Sharese King, PhD

I am a Neubauer Family Assistant Professor at The University of Chicago where I also completed the Provost's Postdoctoral Fellowship. I received my Doctoral and Masters degrees in Linguistics from Stanford University. While there, I studied language variation across African Americans' speech in my dissertation, Exploring Social and Linguistic Diversity Across African Americans from Rochester, New York. Thus far, I have conducted fieldwork in Bakersfield, California, Rochester, New York, and will be adding Chicago to the list soon.


Research Interests

My research focuses on the facets and implications of identity construction for African Americans. I have a three-pronged approach to studying how African Americans’ speech is packaged, construed, racialized, and evaluated. My research goals include 1) employing ethnographic methods to study the social and linguistic diversity across racialized speakers, 2) using experimental methods to explore how listeners perceive African Americans’ linguistic behavior, and 3) studying the social and political consequences of using racialized language patterns.


Publications & Manuscripts


While sociolinguists defined the regional sound changes around the linguistic behavior of White speakers, recent work has shown that racialized speakers employ local sound changes in socially meaningful ways. Advocating for an approach which places race and races place, this work views racialized speakers as authentic locals, situating their linguistic behavior in the context of their communities. Using the theoretic model of the persona, I examine how race and place are co‐constituted in Rochester, NY. Specifically, this paper examines how BAT lowering and retraction among younger speakers is led by the Mobile Black Professional, an emergent persona defined by their desire to relocate for work in a post‐industrial economy. This investigation prompts the field to reconsider the a priori exclusion of ‘ethnic’ speakers from studies of local sound change advancement and reversal.


African American Language (AAL) is one of the most researched varieties of American English, yet key aspects of its development and spread remain under- theorized. For example, regional and social variation in the speech of African Americans was initially understudied in AAL as scholars sought to demonstrate the overall systematicity of the variety, often at the expense of examining variation across and within communities. More recently, scholars have begun to address this gap by examining different sources of variation in AAL phonology. For instance, the African American Vowel System (AAVS), also called the African American Vowel Shift, describes a pattern identified within AAL, including the raising of the front lax vowels and the nonfronting of the high- and mid-back vowels. Aspects of the AAVS have been found in geographically widespread varie- ties of AAL, suggesting that shared patterns of population movement resulting from the Great Migration and subsequent social experiences may have led to the development of this system. Other more regionally limited sound patterns suggest the role of more localized processes of variation and change. We focus on three sources of variation that have contributed to the spread and realizations of the sound system in modern AAL: migration, segregation, and place and identity. Evidence from sociophonetic analyses across these three factors provides a foundation to more thoroughly document the ways in which AAL varieties developed, spread, and vary, while allowing for a more nuanced assessment of racialization and its implications for individual differences.


Few studies in western u.s. dialectology have investigated the role of minoritized speakers in shaping local sound changes. Specifically, work in California has shown that various ethnic groups, previously underrepresented in the study and description of Western varieties, draw on aspects of the California Vowel Shift (part of the Western Vowel Shift, henceforth WVS) for different social ends (Fought 1999; Eckert 2008a; King 2016), even leading it in their respective communities (Hall-Lew 2009).This chapter situates itself in this tradition, exploring the nuanced relationship between ethnic and place identity and contextualizing the behavior of minortized speakers relative to the local sociohistorical dynamics of the broader communities in which they live. Examining underrepresented speakers’ vocalic patterns presents an opportunity to document the breadth of regional linguistic behaviors, while evaluating our theories of regional sound change


Articulation of /s/ has been linked with gender identity in both production (e.g., Podesva and Van Hofwegen 2016, Hazenberg 2012) and perception studies (e.g., Strand 1999), with women producing a fronter /s/ than men, and a fronter /s/ being perceptually linked with femininity. However, this research has been conducted in largely white speech communities, and it remains an open question whether the same gendered patterns exist among African-American communities. We explore /s/ variation in two African-American (AA) communities: Rochester, NY, an urban community in which AAs form a significant portion of the population; and Bakersfield, CA, a non-urban community in which AAs form a small minority. Statistical analyses reveal no gender difference in /s/ articulation among Bakersfield AAs, with men being just as fronted as women. However, a gender pattern exists among Rochester AAs, with women being significantly more fronted than men. These results suggest that patterns linking phonetic variables to gender identities are specific to the communities under analysis, and may be influenced not only by speaker gender, but also by speaker race and geographic location. These patterns illuminate the importance of taking into account multiple intersecting dimensions of identity in studies of phonetic variation, as broad trends established for one group of speakers may not account for the complexity of how speakers of different demographic groups in different regions phonetically articulate gender identity.


