SoConDi: Hayley Heaton on Southern Speech in TV shows


By Andries W. Coetzee
Nov 24, 2012 Bookmark and Share

Hayley Heaton

Hayley Heaton, a first year student in our PhD program, will present in SoConDi this week. Before coming to Michigan, Hayley had completed an MA in sociolinguistics at North Carolina State University under the direction of famed sociolinguist Walt Wolfram. For her MA thesis, Hayley focused on how Southern English is portrayed in fictional TV shows. In fact, her thesis was one of the first studies to investigate this phenomenon using rigorous acoustic analysis. Hayley will talk about about some of the research that went into her MA thesis in SoConDi this week. More information, including a title and abstract of Hayley's presentation, follows below.

What: SoConDi Meeting

When: Friday, November 30, 3 pm

Where: Lorch Hall 403

As Seen on TV: An Acoustic Analysis of the Portrayal of American Southern Dialect in Fictional Television Programs
Media representations of non-standard dialects are not widely studied by sociolinguists, but are central to the language-society interface insofar as “the media have become core systems for the distribution of ideology” (Gitlin 1980). In the past decade, a number of studies have begun to examine dialect in the media through discourse analysis methodologies (Pavlou 2004; Castello 2007; Trix 2010; Tagliamonte & Roberts 2005; Popp 2006; Heyd 2010). A few have taken impressionistic approaches to phonetic analysis (Lippi-Green 1997). However, there have been no studies utilizing acoustic methods. The present study takes a step towards filling this gap through an acoustic analysis of the vowels of Southern U.S. characters in television shows.

In order to begin setting a foundation for future research, this study asks three questions. Which elements of the Southern Vowel Shift are used to portray Southern characters? Are phonetic constraints followed? Do genre of show, type of character, and era of show make a difference in the features used?  Ten fictional television shows were sampled, five older and five newer. From those ten shows, eighteen main or recurring characters were analyzed. Actors portraying the characters must have been born and raised outside of the South. The project focuses upon the front vowels /I/, /E/, /e/, and /æ/ involved in the Southern Vowel Shift.  Comparisons concerning era (pre-1990 versus post-2000), genre (comedy versus drama) and character type (protagonist versus antagonist) are considered. Results indicate that the best signs of an attempt to use Southern dialect are inconsistencies and variability in phonemes rather than uniform shifting of vowel position. /e/ and /E/ were the most commonly manipulated phonemes while /I/ and /æ/ were manipulated, but not as frequently.