Final Consonant Devoicing as a Marker of Professional Class African American Identity:
A Community Study in Washington, D.C.
Increasingly more studies of African American English (AAE) are including in their scope the speech of middle- and upper-class African Americans (Rahman 2008; Weldon 2011; Alim and Smitherman 2012), rather than the working class male speakers who have been historically privileged as being the most authentic speakers of the dialect (Labov 1972; Fasold 1972). However, thus far, relatively little scholarship has focused on the speech of African Americans who are in a heavily class-mixing environment. The present study examines eighteen African American speakers in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Anacostia, Washington, D.C. in order to examine the social conditioning and possible indexical meanings (Eckert 2008) of a documented feature of African American English, final consonant devoicing (Green, 2008; Thomas 2007; Farrington 2012).
In the present study, twelve professional class African American speakers and six working class speakers were interviewed using sociolinguistic interview techniques. The interviews were coded exhaustively for final voiced stops, with particular attention paid to the past tense morpheme –ed. The stops were analyzed for voicing using PRAAT measurements of the duration which voicing pulses continue into the stop closure (effectively, voice offset time). All phonological factors, including preceding and following segment, and lexical factors, such as function vs. lexical word are considered.
The findings show that class affiliation is the strongest social predictor of devoicing [p < 0.001], and devoicing occurs with regularity even for speakers who otherwise use few other AAE features. Simultaneously, an analysis of metalinguistic commentary offered by the professional class speakers reveals them to be more aware of many AAE phonological and grammatical features than the working class speakers, and very sensitive to the social expectation that they will be proficient at code-switching into Standard English. That the feature co-occurs with this kind of metalinguistic commentary gives evidence that final consonant devoicing may be operating as a hyperarticulation—that in response to a more widespread understanding of African American English (and the subsequent misperception that all African American speakers speak the dialect) a feature which is the result of an apparent very conscious attempt to speak “correctly” and create distance between the speaker and the dialect is holding and possibly even gaining ground among professional speakers, even while it on another level retains its function as a feature of African American English. This allows devoicing to index both blackness and articulateness at once, resulting in feature’s emergence as an indexical marker of a distinctly professional class African American identity.
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Farrington, C. (2012). Devoicing in African American English: A Longitudinal and Apparent-Time Study. Paper presented at Georgetown University Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics (GURT). Washington D.C., March 2012.
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Rahman, J. (2008). Middle-class African Americans: Reactions and attitudes toward African American English. American Speech, 83(2), 141.