The construction of social meaning: A matched-guise investigation of the California Vowel Shift
Research on social meaning, which links language variation to the wider social world, often bases claims about the social meanings of linguistic forms on production (i.e., speakers’ situational use of meaningful forms). In the case of the California Vowel Shift (CVS), an ongoing restructuring of the vowel system of California English that takes place below the level of conscious awareness, previous production research has suggested that the CVS carries social meanings of carefreeness, femininity, and privilege. Left unclear in these production-based claims is whether listeners actually pick up on and recognize the social meanings that speakers apparently utilize the CVS to transmit. In this research, a dialect recognition task with matched guises (California-shifted vs. conservative) forms the basis for exploring Californian listeners’ reactions to the CVS, and how these reactions are mediated by perceptions of dialect geography. In short, this research focuses on listeners’ reactions to the CVS in order to address a more fundamental question: How do listeners and speakers together participate in the construction of social meaning? Stimuli for the main study task were drawn from excerpts of sociolinguistic interviews with 12 lifelong California English speakers from three regions of the state: the San Francisco Bay Area, Lower Central Valley, and Southern California. Guises were created from interview excerpts by modifying the F2 of each TRAP and GOOSE token via source-filter resynthesis methods. Californian guises featured backed TRAP and fronted GOOSE; conservative guises featured fronted TRAP and backed GOOSE. Ninety-seven Californians participated in a perceptual task in which they attempted to identify speakers’ regional origin and rated speakers on affective scales. iii The results indicated that Californians recognize the CVS as Californian, as California-shifted guises were less likely to be identified as from outside California (but more likely to be identified as from Southern California). Listeners rated California-shifted guises higher on the scales Californian, sounds like a Valley girl, and confident, indicating a core of social meanings indexed by the CVS. Among listeners from the San Francisco Bay Area, the CVS indexes masculinity, but among Southern California listeners, the CVS indexes femininity. Listeners from across California also rated speakers who they believed to be from the same region as them higher on Californian, familiar, and sounds like me. This research demonstrates that the social meanings of linguistic forms do not reside only in speakers’ situational use of these forms, as listeners did not associate the CVS with carefreeness, femininity, or privilege, the social meanings of the CVS suggested by previous studies of California English production; instead, I propose an account of the indexical field that links perception and production by placing the core social meanings of the CVS uncovered by this research (Californian identity, sounding like a Valley girl, and confidence) at the center of the CVS’s indexical field. This research also contributes to theory in perceptual dialectology and language change. In order to explain this study’s finding that the CVS is associated with Southern California, this research introduces the perceptual-dialectological process of centrality: the identification of speakers who are believed to most exemplify the speech of a given region. Finally, this research suggests an attitudinal stance that allows changes from below such as the CVS to flourish: speakers are aware of the change in the community (at a tacit level, if not consciously) but do not believe that they are participating in the change.