Department of Linguistics
University of Pennsylvania
Kamala Harris and the Construction of Complex Ethnolinguistic Political Identity
Over the past 50 years, sociolinguistic studies on black Americans have expanded in both theoretical and technical scope, and newer research has moved beyond seeing speakers, especially black speakers, as a monolithic sociolinguistic community (Wolfram 2007, Blake 2014). Yet there remains a dearth of critical work on complex identities existing within black American communities as well as how these identities are reflected and perceived in linguistic practice. At the same time, linguists have begun to take greater interest in the ways in which public figures, such as politicians, may illuminate the wider social meaning of specific linguistic variables. In this talk, I will present results from analyses of multiple aspects of ethnolinguistic variation in the speech of Vice President Kamala Harris during the 2019-2020 Democratic Party Primary debates. Together, these results show how VP Harris expertly employs both enregistered and subtle linguistic variables, including aspects of African American Language morphosyntax, vowels, and intonational phonology in the construction and performance of a highly specific sociolinguistic identity that reflects her unique positions politically, socially, and racially. The results of this study expand our knowledge about how the complexities of speaker identity are reflected in sociolinguistic variation, as well as press on the boundaries of what we know about how speakers in the public sphere use variation to reflect both who they are and who we want them to be.
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