Phonetic variation, visual presentation, and social meaning among radical drag queens in SoMa, San Francisco

My primary project explores the relation between the linguistic and the visual in meaning-making. I focus on the fronting of /s/ among a group of drag queens and queer performance artists in SoMa, San Francisco, a community characterized by its anti-normativity. Many of the queens identify as non-binary in their day-to-day lives in addition to being a drag queen. The data come from: transformations, i.e. conversations taking place while the queens transform from a more masculine visual presentation into their feminine drag personae using wigs, makeup, and other resources; and interactional data recorded during an entire night at four drag hostesses' events. 

The gender non-normative SoMa queens exhibit extremely fronted /s/ in comparison to male-identified speakers from previous studies, with a frontedness on par with female-identified speakers. I argue that what is indexed by the queens’ fronted /s/ is influenced by the visual drag in which the participants adorn themselves. In previous research, fronted /s/ is perceived to be more gay-sounding or less heteronormatively masculine (e.g., Zimman 2013). An ethnographic analysis reveals that among the SoMa queens, visual presentation influences whether feminine gender performances like fronted /s/ index a positive or negative social meaning. While such performances are evaluated as "sissy" coming from a male-presenting body, they is positively evaluated as "sickening" when dressed in visual feminine drag.

In addition to visual presentation influencing the indexical retrieval of fronted /s/, it also influences its linguistic production. A quantitative analysis of /s/ production among eight SoMa queens reveals that as the queens get into drag over the course of the transformation, /s/ amplitude increases relative to the amplitude of adjacent segments. In other words, /s/ is produced louder when subjects are in drag. I argue that as the transformation progresses, SoMa queens draw on qualia (see Harkness 2015) like "harshness" and "sharpness" across both the visual and linguistic modalities in the construction of a "fierce", larger than life femininity that stands in contrast to normative gender standards.

Finally, acoustic realizations of /s/ and intervocalic /t/ vary along with visual stylistic distinctions that are salient in the SoMa community. Queens rated each other with respect to a number of recognized drag styles: Fishiness, which represents how much a queen’s performance of femininity represents a normative cis-woman; Glamor, which represents how much a queen’s persona aligns with idealized standards of elevated beauty; and Avant-Garde, which represents how conventional or unconventional a queen’s presentation is. While normative Fishy queens exhibit less fronted /s/ than their unconventional counterparts, the more extreme Glamorous and Avant-Garde queens exhibit more extreme realizations of /s/ with longer durations and more fronted articulations. In addition, Fishy queens are significantly more likely to release /t/ than Glamour and Avant-Garde queens. The findings suggest that multiple phonetic variables can cohere with visual styles in the construction of social distinctions in particular communities of practice.

2019. Calder, Jeremy. From sissy to sickening: the indexical landscape of /s/ in SoMa, San Francisco. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology.

2019. Calder, Jeremy. The fierceness of fronted /s/: linguistic rhematization through visual transformation. Language in Society.

To appear, 2020. Calder, Jeremy. Prosthetics. Parsing the Body: language and the social life of embodiment. Mary Bucholtz and Kira Hall eds.

To appear, 2020. Calder, Jeremy. From ‘gay lisp’ to ‘fierce queen’: the sociophonetics of sexuality’s most iconic variable. The Oxford Handbook of Language and Sexuality. Kira Hall and Rusty Barrett eds. Oxford University Press.

In prep. Calder, Jeremy. Scales of femininity: style as scalar differentiation in a San Francisco drag community.

Gender beyond the binary in sociolinguistic variation

With Ariana Steele

Through a sociophonetic comparison across communities of gender non-normative individuals, Ariana Steele and I advocate for the variationist study of gender beyond the male-female binary. We focus on two communities: a group of radical drag queens in San Francisco (SF), many of whom identify as non-binary; and a multi-racial group of non-binary individuals in Columbus, Ohio. We examine /s/ center of gravity (COG)— a variable which has been linked in sociolinguistic literature to queerness and femininity (e.g. Campbell-Kibler 2011, Zimman 2013)— in the stylistic construction of non-normative gender. While SF queens exhibit high COG in their construction of femininity, Columbus speakers display no correlation between /s/ and self-identified femininity. In fact, black non-binary speakers from Columbus exhibit a correlation between /s/ frontness and self-identified masculinity. Furthermore, among SF queens, higher /s/ COG reflects stylistic extremity rather than conventional femininity. These results suggest that gender can be achieved through various semiotic means, with patterns varying by community of practice and the speaker’s stylistic goals. Phonetic differences across communities illuminate meaningful patterns contrary to what would be predicted by binary models that make essential connections between particular phonetic realizations of variables and particular performances of masculinity and femininity.

