University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


Studies have shown that fine-grained phonetic details play an important role in signaling linguistic contrasts (Labov et al. 1991, DiPaolo and Faber 1990). Listeners are attuned to differences in duration (Bailey 2001, Thomas 2001), phonation type (Yaeger-Dror and Thomas 2010), and monophthongization and diphthongization (Kohn 2013). That listeners are attuned to each of these cues provides evidence that many differences in sound can be used to convey phonological distinctiveness and preserve contrasts in the linguistic system. I show that distinction in the FEEL-FILL merger is maintained by vowel contours and that, furthermore, contour emerges as socially indexical. Analysis of 24 African Americans from Bakersfield and Sacramento, California shows that African American men merge FEEL and FILL such that F1 is diphthongal and overlapping throughout the rhyme for both vowel classes while African American women maintain a distinction with a relatively flatter FILL F1 contour. Additionally, younger African Americans and African Americans with higher levels of education have a relatively flatter FILL contour. Whereas a diphthongal FILL is in alignment with the Southern Vowel System, a monophthongal FILL is aligned with California English. Thus, the gendered pattern is located within a pattern of change in which women are leading a change away from the Southern pattern in part due to an emphasis on respectability and social mobility. These findings demonstrate that the vowel contour can be distinctive and carry social meaning, as well.



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