A Tale of Two Cities: Community Density and African American English Vowels

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Though variation in the African American Vowel System (AAVS) has been recognized in many communities throughout the US (Thomas 2007, Yaeger-Dror and Thomas 2010), the social and socio-geographic correlates of this system remain underexplored. To examine this issue, we compare front lax vowel production for fourteen young adult women between the ages of 20 and 22 from two communities in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Durham and Chapel Hill differ both in population size and in formal measures of segregation. The African American community in Durham is both larger and more dense than the African American community in Chapel Hill. Participants also differed in their post high school activity, here called educational profile. Three participants directly entered the workforce out of high school, six attended Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), and five attended community colleges or certificate programs. While front lax vowels are raised in the AAVS, these same vowels are lowering among European Americans in the region (Dodsworth and Kohn 2012). Results indicate that Chapel Hill participants have lower BAT vowel classes than Durham participants, potentially reflecting greater participation in European American sound changes. HBCU participants do not always pattern with community cohorts and vary widely in their level of participation in the AAVS. Socio-geographic factors such as spatial segregation and community density likely contribute to differences in inter-community studies of the AAVS, but the relationship between educational profile and participation is not straight-forward.

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