How Black Does Obama Sound Now?: Testing Listener Judgments of Intonation in Incrementally Manipulated Speech

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Holliday, Nicolle R.
Villarreal, Daniel

Recent research in perceptual sociolinguistics has investigated a host of variables—primarily segmental—to assess the extent to which social meanings are constructed in perception similarly to the way they are constructed in ongoing production. Despite production research in sociolinguistics that has demonstrated how speakers use intonational variation to index various ethnic identities and social stances (Burdin 2015, Holliday 2016, Reed 2016), there has been a general lack of perceptual research on the social meanings of intonational variables. At the same time, research in perceptual sociolinguistics has not confronted the issue of whether social meanings are incremental—that is, does a more phonetically extreme token of a socially marked variable correspond to a stronger social meaning? We address these gaps in research by testing listener judgments of manipulations of Barack Obama's utterances in one interview. In this perceptual task, critical stimuli were declarative Intonational Phrases with H* and/or L+H* pitch accents (Beckman et al. 2007) that were manipulated to four manipulation steps, with successively more extreme F0 maxima and minima with each step. Ninety-three American English listeners rated 80 critical stimuli and 40 filler stimuli (excerpted from the same interview of Obama) on the question, "How Black does Obama sound here?", using a slider bar. A mixed-effects regression model was conducted for listener ratings of blackness by assessing the interaction of Phrase Type (H* only vs. L+H*) and Manipulation Step. Listeners perceived stimuli with at least one L+H* token as sounding more black than those without, but only for phrases with more phonetically extreme realizations of the L+H* contour. These results demonstrate that listeners are sensitive to stepwise manipulations of the F0 contour, indicating that incrementality affects social meanings of intonational variables and providing a promising new direction for studies on listener judgments of ethnicity.

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