Studying language in South Park

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Justin Moss is a graduate student at N.C. State University and an assistant working on the study of language in Raleigh’s South Park neighborhood.

The vocal chords of Raleigh’s urban community are being put under the linguistic microscope. Linguists from North Carolina State University, curious about language variation in the city’s population, particularly in the downtown African American community, are sending students into South Park armed with voice recorders and video cameras. They’re interviewing the residents who agree to speak with them about their experiences in the city.

These ethnographic interviews take place in the resident’s home, usually in the living room or the kitchen. Once the record buttons have been pressed, it’s the beginning of a trip down memory lane.  Interviewers from N.C. State ask residents about how physical spaces in the community – like Chavis Park or Moore Square – have structured who they are and what their history has been.

Two vital keys lie within these conversations, the first possessing a linguistic nature – the African-American vowel shift. The vowel shift was hypothesized to be taking place in urban settings. This is what supposedly differentiates African American English (AAE) speakers from speakers of other dialects.

Erik Thomas, a linguistics professor at N.C. State, proposed the AAE shift.

“A few years ago I wrote a paper where I proposed this shift,” said Thomas, who received his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin in 1995.  “You go to most communities in the south and look at the ‘a’ vowels and African Americans will have a little more ‘eh’ like than the whites will,” Thomas said.


Southeast Raleigh resident Charles Irving participated in the study. Photo by Rachel Hulbert.

The head linguistic researcher is Assistant Professor Robin Dodsworth, who is also being aided by doctoral student Mary Kohn.

Dodsworth, who came to NC State in 2007, earned her doctorate in linguistics from Ohio State University in 2005. “I’m really interested in the dynamics of language change and language variation,” she said.  She has a focus on the relationship between socioeconomic class and language variation. Or rather, how one’s position in a particular social class network reflects their language pattern. She has been on the prowl for the AAE shift in Raleigh for close to two years now – being backed by two grants honored by the university. Of the two grants, only one remains active.

The remaining grant is a multidisciplinary grant involving not only Dodsworth from the English department, but also two other professors from the university’s School of Design – Kermit Bailey and Kofi Boone. Bailey is a graphic designer and Boone is a landscape architect. With Dodsworth’s focus being primarily on the vowel shifts, Bailey and Boone have a focus on preserving the community’s experiences in the area.

Therein lies the second vital key within the conversations held with the South Park residents – their responses to how physical spaces like Chavis Park have impacted identity, social structure and history.

“We wrote up this grant proposal,” Dodsworth said, “that kind of serves their needs that says we’re going to use these interviews to construct narratives of space and place like how people think about their neighborhood in southeast Raleigh and South Park.” The goal of these two schools working together on the same project, as stated in the grant, is “to independently arrive at the need for a detailed, historically embedded understanding of the residents’ conceptions of and experiences with their physical surroundings in South Park.”

Looking at the three difference disciplines and their purposes in this project, the one that seems to draw the most questions would be the sociolinguistic discipline.

What’s the primary question?

Who cares? What does language have to do with anything? Why do I care this person talks like this and that person talks like that?

“Language reflects other things that are going on in society,” said Thomas. “And since it’s a more subconscious kind of thing then musical taste or clothing styles, it can corroborate things you see going on with other aspects of culture and maybe do so in a stronger way because it’s not something people are doing deliberately all the time.”

Language can be used as a subconscious indicator of the social state of a community.

“When you have people living side by side who don’t start to talk like each other or at least maintain some distance in the way they speak from each other,” Thomas said, “that tells you something important about the social situation.”

In the United States, this is a common occurrence with the white communities and the African-American communities.

“The grand scheme is we are interested in the intersection of language and society,” Kohn said. “We want to learn more about that connection.”

In a nutshell, linguists from NC State are trying to learn how language changes and why, especially pertaining to the patterns of sound change that take place within the English language.

“If you’ve ever heard a movie from the 1930s,” Kohn said, “you can hear how different speech is now from even back in the day of our great-grandparents.”

But also, correlating with the efforts of Boone and Bailey, linguists are also trying to preserve the culture of a community that is literally being taken over. Currently, the city of Raleigh is expanding its downtown area – right into South Park. This expansion is bringing about a great deal of change for the community.

“Even as a grad student my master’s thesis was about community participation,” Boone said, “Like how do you engage communities and help them make informed decisions about how to design their environment?”

Boone, who has received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan, worked ten years for an interdisciplinary firm and has worked in plenty of development projects. His focus is primarily on spatial analysis – how someone describes a place, translating it into a real place in geography that can be mapped. This also includes some physical characteristics like maybe it’s the width of a street or the presence of trees or a certain view.

