WHat does a Sociophonetician Do, anyway?

Language varies: within speakers, across speakers, and over time. Sociolinguists are interested in accurately describing this variation and understanding the linguistic, social-attitudinal, and developmental factors that underlie it. Variationist sociolinguists take an explicitly quantitative approach to this study, using large datasets to uncover the constraints on variation in and across different communities. Many variationists investigate how languages as community systems change over time. Others focus on how the speech of individual people varies across contexts, and how this variation is used to express identity, convey attitudes, or otherwise do social work in interaction. Increasingly, scholars are also interested in what the study of variation can tell us about language as a cognitive system: how are linguistic structures represented and processed in the minds of speakers, and how are linguistic representations linked to social meaning?

These questions drive my own work in sociophonetics, a field of research which shows how nuances of pronunciation are used both by speakers to convey social information and by listeners to draw conclusions about the social identity of their interlocutors. Sociophoneticians also address questions of phonetic and phonological theory, using speech production and perception data to inform accounts of how sounds and words are learned, represented, processed, and linked to social information.

My work fits squarely within this paradigm: I analyze phonetic data to test theories of phonological representation and to uncover the social meaning of linguistic behavior.