the GOOSE and GOAT classes are far less advanced or that speakers even show a resistance to this development (cf. Thomas 2007: 463).

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Fig. 3. The Southern Shift (Thomas 2007: 462)

Concerning feature (2), Gordon labels it as “quite pervasive” (2008: 79). The realization of /l/ as [o] or [w] is said to be most frequent in word-final and pre-consonantal contexts. Intervocal vocalization may also occur after primary word stress as in hollow. In contrast, /l/ vocalization seems to be less pervasive in New York City English (NYCE) (cf. Gordon 2008: 75). The situation appears to be similar for AAVE where /l/ is often deleted before the consonants w, r, or y (cf. Wolfram & Fasold 1974: 141). Intervocal deletion, however, is said to be impossible.

The fact that the Philadelphia area is regarded as remaining r-pronouncing (cf. Wolfram & Fasold 1974: 78) leads to the intriguing role of feature (3) with regard to the role of postvocalic /r/ in AAVE. As Labov, Ash, and Boberg (2006) show in their Atlas of North American English (ANAE), the only areas showing r-vocalization are the South, New York (ranging from 11-100 percent), and Eastern New England (cf. Labov, Ash, & Boberg 2006: 227). Philadelphia, on the other hand, remains an area pronouncing postvocalic /r/ with full constriction. In contrast, the general lack of constriction of postvocalic /r/ is one of the well-known phonological features of AAVE (cf. Wolfram 1969: 109; see also Wolfram & Fasold 1974: 140ff). The phoneme is then realized as [ə] or is deleted in the respective environments (3a) and (3b) (cf. Wolfram 1969: 109). Moreover, an early study by McDavid (1948) shows a relationship between the status of non-constriction of postvocalic /r/ among African-Americans and the speech of SWVE speakers in South Carolina, showing that social prestige of /r/-constriction is likely to play a significant role. The potential conflict between the role of postvocalic /r/ in the speech of African-Americans and white Philadelphia residents might allow conclusions with regard to the role of regionality among AAVE speakers.

NYCE, on the contrary, is historically regarded as being r-less (cf. Gordon 2008: 73f). However, as for the South, where r-lessness is continually becoming replaced by r-full speech across social classes (see Feagin 1990), NYCE appears to show increasing rhoticity. Labov (2006[2]) shows that the degree of rhoticity is socially stratified, with higher social classes showing higher rates of r-constriction (cf. Labov 2006[2]: 47). African-Americans, in this respect, show lower rates of r-constriction (Labov 2006[2]: 49f), which is in accordance with Labov’s earlier findings (Labov et al. 1968: 100), where African-Americans generally show a higher frequency of r-vocalization. Also, more recent work by Becker (2009) shows that, first, rhoticity is advancing slowly in NYCE, and second, the question of the degree of rhoticity is likely to be associated with the construction of a place identity. Blake and Shousterman (2010), on the other hand, show results that African-Americans in New York have a rather high frequency of feature (3), with 68 percent in (3a) and 41 percent in (3b). Therefore, the role of hip-hop artists from New York in this development could lead to a better understanding of the participation of African-Americans in local white phonology.

As a second step in the phonological analysis, rather distinctive NYCE features will be further analyzed for both regions:

(4) realization of the TRAP/BATH/DANCE classes before (a) voiceless plosives, (b) voiced plosives, (c) voiceless fricatives, (d) voiced fricatives, (e) nasals, and (f) liquids;

(5) raising of the THOUGHT vowel;

(6) realization of the dental fricatives /θ/ and /ð/ as dental stops [t̪] and [d̪] in (a) word-initial, (b) word-medial, and (c) word-final position.

Feature (4) is not to be seen as exclusive to one of the regions. This split of the historical “short- a” into the two phonemes – lax /æ/ and tense /æə/, the latter likely to be raised up to [eə] or even [iə] (cf. Ash 2002: 2) – rather occurs in distinctive environments for both New York and Philadelphia English (cf. Gordon 2008: 71; see also figure 4). However, it is mentioned that the environments for tensing in Philadelphia are a subset of those in New York (cf. Ash 2002: 1). In New York, the lax phoneme occurs regularly before voiceless stops and the liquid /l/. The tense phoneme, on the other hand, occurs consistently before voiced stops, voiceless fricatives, and front nasals (cf. Ash 2002: 1). The realization before voiced fricatives and back nasals appears to be variable, however. Function words show a constraint to the rule for the tense phoneme, as as, can, or had generally have lax short- a (cf. Newman 2014: 55).

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Fig. 4. Environments for tense short-a in NYC and Philadelphia (Labov, Ash & Boberg 2006: 173)

In Philadelphia, on the other hand, short- a is tense before voiced stops only in the words mad, bad, and glad, otherwise it is lax and therefore differs significantly from New York in this regard (cf. Labov et al. 2016: 275; Gordon 2008: 76). Finally, more recent data allow the assumption that the historically complex short- a system is becoming simpler (Becker & Wong 2010) and that younger white speakers – implying that they were born around 1980 – are moving away from the complex conditioning constraints (cf. Coggshall & Becker 2010: 109). In addition, African-American participants in Becker and Wong’s study did not produce the NYCE short- a, which can be related to the simplified system of their white peers who also do not produce the split (cf. Coggshall & Becker 2010: 18). This thesis paper will try to assess this development by looking into the short- a split in African-American hip-hop communities in both Philadelphia and New York.


1 <> (accessed 25 July 2018).

2 The term “hip-hop” will be treated as an “umbrella term to describe the multifaceted culture of which rap is but a part” (Bradley & DuBois 2010: xxix).

3 Sweetland shows that white youth are able to appropriate linguistic properties of African-Americans to a degree that allows the speaker to be considered an ingroup member.

4 The differentiation between AAVE as an ethnic dialect and HHNL appears to be vague, however. Alim (2004a: 392) states that HHNL can be considered both English and African at the same time and that it is rooted in, reflecting, and expanding African American Language (393). HHNL is said to be mostly used within the HHN during hip-hop centered activities (396).

5 Ogbar mainly refers to N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1988) and, by this, deduces a more general tendency in hip-hop culture of an affinity with public space (2007: 44).

6 The Mid-Atlantic region is regarded as being linguistically separated from the New York region.

7 In addition, the authors include the factor Region as one impact on social dialects, which is limited to white varieties, however (cf. Wolfram & Fasold 1974: 73ff).

8 It is stated that after a period of convergence between black and white vernaculars, especially in the South, the two varieties have been on paths of divergence (cf. Fasold et al. 1987: 76).

9 This stands in contrast to earlier findings by Ash and Myhill (1986) who state that African-Americans who have inter-ethnic contact to their white peers show major shifts in their grammar and a lesser shift in their phonology and lexicon.

10 See Wolfram (1969) for potential effects of age and Labov (2001) for the role of gender.

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Regionality in African-American Hip-Hop Communities. A Case Study of Philadelphia and New York
Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel
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AAVE, linguistics, regionality, African-American, hip-hop, philadelphia, new york, sociolinguistics
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Patrick Husfeldt (Author), 2018, Regionality in African-American Hip-Hop Communities. A Case Study of Philadelphia and New York, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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