Regional dialect features on the Lower East Side of New York City: Sociophonetics, ethnicity, and identity

by Becker, Kara, Ph.D., NEW YORK UNIVERSITY, 2010, 427 pages; 3428032


This dissertation presents a quantitative description of two phonological features from the repertoire of New York City English (NYCE) as used in a diverse community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan: the low back rounded vowel /[open o]/ (BOUGHT) and the low front vowel system, referred to as a short-a split (Labov, Yaeger & Steiner 1972; Labov 2007; Labov, Ash & Boberg 2006).

A three-year ethnography that includes interviews with 105 community residents finds a neighborhood starkly different from that described in Labov (1966). Concomitantly, the quantitative picture for BOUGHT and short- a differs considerably from Labov’s findings. My sample includes speakers from representative ethnic backgrounds in the community: African American, Asian, Latino, and white (including both Jewish and non-Jewish speakers). White Lower East Siders show dramatic reversals of the changes in progress found by Labov (1966), so that young white speakers neither raise BOUGHT nor produce the Labovian short-a split. The data suggest a change in progress away from use of these classic NYCE features for these speakers.

Overall, each ethnic speaker group utilizes BOUGHT and short- a in unique ways, so that ethnicity emerges as a crucial social factor in predicting the use of these features. No young Lower East Sider of any ethnic background produces the Labovian short-a split, while many non-white speakers do raise BOUGHT. Findings from African Americans, in particular, who raise BOUGHT regardless of their age, provide further evidence dispelling the supraregional myth for African American speech (Wolfram 2007).

Sampling a diverse speaker set in an urban dialectology is an important contribution in looking beyond white speakers for descriptions of regional dialect usage, and it argues against notions like a fixed “ethnolect” in favor of an (ethno) linguistic repertoire (Benor 2010). Overall, this study helps to close a large research gap on NYCE on the Lower East Side since Labov (1966), and its findings point to the complex identification practices – whether ethnic, local, or otherwise – that speakers engage in when utilizing regional dialect features. The resulting picture of the Lower East Side is one of change, both socially and linguistically.

AdviserJohn Victor Singler
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsLinguistics; Sociolinguistics
Publication Number3428032

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