The sociolinguistics of Chicano English sh/ch in ‘El Barrio’

Sitting in my queue since last June, when Isla Flores-Bayer defended her Stanford linguistics dissertation. First, an informal announcement from John Rickford, one of Isla’s advisers (lightly edited by me):

Isla Flores-Bayer has successfully defended her PhD thesis on social meaning and stylistic variation in Chicano English. Her work is an important contribution to sociolinguistics and the study of Chicano English, innovatively combining a community study, a stylistic case study, and a perception/matched guise experiment

The exam was held in the Nitery in El Centro Chicano at Stanford, the first time they ever had a PhD oral exam there, and Director Frances Morales memorably and movingly said to Isla, during the open question session: “We waited many years for you to come along, and we are so proud of you!” Thanks to her and to other Centro staff, Elvira Prieto and Margaret Sena, for helping to get the conference room ready for this big event, and for supporting Isla so strongly during her Stanford years. And to Ramón Martinez, new prof in Education, for serving as outside chair, his first stint in this role, and the other members of the oral committee: Rob Podesva (co-adviser, with me), Penny Eckert, and Tom Wasow.

The principals in The Nitery:

(#1) Martinez, Wasow, Rickford, Flores-Bayer, Podesva, Eckert

The official abstract:

Sociolinguistic Variation in Practice: An Ethnographic Study of Stylistic Variation and Social Meaning in the use of Chicano language in ‘El Barrio’  by Isla Flores-Bayer

Latinos are our nation’s largest and fastest growing minority population, but we still have much to learn about their language variation and its role in speakers’ identities, social practices, education, work and politics. My research focuses on Chicano English, an ethnic dialect spoken by many Latinos, especially in the Southwest. My work illuminates how speakers of Chicano English make use of linguistic features to construct identity, and create/effect social meaning. My dissertation investigates the linguistic variation and related social meanings of the Chicano English sh~ch alternation — pronouncing ch as sh, (e.g. ‘couch’ as coush), and pronouncing sh as ch, (e.g. ‘she’ as che) — in a formerly segregated Chicano community in Central Texas, referred to by its residents as ‘El Barrio.’

This alternation, mentioned as a distinctive Chicano English feature since at least the 1940’s, is said to be one of the most widely known and used stereotypes of a ‘Mexican Accent’ in the Southwest (Wald 1988). It has previously been described as ‘confusion’ (e.g. Lynn 1945, Ayer 1971, Metcalf 1972) on the part of the speaker who is thought to not know the difference between sh and ch, using either sound in ‘free variation’ (e.g. Penfield & Ornstein 1985), in the absence of social or linguistic constraints. However, my dissertation draws on sociolinguistic interviews, ethnographic fieldwork and sociolinguistic perception experiments to uncover striking systematicity in the feature’s patterning.

The first part of the dissertation is a community study, which examines the sh~ch alternation in sociolinguistic interviews with a range of speakers from the ‘El Barrio’ community. My audio recordings were gathered over the course of several years, 2011-2017, of intermittently living for months at a time within the ‘El Barrio’ community. Quantitative analysis shows that this feature exhibits highly regular patterns, subject to multiple social and linguistic constraints. In addition to the statistically significant main social effects of age, gender, and education, my analysis reveals that this phenomenon is influenced by more general phonological principles of strengthening at the beginning of words (e.g. ‘share’ pronounced as chair) and weakening at the ends of words (e.g. ‘watch’ pronounced as wash) — characterizations that reflect the fact that the two phonemes / sounds differ in consonantal strength (the fricative [sh] is weaker than the affricate [ch]). This analysis reveals that the effects of word position, preceding environment/sounds, and lexical frequency pattern in ways consistent with the strengthening and weakening literature.

The second part is a stylistic variation study that addresses how and when speakers use the sh~ch alternation in their daily lives, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork that goes far beyond the standard sociolinguistic interview. Over the course of several months, I recorded the day-to-day speech of dozens of local Chicanos and front-running candidates vying for a City Council seat to represent ‘El Barrio,’ resulting in a corpus of hundreds of hours of speech. Examples of the situations and activities represented in recordings include political forums, media interviews, radio advertisements, block walking door-to-door while canvassing votes, and interactions with supporters at ‘meet-n’-greets.’ These contexts vary significantly in formality and audience, which makes for a rich study of language variation. In my analysis of a Chicana front-runner, I show that just as important as the internal linguistic constraints that govern this alternation are the contexts in which a candidate speaks. This research demonstrates the complexity of the sh~ch variable and the value of ethnographic methods, which capture sociolinguistic variation in practice. Importantly, this unique dataset enables me to show that the meaning of this Chicano English variable extends well past ethnicity, encompassing familiarity, informality, and intimacy, all of which serve as interpersonal resources crucial for political success.

Having discussed variable usage data in the first two sections, the third part of my dissertation is a sociolinguistic perception experiment, which analyzes how these variables are perceived and evaluated by community members, revealing listeners’ social evaluations of the meaning of this alternation and speaker attributes associated with its use (e.g. education, ethnicity, age). It also explores whether strengthening (pronouncing sh as ch) has a different ‘meaning’ from weakening (pronouncing ch as sh). This demonstrates how experimental perception data can enrich production / use data of the kind more common in variationist analyses. I interpret these intriguing experimental results in more detail, and show how they richly complement and extend the variation analyses from the two other phases of my study.

Added 3/23, another photo of Isla: at graduation, with her husband and children as well as John Rickford:

(#2)

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