East End Boys and West End Girls: /s/-Fronting in Southeast England

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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In this paper, we revisit the impact of gender and social class on language (e.g., Eckert 1989, 2000, Labov 1990, Milroy et al. 1994, Dubois & Horvath 1999) through an investigation of /s/ in southeast England. Previous work on /s/ variation in English has suggested that, for a number of varieties, backer, more [-esh] like variants are associated with males while more fronted realisations are associated with women. Subsequent work in the UK has also indicated that for some speakers /s/ may also be associated with class (Stuart-Smith 2007). Our study contributes to this area through examining the possible interaction of class and gender with regards to /s/ realisation. Our data come from two British reality television programmes: Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex. The class stratified sample – upper-class Chelsea and working-class Essex – provide an interesting test site for examining how gender and class based identities may manifest linguistically in the relevant communities (e.g., Schilling-Estes 1998, Coupland 2001). Results of a multivariate analysis of 1200 tokens of /s/ produced by 24 speakers in our sample demonstrate a systematic pattern of sex-differentiation across all speakers: women have significantly higher peak frequencies than the men, as consistent with previous work on this feature (e.g., Munson et al. 2006, Stuart-Smith 2007). Further analysis reveals that this differentiation is quantitatively much more extreme in Essex than it is in Chelsea. In discussion, we suggest that Essex speakers may exaggerate their realisations to create hyper-gendered articulations of /s/ and support these interpretations with information regarding other social practices in which Essex speakers engage. More broadly, we consider the ways in which gendered indexicality interacts with social class and argue for the need to treat gender and class as interdependent sociolinguistic constructs.

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