Abstracts of my ongoing research projects are below. You might find more details by checking my preprints page for related working papers. Some are also associated with the software packages I maintain.
- Dissertation work
- Voices of California fieldwork
- Proto-Pahtorui River language
- Wikis and netnography
Discourse of US Supreme Court Oral Argument
Discourse occurs in a variety of genres, and “institutional discourse” comprises a broad genre of speech activity. In institutional discourses, speakers interact within the context of a particular institution, and participants orient to institutional roles and tasks which are relevant for the given institution. The central question of my dissertation work is how power asymmetries in institutional roles and institutional structures manifest discursively in interaction. Power, I argue, is performed, and participants may orient to and draw upon institutional tools in order to control discussions through a combination of structural and linguistic resources.
To explore the relationship between institutional roles and discourse structure, my dissertation analyzes US Supreme Court oral arguments. Oral arguments take place before a well-defined committee structure with explicit institutional roles and unparalleled power differentials. Justices of the Court are appointed for lifetime terms, and so the corpus captures numerous discourses across years of an individual’s life. The Court and its justices additionally have unmatched political power as the outcomes of their institutional discourses become the supreme law of the land for a nuclear-armed state. This power manifests discursively as well, for example, the speech of non-justices is strictly regimented with limited if any speaker rights. The stakes of these discourses are uniquely high, so the effects of power should be particularly apparent in these cases as speakers have major incentives to control the discourse and exercise their power.
How does this power manifest discursively in this context? What features do participants employ and for what purposes? What is the range of individual variation in discourse style?
As of early 2022, my work focuses on Elana Kagan. Justice Kagan served as US Solicitor General from 2009 until her appointment to the Supreme Court in 2010. As Solicitor General, Kagan argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of the executive branch of the United States government. From an analytic view, Kagan serves as an interesting case study. She is the only woman to have argued before the same Court she joined, and the only justice to have represented the US government before the Court. As such the corpus contains Kagan’s speech on both sides of the bench within months of each other. From a sociolinguistic perspective, her career represents a period of growing power for women in constitutional law. The first woman to become Solicitor General, Kagan’s appointment to the Court brought the number of women on the bench to 3; its highest ever. Kagan has so far proven to be an interesting case study for how changes in insitutional roles and power are reflected in discourse styles and practices.
Voices of California
The Voices of California project is a multi-year dialect survey of non-urban speech throughout California. From 2017 until its pandemic-induced hiatus in 2019, I served as a fieldworker interviewing and recruiting participants. When not performing fieldwork, I have contributed to the analysis of data and the construction of the corpus.
The low back merger in California English
My second qualifying paper used the data from five field sites to revisit the claim that Californians have a merger in production between the LOT and THOUGHT vowels. Better known as the cot-caught merger, previous work has found significant overlap in formant frequencies among Californians, but work on other mergers across North America has found that vowel classes which appear to have merged along the first and second formants may still differ on a third dimension such as dynamism, length, or vowel quality. Using the Voices of California data, I replicated previous findings of convergence in first and second formants, developed a novel method to anaylze whether the formant trajectories of the vowels were converging in both formants simultaneously, and analyzed whether the vowel classes were diverging in length. The paper, in preparation to be submitted, presents evidence that while the formants of the vowels are converging over apparent time, they are simultaneously diverging in length suggesting that our previous claims of merger should be revisted with more scrutiny.
Indexicality of variation in Latinx Californians
With other members of the Voices of California project, we analyzed how Latinx speakers in our sample use aspects of the California Vowel Shift to construct identity and convey social meaning. At the 2020 Meeting of the American Dialect Society, I presented joint work investigating how the phonetic and phonological patterning of the TRAP vowel is used by Latinx Salinas speakers to index their orientation towards town or country ideologies (in many ways similar to Paul Reed’s “rootedness”). Among white Californians, TRAP shows a pronounced nasal split, where the vowel is raised before nasals and backed elsewhere. The backing pattern is seen amon Latinx Californians in our data, but the nasal split is less common. Our data show that among Latinx speakers, more “country” oriented speakers show a smaller difference between prenasal and non-nasal low-front vowels. This finding is the reverse of what has been foud among white speakers. We argue that this pattern shows that depending on the particular social landscape a language is enbedded within, the same change can acquire different indexical values.
Where’s the line between NorCal and SoCal?
As part of our interview process, participants are given a map of California and asked to draw lines indicating where they think the major divisions are in the state. In most cases, participants divide the state into Northern and Southern section, and sometimes include a “Central” section. With other project members and help from the Stanford Geology Library staff, I documented a workflow for the digitization of these and future maps so that we can analyze them in a geographic information system (GIS). Using GIS software we are able to analyze how conceptions of NorCal and SoCal vary across the state. Based on visual impressions so far, participants tend to draw the dividing line close to where they live. For speakers in southern California, they tend to place the line north of themselves, while speakers in northern California tend to draw the line just south of themselves. The GIS software also produces some nice looking maps.
Ende (ISO 639:
kit) is a Pahoturi River language spoken in southwestern Papua New Guinea. To the field’s detriment, many of our
sociolinguistic theories of language change are not robustly tested on data from understudied languages. Along with Kate Lindsey and
other field workers in the area, I have started a number of projects using their data to investigate changes in Ende and its
relationship to its sprachbund neighbors. Most recently I have been helping with a comparative analysis of the Pahoturi River
languages to better understand their historical relationship to each other and hopefully their connection to other language families.
My main work has been on invetigating a pattern of nasal elision in an Ende copula which is socially patterned and potentially a change in progress. Like in California’s low-back vowels, it is not clear whether a distinction was lost or whether it has moved to a different dimension. Our work so far has been investigating the quality of the nasal consonant and whether the change represents a categorical loss or a phonetic reduction. Using acoustic measurments as articulatory proxies we find evidence that suggests the tongue-tip gesture in /n/ is not lost, but reduced. Further work will examine the velar gesture and the quality of the preceding vowel to determine whether the vowel is becoming nasalized due to the consonant weakening.
Social dynamics of wikis
As part of my contributions to free culture I study the communities and organizations in which I participate with the goal of applying my findings to the problems we face. My work in this area tends to focus on how internet communities function and the social dynamics that constrain how they grow and change. At the 2021 Wikimania, a global conference for wiki editors, I presented the results of my research on page protection and motivated a theory of how wikis respond to rapid growth.