Studies of language and place, particularly contested place, have shown that the ways in which speakers use features of ethnoracially or locally marked varieties are highly salient in their construction of identities of place. They can convey identities such as “long-term resident” (Becker 2009), stances against gentrification (Podesva 2008), and reify identities of localness in a neighborhood which reflect larger Discourses about place and belonging (Modan 2007). The present study is a discourse analysis of the ways in which features of African American English (AAE) support affective stance-taking about a rapidly-gentrifiying neighborhood in Washington, D.C.
The quadrant of Southeast, Washington D.C. has in recent years been the site of an unusual gentrification pattern: while middle-class and upper class African American residents are moving into the formerly working class, African American neighborhood, very few White residents from within or outside Washington have taken up residence there. This has led to a situation in which the socioeconomic makeup of the neighborhood community is changing, without the racial change that is typical of gentrification in most U.S. cities. This places the neighborhood’s existing middle-class residents in a precarious position—they must on the one hand index class-based identities that mark them as the professional, middle-class residents they are, while at the same time, assert their identities as local, historical residents of this formerly working class neighborhood.
The present study examines the speech of five middle- and upper-class African American residents of the neighborhood, extracted from segments of sociolinguistic interviews in which the speakers were asked about how the neighborhood has changed. In them, all five speakers use morphosyntactic features of AAE, such as copula deletion, ain’t, and zero-tense marking, as well as phonation features such as falsetto, in asserting their identities as longtime residents and in taking affective stances disfavoring the community’s change. In particular, the data show that employing an ethnolinguistic repertoire (Benor 2010) which includes many features of AAE is vital in speakers’ drawing of contrasts between themselves and the newcomers to the neighborhood. This allows them to align themselves with the neighborhood’s rich African American identity even while their class identity might better align them with the outsiders. In turn, by using AAE in talking about race and neighborhood change, middle-class speakers preserve their authority to make claims about race relations and about the demographic changes taking place in their neighborhood.