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The social meaning of stylistic variability: Sociophonetic (in)variance in United States presidential candidates’ campaign rallies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 August 2020

Annette D'Onofrio
Northwestern University, USA
Amelia Stecker
Northwestern University, USA
E-mail address:


While speakers have been shown to deploy linguistic styles to project socially meaningful personae, less well-understood are the ways that variability or consistency of stylistic practice across and within speech events can itself accumulate to construct a public image. This study examines the use of (ING) and word-final /t/-release across multiple campaign rallies of three US presidential candidates, speakers in heightened contexts of persona construction. Differences emerged in the degree and nature of variability candidates exhibited in the use of these features across rally locales and utterance-level topic differences. We argue that the degree of linguistic variability a candidate exhibits across events itself serves as a socially meaningful linguistic resource, contributing to a constructed public image of flexibility or consistency in relation to a speaker's audience and public platform. We conclude that the amount of linguistic variability a speaker exhibits across contexts is itself a dimension of stylistic practice. (Style, sociophonetics, politicians, variability)*

Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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We are grateful first and foremost to Beth Redbird for her collaboration on the broader project on politicians’ language, as well as for inspiration for the project and assistance in obtaining rally data. We are very appreciative to Sharese King for feedback on this work, as well as to Jenny Cheshire and two anonymous reviewers for comments and suggestions that improved this article greatly. We also owe a debt of gratitude to the research assistants who worked on various stages of transcription and data processing for this work: Julia Borland, Katie Daehler, Peter Guan, Krysten Jackson, Daniel Jung, Maura Lally, Helen Rucinski, and Ryan Wagner. Audiences at NWAV 2018 in New York, as well as Northwestern University's Sound Lab, Sociogroup, Quantitative Methods Workshop, and Institute for Policy Research provided invaluable feedback on earlier stages of this work.


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