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, IL to the list soon.
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
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
Language in Society
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.
African American Language
Are you curious about the relationship between race and language? You may also question how and why African American (Vernacular) English (AA(V)E) is recognized as a legitimate variety of English. You will explore these questions, developing a linguist’s eye to describe various aspects of the dialect. These aspects will include pronunciation (phonetics & phonology), grammar (syntax and morphology), vocabulary (lexicon), and meaning (semantics). After grounding oneself in AA(V)E’s earliest linguistic descriptions, you will 1) trace its historical development 2) explore its significance in entertainment and pop culture, and 3) evaluate language attitudes and its implications in the education and courtroom settings. To address these goals, we will utilize multiple kinds of media including movies, literary texts, memes, etc. By the end of the course, you will recognize and describe dialectal patterns of AA(V)E in order to challenge linguistic prejudice against the variety and its speakers.