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Dissertation Defense: Kelly Wright

Black Professionalism: Perception and Metalinguistic Assessment of Black American Speakers' Sociolinguistic Labor
Friday, May 13, 2022
11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Linguistics PhD candidate Kelly Wright will defend her dissertation on Friday, May 13, at 11:30 am. Title: “Black Professionalism: Perception and Metalinguistic Assessment of Black American Speakers' Sociolinguistic Labor.” Committee chair is Patrice Beddor. All are invited to attend.


Metalinguistic awareness encompasses what a language user knows about the relation of social factors (such as age, gender, or race) to linguistic usage, distribution, meaning, or context of occurrence variance. Metalinguistic awareness, and a language user’s embodied positionality in relation to it, can be thought of as akin to how one relates to an indexical field, in that such a field is described as representing all the potential meanings a given linguistic variable can have across contexts and communities. I argue that some people are, by the nature of their embodied positionality, always already more aware of the contents of these fields. To elicit metacommentary stemming from such positionality-based awareness, a new method of sociolinguistic interview is introduced which elevates metalinguistic knowledge to a level comparable to that of speech feature. This dissertation applied this method in interviews with 17 Black professionals from Detroit, Michigan. The design included, for example, a task geared towards eliciting metacommentary on targeted African American Language terms (e.g., shawty, stressed BIN, and the N-words) that aligns with some aspects of their positionality (e.g., regionally) and diverges in others (e.g., age- and gender-based knowledges). One major theme to emerge from the metacommentary on these terms and on other components of the interview method—examined in especially close detail through three case studies—is that the current understanding of the theoretical concept of sociolinguistic labor does not fully capture these Black professionals’ reported motivations for style shifting. Rather, the notion of sociolinguistic labor needs to be enriched to include linguistic actions which are taken not only to satisfy others, but also to satisfy the self and in service of others.

Metacommentary elicited from these Black professionals on specific elements of their racialized styles that they shift away from in the workplace informed the design of the speech perception experiment also undertaken in this study, which assessed listeners’ judgments of the relative professionalism of Black professional speech styles. Targeting three non-Standard variables—fortition via TH-stopping (they versus dey); metathesis (ask versus aks);, and consonant cluster reduction (trend versus tren_)—the perception experiment asked: if Black people sound more like themselves at work, are their identities as professionals more likely to be rejected by audiences? Across three configurations of paired sentences differing in the number of non-Standard variables, the overwhelming majority of listeners, across demographic categories, prefer sentences with fewer non-Standard variables to those with more such variables from a Black professional speaker. However, the relative influences of these variables on professionalism judgments differed, with the metathesis variable aks, for example, presenting evidence of perceptual blocking, indicating that stereotypes about aks and its normative incompatibility with professionalism are operative in this study. These findings indicate that when a Black speaker shifts towards the Standard—towards Whiteness—their style appears to align with listener expectations of professionalism; this indicates that Black professionals are less successful in conveying professionalism when features of non-Standard racialized varieties are present. In consideration of the interviewees’ reports of sociolinguistic labor done to acquiesce to assimilationist Standards, and in light of the experimental evidence indicating preference of speech styles which reflect said labors, I conclude this dissertation by calling for linguists across the discipline to become better advocates for linguistic equity at local and federal levels.
Building: Off Campus Location
Location: Virtual
Event Link:
Event Password: Detroit
Event Type: Other
Tags: Dissertation, Linguistics
Source: Happening @ Michigan from Department of Linguistics