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Sources of variation in the speech of African Americans: Perspectives from sociophonetics

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Abstract African American Language (AAL) is one of the most researched varieties of American English, yet key aspects of its development and spread remain under‐theorized. For example, regional and social variation in the speech of African Americans was initially understudied in AAL as scholars sought to demonstrate the overall systematicity of the variety, often at the expense of examining variation across and within communities. More recently, scholars have begun to address this gap by examining different sources of variation in AAL phonology. For instance, the African American Vowel System (AAVS), also called the African American Vowel Shift, describes a pattern identified within AAL, including the raising of the front lax vowels and the nonfronting of the high‐ and mid‐back vowels. Aspects of the AAVS have been found in geographically widespread varieties of AAL, suggesting that shared patterns of population movement resulting from the Great Migration and subsequent social experiences may have led to the development of this system. Other more regionally limited sound patterns suggest the role of more localized processes of variation and change. We focus on three sources of variation that have contributed to the spread and realizations of the sound system in modern AAL: migration, segregation, and place and identity. Evidence from sociophonetic analyses across these three factors provides a foundation to more thoroughly document the ways in which AAL varieties developed, spread, and vary, while allowing for a more nuanced assessment of racialization and its implications for individual differences. This article is categorized under: Linguistics > Linguistic Theory Psychology > Language
African American Vowel Shift (Adapted from Thomas (2007))
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African American Vowel System in North Carolina (Reprinted with permission from Kohn (2014))
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