Constructing a Voice of Authority through Persona

A highlight of Stanford’s graduation last Sunday for me was Andrea Lawson Kortenhoven’s “walking through” our departmental ceremony for her PhD in Linguistics, tentative title above. Something personal for me, since I had the pleasure of encouraging Angi when she was a BA student in Spanish at Ohio State (graduating 1995), before coming to Stanford. Her husband Matthew and their four kids were there to cheer her on; I wasn’t able to make it, but I was cheering.

First, a photo (courtesy of Lelia Glass) of Angi with her immediate academic family — her thesis advisers, sociolinguists Penny Eckert and John Rickford — then Penny’s summary of the dissertation, and then some remarks on Angi’s academic regalia in the photo (in black, green, gold, and red).


The thesis summary, from Penny’s encomium to Angi last Sunday:

As growing numbers of women are going into the ministry, they face the challenge of constructing an authoritative persona as a preacher, particularly in the highly performative context of the African American church. Angi’s dissertation focuses on one particularly gifted and venerated preacher, Dr. Claudette Coleman, as she Has Church in the context of a keynote address at a conference for women in ministry. Her job here is to inspire, move, and entertain a very large and tired audience of women. She constructs a unique and powerfully authoritative style by combining linguistic features associated with three key personae that are essential to the Having Church speech event, and each of whom has a particular kind of authority. They are: the Saintly Testifying Woman, known for her authentic humility, the Traditional Folk Preacher, whose authority lies in the experience of spiritual fervor or Holy Ghost fire, and the educated Seminarian, whose authority is based in religious and secular education. To these three established church personae, Dr. Claudette adds a fourth – the very disruptive Sistah-Friend, whose authority lies in sharing the sensibilities of black sisterhood, and whose presence in the mix qualifies Dr. Claudette to get down and very personal with her audience. Each of these personae has a distinct and well-known style, and Dr. Claudette strategically mixes elements of all four styles across the sermon, combining features of rhythm, intonation, voice quality and African American Vernacular phonology and grammar. Now, most analyses of church services focus on structural features – sequential parts of the service, such as prayer, testifying, altarcall – which show distinct patterns of variability in linguistic form. Angi has taken a very different tack. By breaking the sermon down into small basic discourse units, each of which is associated with one of the personae, she is able to account statistically for the complex variability in this speech event in a way that top-down structural analyses cannot. Because these structural features just house different combinations of personae.

Plenty of quantitative sociolinguistics and discourse analysis in there, but also conceptual tools from cultural anthropology, sociology, and cultural criticism.

The regalia. The crucial piece is the stole, which Angi received at Stanford’s black graduation, a ceremony she very carefully described to me as honoring “the black graduates who identify as black” (note complex racial constructions here). The stole is in the style of kente cloth, ‘an Ashanti type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips’ (Wikipedia) characteristic of the Ashanti empire, in what is now Ghana. The Ghanaian flag:


The colors of the flag are now explained as (in one variant or another) “black for the people, red for the blood our ancestors shed, gold for the sun, and green for the land we came from” (paraphrasing Angi).  In this modern mythologizing, the colors appear in Pan-African flags, usually in sets of three: red, black, and green in the flag I posted about here on 11/2/15; or green, gold, and red (with the black understood, as it were) in the Ethiopian flag:


But some African flags have all four colors, as Ghana’s does. Here’s Zimbabwe’s:


In the stole Angi is wearing, black is the background color, and the pattern has green, gold, and red: green at the top and bottom, gold in bands inside the green, and red in the middle, as in the Zimbabwe flag.

One Response to “Constructing a Voice of Authority through Persona”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From John Lawler on Facebook:

    Very interesting. Her take on the sermon reminds me of “Spaced-Out Bach”, in which Joseph Payne recorded each voice in some Bach fugues separately, and then placed each voice in a different stereo position so that you can close your eyes and “see” the voices having their fugal conversation. Very effective technique. Here’s one example; listen with the best stereo separation you got.

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