Overall, I'm interested in the social use of language. What are we doing (linguistically) when we talk to each other? How do our identities and perceptions shape how we talk to each other? My research to date focuses specifically on American politicians, how they produce language and how they are perceived by the public.

Qualifying Paper

My qualifying paper "Does Donald Trump really tawk the tawk: An acoustic analysis of Trump's THOUGHT and BAT vowels sought to answer the question: How does Trump’s accent compare objectively to those of New Yorkers across the socioeconomic spectrum and in particular to those of working-class New Yorkers?

To answer the primary question, two phonetic variables were chosen to analyze from several of Trump’s speech acts during his year of active campaigning: the vowel found in words like bath, trap and bad and the vowel found in words like thought, bought and coffee. The data is analyzed compared to findings from a handful of studies that looked at the NYC accent and correlations between various social and linguistic features (Labov, 1966; Becker & Wong, 2010; Becker, 2014). Several types of speeches were used as data sources.

Short answer: acoustic analysis of these two variables shows that Trump does not have the classic NYCE accent consistently. There are situations in which Trump does have a raised THOUGHT vowel and/or a greater degree of split in his short-a, but Trump never approaches the patterns of the NYC working class, as laid out in Labov (1966). This raises some questions that could potentially be addressed in future research: (1) Does the pattern presented here in Trump’s speech hold true for all five phonological variables of NYCE as laid out in Labov (1966), and perhaps for other linguistic features characteristic of NYC? (2) How well can people from outside a local community recognize socio-economic differences in the speech of people from that community? (3) How does the speech of billionaires fit into the sociolinguistic profile of a city like New York? 

5-Minute Linguist

The Five-Minute Linguist is an event put on at the Linguistic Society of America's Annual Meeting. I had the opportunity to take part in this competition at the 2019 meeting in New York City. (My bit--based on my qualifying paper--starts at about the 54:00 mark.)


In April 2019, linguist John McWhorter had to explain to the general population that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s use of her native Bronx dialect is not the equivalent of ‘black face’ (McWhorter 2019). He asserts that as she had been surrounded by this dialect growing up, it makes sense that it is in her repertoire and that she would code-switch to connect with her audience. He points out that this congresswoman is not the first person to be accused of something similar. “President Barack Obama, for example, came in for much criticism—some from black people—for using some Black English when speaking to black audiences. His critics assumed that, because he was an educated person, Obama’s Black English could not possibly be ‘authentic’ and was therefore condescending” (McWhorter 2019:1). McWhorter is responding to a question that seems to underlie these accusations: why would anyone ever use a non-standard dialect once they are educated and can speak The Standard? This is not a new question. There is a scene in the 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird where the narrator (Scout) and her brother (Jem) point out that their black cook does not have to use Black English because ‘she knows better’, as she can speak their [white] version of English.

This kind of commentary points to a standard language ideology in the United States and ultimately sets up a scale with three major points: vernacular, standard and superstandard. Each of which carries its own prestige in various contexts. There has been relatively little systematic linguistic study of the use of vernacular and superstandard by politicians. With that in mind, this project seeks to answer three key questions: (1) how does the speech of major politicians on the national stage pattern with respect to variables that are relatively neutral in terms of regional variation within the United States but that reflect the opposition between vernacular and standard American English and/or that between standard and superstandard? (2) How are listeners’ attitudes toward politicians affected by the politicians’ usage of these variables? And (3) how does the usage itself and its effect on listeners’ attitudes correlate with the race and gender of the politicians?

To answer these questions, I am conducting a production study and a perception study, focusing on the usage of two (maybe three!) key linguistic variables: released /t/, /d/ and (ING).