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Personae and phonetic detail in sociolinguistic signs

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 June 2018

Annette D'Onofrio*
Northwestern University, USA
Address for correspondence: Annette D'Onofrio Linguistics Department, Northwestern University, 2016 Sheridan Road, Evanston, IL 60208,


Social meaning-based approaches to linguistic variation treat variation as a semiotic system, in which sociolinguistic signs—indexical links between linguistic forms and social meanings—serve as interactional resources that individuals use to project personae. This article explores the perceptual nature of the links between social personae and linguistic forms, examining how information about a speaker's persona can influence a listener's linguistic perceptions of a continuous phonetic feature. Using a phoneme categorization task, this study examines associations between gradient phonetic manifestations on a continuum from /æ/ to /ɑ/ and three social personae. Findings illustrate that the social persona made relevant for a listener influences the ways in which points on this phonetic continuum are categorized phonemically as either trap or lot. Overall, this shows that the social constructs of personae influence phonetically detailed perceptions of linguistic material. (Sociolinguistic perception, personae, indexicality, sociophonetics, sociolinguistic signs)*

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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I am extremely grateful to Penny Eckert for feedback on the many stages and drafts of this work, as well as to Rob Podesva, Meghan Sumner, John Rickford, and Ray McDermott for helpful suggestions and comments. I am also especially indebted to Shawn Bird and to Chun-Liang Chan for the implementation of the web experiment. Audiences at ASA 2013 in San Francisco, LSA 2014 in Minneapolis, NWAV 2014 in Chicago, Stanford University's Sociolunch, and Northwestern University's Sound Lab also provided valuable feedback on earlier stages of this work. I would also like to thank Jenny Cheshire, Jane Stuart-Smith, and an anonymous reviewer for comments and suggestions that greatly improved this article.


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