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Phonological rule spreading across hostile lines: (TH)-fronting in Philadelphia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 February 2020

Betsy Sneller*
Georgetown University, Department of Neurology, Building D, Suite 145, 4000 Reservoir Road, N.W. WashingtonD.C.20057


This article examines the transfer of (TH)-fronting, a phonological feature of African American English, into the speech of white speakers from South Philadelphia. While most cases of linguistic diffusion, particularly of African American English, are found in speakers with a positive affiliation with the source dialect (e.g., Bucholtz, 1999; Cutler, 1999; Fix, 2010), here the white adopters of (TH)-fronting exhibit overtly hostile attitudes toward black neighbors. I argue that (TH)-fronting has been adopted as an index of street or masculinity by the white speakers in this study. Furthermore, I demonstrate that the phonological constraints on borrowed (TH)-fronting have been restricted and simplified from the constraints in the source dialect. Finally, I discuss how hostile interactions may play a role in language change, allowing change in dialects not only to proceed in tandem across unexpected boundaries (e.g., Milroy & Milroy, 1985), but also to be directly diffused across hostile boundaries.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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I would like to thank the audiences of NWAV 42 in Pittsburgh and UKLVC 11 in Cardiff for their feedback on earlier versions of this project. I am particularly grateful to the anonymous reviewers, whose feedback has greatly benefited this project, and to the residents of ‘Donegal Street,’ who welcomed us into their homes and shared their lives with us.


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