The social meaning of /s/ among SoMa drag queens

My current research explores the relation between the linguistic and the visual in meaning-making. I focus on the fronting of /s/ among a group of drag queens and queer performance artists in SoMa, San Francisco, a community characterized by its anti-normativity. The data come from: transformations, i.e. conversations taking place while the queens transform from their "male-bodied" selves into their feminine drag personae using wigs, makeup, and other resources; and interactional data recorded during an entire night at four drag hostesses' events. 

I argue that what is indexed by fronted /s/ is influenced by the visual drag in which the participants adorn themselves. In previous research, fronted /s/ is perceived to be more gay-sounding or less heteronormatively masculine (e.g., Zimman 2013). An ethnographic analysis reveals that among the SoMa queens, visual presentation influences whether feminine gender performances like fronted /s/ index a positive or negative social meaning. While fronted /s/ is evaluated as "sissy" coming from a male presenting body, it is positively evaluated as "sickening" when dressed in visual feminine drag.

In addition to visual presentation influencing the indexical retrieval of fronted /s/, it also constrains its linguistic production. A quantitative analysis of /s/ production among four drag hostesses reveals that as the queens get into drag over the course of the transformation, /s/ amplitude increases relative to the amplitude of adjacent segments. In other words, /s/ is produced louder when subjects are in drag. I argue that as the transformation progresses, SoMa queens draw on qualia (see Harkness 2015) like "harshness" and "sharpness" across both the visual and linguistic modalities in the construction of a "fierce", larger than life femininity that stands in contrast to normative gender standards.


Rhythmic style: Jock vs. Burnout

With Daria Popova

This project is a rhythmic analysis of the speech of two stylistic opposites from Eckert's Belten High study (1989): a jock and a burnout. Daria Popova and I propose a multi-dimensional analysis of rhythmic style that goes beyond the duration metrics (e.g. PVI) generally used in studies of variation. While the duration metrics do not capture any significant rhythmic differences between the two speakers, an analysis of the placement of accents and pauses illuminates highly significant stylistic differences. The burnout's rhythmic style contains a far greater number of phonetically accented syllables and phrase-internal pauses than the jock's, whose style is characterized by fewer accented syllables and pauses that align with phrase boundaries. If we assume that accents that are restricted to semantically focused syllables, and pauses that correspond with phrase boundaries are less marked, the burnout's style is more marked than the jock's. This allows for a more emphatic linguistic style that enhances the dramatic quality of the burnout's narratives.

A preliminary analysis can be found in Penn Working Papers Volume 20.2; a more in-depth account is currently under review.


Rhythm and speech acts: "Reading is Fundamental"

This paper explores the role of rhythm in differentiating speech events. Specifically, I focus on "Reading", a ritual insult practice common among drag queens and queer people of color. I analyze final lengthening and pause placement in the speech of 18 drag queens from reality TV program RuPaul's Drag Race. A comparison of Reading speech with conversational speech reveals that the queens are much more likely to lengthen final syllables when Reading. In addition, speech in the Reading event is much less likely to contain phrase-internal pauses. Given that Reading occurs seamlessly during conversation and is not characterized by a semantic frame, I argue that these rhythmic qualities are part of a performative linguistic style that conjures the shift in interpretive frame, allowing for a Read to be interpreted as a speech act rather than a personal insult. While the semantic content of Reads is often potentially face-threatening, the speech act conjured by the linguistic style allows for the Read to accomplish increased solidarity between the performers. An in-depth account of this study is currently in preparation.


The construction of Blackness in Bakersfield, CA

With Sharese King

Sharese King and I explore the linguistic construction of African-American identity in Bakersfield, California. While previous studies of AAE have focused on larger cities with robust African-American populations, Bakersfield is a smaller community in which AAs form a small minority. An analysis of the vowel space of 12 AA speakers reveals that while Bakersfield AAs front the BOOT vowel (a feature of the California Vowel shift and one common among White Bakersfieldians), they do not participate in the COT-CAUGHT merger (which White speakers do participate in). We argue that these findings suggest that the linguistic construction of race is context specific; while AAs are distinct from White speakers in the realization of COT-CAUGHT, the use of California features like fronted-BOOT suggests that locality is important in the construction of identity. An in-depth account of this study is currently in preparation.