Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Identities and local speech in Pittsburgh: A study of regional African American English
by Eberhardt, Maeve, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, 2009, 265; 3375240
Abstract (Summary)

There has been a long-standing assumption in sociolinguistics that African American English (AAE) is a homogenous variety. Consequently, the phonetic and phonological characteristics of AAE have been, until recently, largely ignored. Current work in sociolinguistics, however, has begun to focus on regional variation in AAE, challenging this previously held belief. This dissertation adds to this body of literature, examining the vowel systems of African Americans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

I begin with an overview of the sociolinguistic setting, with particular focus on the neighborhood of the Hill District. I move on to describe broad speech patterns of the Pittsburgh dialect, and discuss the vowel systems of a select number of speakers. I then examine two vocalic variables in detail that are characteristic of the Pittsburgh dialect. I first analyze the low back vowels /a/ and /[open o]/, which have been merged in White Pittsburgh speech for decades. My analysis shows that African Americans exhibit alignment to the local phonological system with respect to this feature, also having merged these vowels. I propose that the sociohistorical conditions of African Americans early in the 20th century led to the spread of the merger from White to African American speech. The second variable analyzed is the monophthongal pronunciation of /aw/, a stereotype of Pittsburgh speech. While there is a great deal of variation in the length of glides produced by African Americans in Pittsburgh, I demonstrate that the monophthongal pronunciation is absent. I discuss this finding with respect to the feature’s salience and connection to a specific social identity—the White Pittsburgher—and how orientation to place helps to account for its absence in local African American speech.

This work contributes to a burgeoning line of research that challenges the field to depart from a purely racially-based definition of AAE and move towards one founded on regional linguistic characteristics, thereby paralleling definitions of white English varieties. Additionally, it underscores the importance of the sociohistorical and cultural contexts in which African American communities are situated when approaching an explanation of patterns of speech, rather than assuming a binary choice of accommodation or resistance to local norms.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Kiesling, Scott
School: University of Pittsburgh
School Location: United States -- Pennsylvania
Source: DAI-A 70/09, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Linguistics, Black studies, Ethnic studies, African American Studies
Keywords: African-American English, Identity, Local speech, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh
Publication Number: 3375240
ISBN: 978-1-109-39589-1
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