Research and Presentations

As a PhD student, I generally spend a lot of time working on one big project (that is usually comprised of a bunch of smaller projects). See below for research I've done and am currently working on.


Working Title: U.S. Politician's Use of Vernacular, Standard and Superstandard

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 three key linguistic variables: released /t/, /d/; consonant cluster reduction; and (ING).   

You can read my full dissertation proposal by contacting me here.

Qualifying Paper

Does Donald Trump really tawk the tawk? An acoustic analysis of Trump's THOUGHT and BAT vowel

On February 9, 2016, Jeff Guo posted an article to the Wonkblog, which is a blog hosted by the Washington Post and is generally dedicated to the topics of economics and politics. The article was titled “Donald Trump’s accent, explained” and discusses how Trump’s “voice itself, that unmistakable instrument, has been a noteworthy element of Trump’s populist image” (Guo, 2016: 1). After this article, and throughout the rest of Trump’s campaign, more media posts started showing up discussing aspects of Trump’s accent (CBC, 2016; Kelman, 2016; etc; See Appendix A for a list of articles referenced in this paper). Through basic internet searches, it became apparent that members of the general public were also talking about the way Trump talked (See Appendix B for a selection of comments found online). This is not entirely unusual, as humans like to comment on human language use (Cameron, 1995), and every aspect of a presidential candidate seems to be discussed online, from clothing choices to haircuts to, even, political platform. What was interesting was the adjective that seemed to keep popping-up in these articles and posts: working class. Trump’s New York City English accent was being touted as ‘working class.’ Donald Trump is a billionaire and was born into a wealthy family. It seemed doubtful to me that he would have a working class accent, but it was striking that so many would use that term to describe how he spoke. Enter this study and the ultimate question it seeks to answer: 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? The answer to this question raises another question that I have had in the back of my mind from the outset: If the phonetic features of Trump's accent do not justify the 'working class' label, what does account for the fact that so many people perceive his accent in this way?

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? 

You can read my full qualifying paper by contacting me here.

5-Minute Linguist

The Five-Minute Linguist is an event put on at the Linguistic Society of America's Annual Meeting. I had the privilege of taking part in this competition at the 2019 annual meeting in New York City. (My bit "What Donald Trump's THOUGHTS reveal" starts at about the 54:00 mark.)


I've done other (minor) research projects which I've presented in lab and at invited talks.

On 'sounding like a bitch'

Do I sound like a bitch? In 2019, everyone has seemingly heard of ‘bitch face’ but what about ‘bitch voice’? From commentary on the internet to various conversations with friends, the phrase ‘you sound like a bitch [right now]’ comes up a lot. This paper addresses this notion of ‘sounding like a bitch’ and ultimately explores the question of whether and to what extent there is something linguistic behind a listener’s perception of a speaker sounding like a bitch (i.e., words, tone, pitch, etc). To answer this question, three phases of surveys were conducted: (1) casual interviews with native English speakers about what it means to sound like a bitch; (2) testing out different intonational patterns to see if there was a reaction and noting what it was; (3) an attitude survey using manipulated speech data to see if the previous perceptions held true and to look if there was any deviation between male and female speakers. The data collected shows that there is a correlation between a handful of acoustic qualities and being regarded as sounding like a bitch, with lower female voices getting tagged as ‘bitch’ more than higher pitched females and male voices not being tagged as ‘bitch’ at all—even those that were remarked as sounding stereotypically gay or flamboyant. Lastly, an interesting find was that the only clip that was dubbed ‘non-authoritative’ was the high(er)-pitched female “nice voice,” implying (yet again?) that either lower voices sound [more] authoritative or that nice females carry no authority.

Grammar Nazis, prescriptivism, and snobs, oh my!

Within prescriptive linguistics, language experts believe it is proper to attempt to prescribe which forms of language are grammatical and which are ungrammatical. This paper argues that American society is prescriptive. One can see this simply by observing speech. Individuals will change their language as they navigate social situations, becoming more or less formal based on how the speaker perceives his/her audience. This paper discusses two reasons that motivate this behavior: to use language indexically to convey aspects of identity, and as a signifier of power. Individuals will also occasionally correct another’s speech based on some prescriptive rule learned in school or from a grammar book or even heard from another speaker. At the very base of this are value judgments created within an individual while speaking to another, judgments based purely on the other’s use of language. When it comes to spoken language, prescriptivism does not really do what it is meant to; it does not work. One cannot apply rules to speech and have them stick. But it can be said that prescriptivism is “working” on a different level. While no speaker is going to stop spoken language from evolving simply by prescribing rules, prescriptivism allows speakers to gain and maintain power simply because they understand and adhere to strict prescriptive rules.

Reduplication in Spanish augmentative and diminutive suffixes

In some dialects of Spanish, there is a reduplicative phenomenon that takes place in certain augmentative and diminutive suffixes. These dialects repeat—or reduplicate—the beginning syllable of the suffix for emphasis on meaning. I will focus on a synchronic approach/analysis to help explain how words like grandododododote are formed and why/how they might occur. This presentation will discuss the phenomenon in the context of theories of suffixation and reduplication in Spanish. The analysis will include playful word formation and rule-governed explanations.

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