Gender Identity and Expression in an Urban Sound Change
Steve L. Johnson III (Michigan State University)
Linguistic features of all sorts can serve as markers of social distinctions important to a speech community. Participation in local sound change, for example, can express something about a speaker’s ethnicity, gender, social class, or age—some of the broadest social categories that may be indexed linguistically. This expression is especially important where local identities may become lost in the face of globalization. Studies that have examined sound change have found that rather than dialect convergence, which is expected with growing globalization, divergence is occurring, bringing new language varieties that are becoming more distinct from mainstream norms. These studies have also shown a tendency for women to lead these sound changes, but the statistical correlation is not nearly as strong as with other social variables (Labov 1996).
This study aims to explore the role of gender identity in an urban community as indicated by participation in the Northern Cities Shift (NCS), a regional sound change that tends to be led by young, middle-class, European American females (Labov 1990). Specifically, it investigates the correlation between how 20 speakers from Southeastern Michigan self-evaluate on 20 personality traits (that interact with gender and ethnicity) and their progress in the NCS.
The results show individuals in the community who self-identify as cheerful, warm, and affectionate are those who are the most advanced in the Northern Cities Shift. The leaders of this sound change tend to be women because these traits are those that are traditionally more desirable for women to possess. Women in this community (which consists of a mixture of English, Polish, Arabic, Spanish, and AAVE speakers) lead in the establishment of the strong regional identity which emerges in response to globalization. The association of this regional identity with women may also explain why young English-speaking, European American males in the community cross into other dialects in the community in order to symbolically express a masculinity that their own dialect may not allow them to express.