“I like that we can quantify speech. We’re so affected by the way that people talk to us, not just what they say, but also their voice, their way of being.”


An Interview with Nicole Holliday, PhD (Assistant Professor of Linguistics, UPenn)

By: Michelle Johnson (2/24/21)


What questions are you excited about in your research right now?

[My research looks] at how Vice President Kamala Harris walks the linguistic tight rope of being all of the really complicated things that she has to be, in terms of having a public persona, and how we can use what we know about social variation to explore that in her speech. I really like studying politicians as sociolinguistic objects; when you’re a sociolinguist, you’re interested in why language varies, how it varies, and why. That’s one of our basic questions, and when you have political figures or other people in the public eye, their motivations are frequently very clear: they want to be likeable, they want to be elected. They’re also evaluated on the basis of who they are: their personality, their biography. [Vice President Harris] represents a lot because of her position as the first woman who is vice president, the first woman of color, she’s Black, she’s Indian, she’s Jamaican, she has immigrant parents. [She has to represent] all these identities in public all the time because people rely on her to do so but also because they’re part of the brand she has to be in order to be a successful politician. When you’re a politician, you’re branding yourself, and what we can see in some of her linguistic patterns is her being Californian and also being a Black woman of a certain age. She’s in her mid-50s, she went to law school, she went to an HBCU, and all of these little pieces of her biography come through in the way that she speaks.


Is studying the linguistics of politicians much different than studying every-day interactions?

I think sociolinguists hold up regular people as the gold standard. Ideally, what we want to do is sit down with someone and ask them to tell us their life story, get them talking, and we take that as “real speech.” It has some problems, but it’s “real-ish” speech. I like politicians because they’re the opposite: everything is constructed. Even when they’re doing something casual, a photo op at a restaurant, for example, they’re still doing a self-conscious display. That helps us in trying to figure out what’s going on with them. Regular people have all kinds of motivations that they might not even know about, or certainly may not tell you about, but with politicians, it’s all laid out there. That’s why I like studying [Vice President Harris].


How do you see your research having a larger impact on the world?

I’ve always been interested in how people make social judgments about others based on really tiny linguistic factors. I primarily study intonation: the way that the voice moves up and down across the phrase, across the whole utterance, or the whole set of phrases. For middle-class Black speakers in particular, there are situations in which they are frequently identifiably Black. If we play their voices in an experiment, people will say, “Yeah, that is a Black speaker,” but if they read a transcript, they won’t be able to do that. For me, that indicates there’s something in the voice, the quality of the voice, and the way that the intonation patterns are used.

That’s interesting to me because we know that listeners can engage in what we call “linguistic profiling and discrimination,” [similar to] racial profiling. [For example], “I heard somebody on the phone, I made the judgment that they were Black, and I have this bias, either explicit or implicit, so I’m not going to call them for a job interview.” We assumed in the past this was due to the fact that African-American English is stigmatized and has some grammatical features that people judge negatively, even though there’s no reason for them to do that. People will say, “Oh, that didn’t sound educated,” because they have a bias against the grammar. [However], there are people who still sound Black who experience the negative consequences of profiling and discrimination, and we don’t know what is it that people are hearing in the voice that triggers those judgments. That’s what I’m really interested in.


What excites in the day-to-day doing your research?

I like interviewing people so much. During COVID, I’ve pivoted more towards doing publicly available data analysis such as looking at politicians and comedians. That is definitely one set of questions that I’ve always had. However, I do miss being out in the community talking to people, recording people, talking to their friends and family members, because it’s such a privilege to have people that you don’t know let you in on a little window on their life—that’s really fun.

Additionally, I like that we can quantify their speech. We’re so affected by the way that people talk to us, not just what they say, but also their voice, their way of being. I’m still amazed that I can go and record someone I’ve never met, sit in front of my computer, look at what’s happening with their voice and go, “Oh, this is why they’re saying that they have trouble finding a job—it’s this pattern that other people are hearing that they’re using to discriminate against the speaker.” Not that [the speaker] should change—the onus for change should be on the people doing the discrimination. But the fact that this is something that we can quantify, that we can observe, that really touches on the experiences that people have in their lives is amazing to me.


What do you think students should know about linguistics as a field of study?

I am a sociolinguist, and I interface with questions related to sociology and anthropology. But I also study properties of the voice itself and tone, so I do more physics and more statistics than you might think. To me, that is something that I love about the work that I do. [The work] is never just being out in the field recording people, and it’s never just running statistical models—it’s like a new challenge every single day. It keeps you on your toes. I think students would be interested to know that because language is part of everything we do, linguistics interfaces nicely with a lot of other fields: cognitive science, neuroscience, anthropology, physics. Computer science right now has a big interface for students looking into Linguistics. If you are interested in something and language, linguistics has space for you.


To learn more about Dr. Holliday and her work, click here

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