University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics



This paper presents a new perspective on African American English (AAE) in Washington DC (DC) by looking at sound change internal to the DC African American community over time. DC has had a stable African American population since the early twentieth century, and since 1960 African Americans have been the ethnic majority. We analyze changes in the vocalic system and how they relate to larger population demographics in DC. This study looks at several vowel categories for 29 speakers from the Corpus of Regional African American Language (CORAAL), using interviews recorded in 1968 and 2015/2016 (Kendall and Farrington 2017). With speakers born between 1907 and 1998, we provide insight into the older regional patterns of DC AAE as well as participation in the widespread African American Vowel System (Thomas 2007). Results demonstrate patterns of stability and change resulting from competing norms of these two systems, including the loss of older regional features, regular monotonic sound change, and curvilinear patterns of change. This complex pattern of development suggests that the AAE speaking community in DC is undergoing changes that aren’t simply movements towards an external norm like a monolithic AAVS, but rather represent the ongoing development of a regionally-based ethnolect.