African American Vernacular English (AAVE), one of the most studied dialects in American English, has undergone several changes in its label across the years. Its most recent designation, African American Language (AAL), reflects a change in approaches to studying race and language in the field. Drawing on observations from related fields like linguistic anthropology and critical race theory, I discuss different conceptualizations of the relationship between race and language and argue in favor of an approach that both recognizes and prioritizes the study of variation within the dialect. This approach will enable researchers to advance theory in language variation and change while also contributing to larger sociopolitical objectives to diversify narratives of blackness.

Exploring social and linguistic diversity


Researchers have problematized the presentation of African American English as a uniform variety (Wolfram 2007; Yaeger-Dror & Thomas 2010). Cautioning against the homogenization of African Americans’ linguistic practices and identities, linguists have advocated for the exploration of regional variation across African Americans’ speech (Wolfram 2007; Childs 2005). This dissertation adds to the discussion by examining social and linguistic diversity across African Americans’ speech in a single community, Rochester, New York. I argue that linguistic heterogeneity can arise from differences in identity constructions, which are informed by speakers’ orientations to social changes in the community.

            Drawing from my ethnographic observations and sociolinguistic interviews, as well as my own insights as a community member, I study social diversity through analyses of personae particular to Rochester’s social landscape. Specifically, I ask how sound change is enacted through local personae like The Mobile Black Professional, The Hood Kid, and The Biker. Each persona recruits different vocalic patterns, with the Mobile Black Professionals producing significantly lower TRAP tokens, The Hood Kids producing significantly backer BOUGHT tokens, and The Biker producing several vocalic patterns associated with the Northern Cities Shift. The findings demonstrate that African American language and identity are not monolithic and complicate our understanding of the relationship between race, place, and language. Further, studying the linguistic patterns of African Americans as they relate to locally significant social practices or ideologies informs our understanding of why and how variation emerges.


This paper investigates the linguistic construction of ethnic and regional identities through the use of a local feature, BAT retraction and lowering (D’Onofrio 2015; Kennedy and Grama 2012; Podesva, D’Onofrio, Van Hofwegen and Kim 2015). Analysis of the speech of twelve African Americans from Bakersfield, California, shows an apparent change over time, such that younger African Americans produce backer tokens. Additionally, a targeted analysis of a single speaker suggests that African Americans’ degree of retraction can index local-based stances and affiliations. Because of BAT retraction’s indexing of coastal urban identity (Kennedy and Grama 2012) and the valley girl character-type (D’Onofrio 2015), the recruitment of this linguistic resource among African Americans opens up a larger discussion on who owns the local sound


Rachel Jeantel was the leading prosecution witness when George Zimmerman was tried for killing Trayvon Martin, but she spoke in African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and her crucial testimony was dismissed as incomprehensible and not credible. The disregard for her speech in court and the media is familiar to vernacular speakers and puts Linguistics itself on trial: following Saussure, how do we dispel such ‘prejudices’ and ‘fictions’? We show that Jeantel speaks a highly systematic AAVE, with possible Caribbean influence. We also discuss voice quality and other factors that bedeviled her testimony, including dialect unfamiliarity and institutionalized racism. Finally, we suggest strategies for linguists to help vernacular speakers be better heard in courtrooms and beyond.


Spoken words have robust acoustic variation. How listeners understand spoken words despite this variation remains an issue central to theories of speech perception. Current models predict listener behavior based on the frequency of a variant in production. A phonological variant, though, is often investigated independent of phonetic variation that provides listeners with information about talkers. In this study, we investigate whether standard variants in words produced by a talker with a standard voice are recognized more quickly than standard variants in words produced by a talker with a nonstandard voice. Conversely, we investigate whether nonstandard variants in words produced by a talker with a standard voice are recognized more slowly than standard variants in words produced by a talker with a non-standard voice. These comparisons enable us to assess limitations of current theory, illuminating the understudied influence of talker voice in the understanding of spoken words with different phonological variants.


Overview of Courses

Spring 2019

This course is an introduction to sociolinguistics, the study of language in its social context. We will look at variation at all levels of language and how this variation constructs and is constructed by identity and culture, including relationships between language and social class, language and gender, and language and ethnicity. We will also discuss language attitudes and ideologies, as well as some of the educational, political, and social repercussions of language variation and standardization.

Autumn 2020

This course begins with an overview on the importance of studying the relationship between race and language, attending to the social and political consequences of racializing language. Following this introduction, we explore different definitions of race and ethnicity and the approaches linguists have historically used to study it. In doing so, we ask how either gets socially constructed through structures and institutions and how that construction impacts its development on the racialization of language. After grounding ourselves in background literature on race, we will explore how the field has situated the study of languages and varieties alongside different racialized groups and explore the costs and benefits of their methods. The class will end on a general discussion of popular themes in public discourse related to authenticity, ownership, and activism around racialized language.


A Linguist Explains PlayBoi Carti’s Baby Voice

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