University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


This study investigates the variable use of New York City (NYC) dialect features by Brooklyn-born Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Supreme Court, both from her time as a lawyer arguing cases before the Court in the 1970s and as a Justice hearing cases from the bench from 1993 onward. Our data comes from digitized recordings of Supreme Court cases available at The Oyez Project (www.oyez.org). The immensity of the Oyez Project’s corpus and its public availability provide us with tokens all along Ginsburg’s timeline at the Court. We look at THOUGHT vowels (N=556) and postvocalic /r/ (N=3304) with reference to their NYC variants, i.e., THOUGHT-raising and r-vocalization. While Ginsburg moved to Washington from NYC in 1980 and has remained there, her data at the endpoint of our study (2011–2012) shows a greater use of NYC vernacular features than was true of the data at the beginning (1972). Mixed-effects regression models using both linguistic and social predictors would seem to point to the importance of chronology for both features: for THOUGHT-raising, the best-fit model makes a binary temporal distinction, between the “Lawyer” years of the 1970’s and the “Justice” years from the 1993 to the 2011 terms. We refer to Communication Accommodation Theory (Giles, N. Coupland and J. Coupland 1991; Giles and Gasiorek 2013) to frame our explanation for what we see as Ginsburg’s reduced use of raised thought in the 1970’s. For r-vocalization, there is again a fundamentally binary distinction, with the year 2000 as the point of division. The forces that motivate this greater use of vocalized-r after 2000 are much less obvious than those behind the Lawyer v. Justice opposition that we propose for THOUGHT-raising. We weigh competing and somewhat contradictory explanations for Ginsburg’s increased use of r-vocalization.