Acquiring this spatial information is important because if designers lack awareness of the local history, vernacular language, and non-objective values – which are critical to the design process – then this would result in the failure to identify and address communication barriers and the failure to develop strategies for increased awareness.

Boone has recently hired a number of research assistants and in January of 2010, they plan on implementing a method they have developed where they will start working with people from southeast Raleigh to help map all the information.


The study focused on South Park residents’ interaction with places like Chavis Park. Photo by Rachel Hulbert.

In terms of graphic design, Bailey’s focus is more on engaging an expanded “school community” to translate community narratives into models of community systems. He’s focused on ways of translating the oral narratives into new visualization tools for projecting trends in community change.

“I was the most focused on education frameworks,” Bailey said. “A lot of the time what I’m trying to teach students is how do you build rapport?” said Bailey. “Just because you’re in a studio and somebody says go to southeast Raleigh or wherever it is, how do you build a rapport that then makes that terrain workable that then yields some fruit.”

“One of the goals for collecting this data,” Dodsworth said, “is to find out what are the priorities of the people who live there, what do they want to see happen in their neighborhood, what are their memories and what needs to be preserved.”

“We are adding to a database of speech samples or narratives that will help preserve knowledge regarding life in the region,” Kohn said.

Finding and defining the shift

In terms of linguistic preservation, after an interview has been completed with a resident the data is returned to the English Department’s linguistics lab. It is here that Kohn uses a computer program that aids in extracting information about the vowels that she is interested in. “It’s not that complicated of a process,” Kohn said, “because we use a program called PRAAT to analyze the data.”  PRAAT is a software program that specializes in the analysis of speech in phonetics.

So what are the primary indicators of a vowel shift – in this case the AAE shift?

“The deal is that the three what we call front lax vowels – those are the vowels in bit, bet, and bat – are rising,” Dodsworth said.

“The idea is that bat starts sounding more like bet,” said Kohn, “and bet starts sounding like bit, and bit starts sounding like beet – think of the country pronunciation of ‘kid’ – like ‘keeeud.’”

“We’ve found great deals of evidence for that in Raleigh,” Dodsworth said, “like statistically significant evidence that these vowels for African American speakers are in fact higher than the middle class white speaker.”

Not only are Dodsworth and Kohn hunting for the AAE shift, but also if there is still any evidence of a more prominent vowel shift, the Southern vowel shift.

“One issue is that the Southern vowel shift is dissipating, probably disappearing especially in the cities,” said Dodsworth.

There are a few other different vowel shifts that occur in the United States. The Southern vowel shift occurs in the southern parts of the nation. Then there is the California vowel shift that’s taking place in California, then there’s also the Northern cities vowel shift that occurs in Michigan, Chicago, and upstate New York.

The AAE shift finds its roots in the Southern vowel shift – they both have front lax vowel raising. “It’s called raising because when we plot vowels in a diagram, we do so using formant values,” said Kohn. “The formant values are the frequencies that are resonating in the mouth.” The only difference between the two shifts is that in the AAE shift, there is no proposed back vowel movement.

“So ‘i’ is considered a high front vowel, ‘ahhh’ is considered a low vowel and ‘o’ as in boat is considered a back vowel,” said Kohn.  “We change the resonant frequencies of our mouth by moving our tongue and other parts of our vocal tract around – this is kind of like what you do with a trombone to change the way it sounds.”

“One question that no one’s really answered right now is whether we even still see the Southern shift in the city in southern urban contexts – and there haven’t been southern urban contexts for that long,” Dodsworth said.

This is due to the fact that there haven’t been big cities in the South nearly as long as there have been in the North.

“We find that large scale linguistic changes, like the one’s I’m trying to look at,” said Dodsworth. “They often get started in cities and then instead of emanating outward from cities into rural areas, they jump from city to city to city.”

For instance, if a new linguistic change started in Raleigh, it would probably jump to Charlotte before it made its way out to Wilson. This is something Dodsworth and other linguists are not entirely sure why it occurs, but she agrees that it has something to do with social networks.

“You are more likely to know people in other cities,” Dodsworth said.

The current multidisciplinary grant will expire in May of 2010 so the project will continue all through NC State’s spring semester. In the meantime, students will continue to meet with members of the community in their living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, basements, wherever they can have a suitable interview with the least interference – conjuring up old memories of their neighborhood and preserving its legacy.

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