Committee Chairs: Renee Blake, Ricardo Otheguy
Committee Members: Lisa Davidson, Greg Guy, and John Singler
This study examines a major linguistic event in New York City from the perspective of sociolinguistics, studying the variable production of the phoneme /s/ in the speech of twenty Spanish speakers who are socially and linguistically diverse: Some speakers are recent arrivals from Latin America while others are lifelong New Yorkers. Some have origins in the Caribbean, the historic source of Spanish in NYC, while others represent a more recent wave of immigration from mainland Latin America. Currently in NYC, these varieties exist in a state of sustained contact with each other.
Traditionally, variation in /s/ production has been studied from a categorical perspective, relying on the perceptual coding of two segmental variants: [s], [h] (s-aspiration), and deletion. Recent developments in the acoustic analysis of speech suggest that this method can be substantially improved. This project brings the study of /s/ variation in line with modern practices of acoustic science by developing descriptive methods that are sensitive to differences in a range of continuous parameters, including those related to the duration, intensity, and frequency distribution of fricatives. Such parameters provide a means for examining sociolinguistic variation from a gradient perspective, offering insights into patterns of language use that are observable only at the subsegmental level.
Analysis of 4,800 cases of phonological /s/ show that all speakers gradiently weaken /s/ in certain phonetic contexts. Also, data challenge the level of internal homogeneity presumed to be present in national varieties of Spanish. Regarding the contact situation in NYC, data suggest that sustained interaction among speakers of different dialects promotes a trend of convergence: Among recent arrivals from Latin America significant differences in the acoustic properties of /s/ emerge along regional lines. Those with Caribbean origins produce /s/ with a significantly shorter duration (measured in milliseconds) and lower center of gravity (measured in Hz) than those with Mainland origins. This regional difference is greatly attenuated in the speech of long-time residents of New York. These findings are consistent with current research suggesting that dialect contact is promoting the formation of a New York City Spanish speech community.