[lg policy] Dissertation:

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Sep 30 15:55:48 UTC 2011

Dissertation Title: Sociophonetics of Hmong American English

Dissertation Director:
Benjamin Munson
Jeanette K. Gundel
Bartlomiej Plichta
Bruce T. Downing
Katie Drager

Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation is a sociophonetic analysis of the English spoken by
Hmong Americans living in the 'Twin Cities' of Minneapolis and St. Paul,
Minnesota. The Twin Cities has the largest urban population of Hmong
Americans in the United States. Through studies of production and
perception of vowels involved in sound changes, I investigate whether Hmong
Americans - a relatively new ethnic group in the United States - have
established any elements of an ethnic dialect of English that communicates
an identity that is uniquely Hmong American.

Sound changes are particularly fruitful objects of sociophonetic study as
they provide a spectrum of potential indexical variables for speakers
exposed to those sound changes. I examine Hmong Americans' participation in
three sound changes: the Northern Cities Shift, the low back merger, and
fronting of the high back vowel (/u/ or GOOSE). Their degrees of
participation in those sound changes are compared to age-matched European
Americans from the same area.

It was expected that the inferred tight-knit nature of Hmong Americans'
social networks would cause a slower uptake of current regional and
supra-regional sound changes versus the comparatively looser networks of
many European Americans in the Twin Cities. Furthermore, the target
population should presumably experience some influence in their English
from the Hmong language. Crucially for this study, the Hmong language has
phonemic nasal vowels whereas English does not. This L2 influence of
phonemic nasal vowels was hypothesized to emerge in Hmong Americans'
English as less nasalization overall, and to decrease the likelihood that
they will engage in the Northern Cities Shift.

The results of the production study show that European American speakers
seem to be participating in one supra-regional sound change, the fronting
of the GOOSE vowel, to a greater extent than in the past, and to a greater
extent than Hmong Americans. Two other sound changes, the Northern Cities
Shift (a regional change) and the low back merger (a supra-regional
change), show inconclusive evidence of adoption by either European American
speakers or Hmong American speakers.

The perception study, which was conducted with a new set of participants,
aimed to uncover whether phonetic differences between Hmong Americans' and
European Americans' vowel pronunciations are actually detectable by others.
Words recorded during fieldwork were rated on a visual analog scale by
listeners on several different dimensions of speakers' social
characteristics, including ethnicity. It was found that although certain
expected phonetic differences were not used to make judgments of speakers'
ethnicities, other phonetic differences, some expected and some not, did
indeed predict listeners' judgments of speaker ethnicity. Listeners seemed
to use either formant values or vowel nasalization (or sometimes both) to
judge speaker ethnicity, depending on vowel class, listener ethnicity, and
listener birthplace.

Taken together, the results of the two studies provide evidence that Hmong
Americans' vowel pronunciations are not simply Hmong-influenced imitations
of vowels as spoken by European Americans, and that listeners, especially
other Hmong American listeners, can use these complex yet systematic
phonetic patterns to make accurate decisions about speakers' ethnicities.


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