University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


This article examines falsetto speech in African American English (AAE). Although AAE is arguably the most studied dialect of American English, intonation in general and falsetto in particular are still poorly understood. The present study investigates falsetto phonation in a linguistic case study of “Michael,” a fourteen year old African American male from Washington, D.C. I focus on the quantitative patterning of falsetto in addition to inferring the multifaceted social meanings of falsetto from the interview discourse. For this purpose, the falsetto is measured in terms of maximum F0 (Hz), falsetto range (Hz), and duration of falsetto (ms) in various discursive positionings. The analysis reveals that the sociological interview, in which the focus is on eliciting specific information on a set list of topics rather than making the interviewee feel comfortable, causes misalignment between “Michael” and the interviewer. Falsetto occurs in 45 out of a total of 1680 intonational phrases, and while the generic meaning of falsetto is expressiveness, the analysis reveals also that the most extreme falsetto phonation occurs in forced self-positioning + repositioning with severe cases of oppositional alignment between “Michael” and the interviewer. In these cases, “Michael” conveys indignation towards the interview questions, while using falsetto as a proactive, agentive tool to reposition his status and thus change his discursively constructed place in the social world.