2019. Calder, Jeremy and Ariana Steele. Gender in sociolinguistic variation beyond the binary. Paper presented at the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting. New York, NY.

Phonetic variation, race, and place in Bakersfield, CA

With Sharese King


Sharese King and I explore the connections between phonetic variation, locality, and African-American identity in Bakersfield, California. While previous studies of AAE have focused on larger cities with robust African-American populations, Bakersfield is a smaller community in which AAs form a small minority. An analysis of the vowel space of 12 AA speakers reveals that while Bakersfield AAs front the BOOT vowel and increasingly back the BAT vowel over time (both features of the California Vowel shift common among White Bakersfieldians), they do not participate in the COT-CAUGHT merger (which White speakers do participate in). We argue that these findings suggest that the linguistic construction of race is context specific; while AAs are distinct from White speakers in the realization of COT-CAUGHT, the use of California features like fronted-BOOT and backed-BAT suggests that locality is important in the construction of identity. An in-depth account of this study is currently in preparation.

In prep. King, Sharese and Jeremy Calder. Who owns the local sound change?

In prep. King, Sharese and Jeremy Calder. The nature of BOOT-fronting among African Americans in Bakersfield, California. Publication of the American Dialect Society 103.

/s/ variation and the intersections between gender, race, and place

With Sharese King

While /s/ frontness has been linked with identities relating to gender and sexuality in numerous studies, it remains an open question whether the same gendered patterns exist among People of Color. We explore /s/ variation in two African-American 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. We find that among Bakersfield AAs, there is no significant gender difference with respect to /s/ frontness, a finding that is surprising in context of previous work on /s/. The pattern is driven by male AA Bakersfieldians exhibiting a much fronter /s/ than male speakers in previous studies. In addition, while a gender pattern exists in Rochester, the gender difference is not as wide as what has been found in previous community studies of /s/ production.

We argue that patterns linking phonetic variables and gendered identities are specific to the communities under analysis, and may be influenced by things like race, place, and sociohistorical context. While a backed articulation of /s/ has been linked with maleness and masculinity in multiple studies, it has also been linked to country identity in previous work in the California Central Valley (Podesva & Van Hofwegen 2016). Given the history of racial tensions in Bakersfield, it is perhaps not surprising that Bakersfield AA men avoid using a feature that is linked to countryness among White speakers in the geographical area. However, in Rochester, a gender difference is likely driven by urban gendered personae that aren’t as relevant or salient in Bakersfield, like the Hood Kid and the Mobile Black Professional. In Rochester, these personae are ideologically linked with masculinity and femininity resepctively, and also pattern with respect to frontness of /s/, such that Hood Kids exhibit some of the backest /s/ means in the sample and Mobile Black Professionals exhibit some of the frontest.

In prep. Calder, Jeremy and Sharese King. Whose gendered voices matter?: race and gender in the articulation of /s/ in Bakersfield, California.

In prep. Calder, Jeremy and Sharese King. Intersectional identity and /s/ variation among African-Americans in Bakersfield, California and Rochester, New York

Rhythm and speech acts: "Reading is Fundamental"

This paper explores the role of rhythm in differentiating speech events. Specifically, I focus on "Reading", a ritual insult practice common among drag queens and queer people of color. I analyze final lengthening and pause placement in the speech of 18 drag queens from reality TV program RuPaul's Drag Race. A comparison of Reading speech with conversational speech reveals that the queens are much more likely to lengthen final syllables when Reading. In addition, speech in the Reading event is much less likely to contain phrase-internal pauses. Given that Reading occurs seamlessly during conversation and is not characterized by a semantic frame, I argue that these rhythmic qualities are part of a performative linguistic style that conjures the shift in interpretive frame, allowing for a Read to be interpreted as a speech act rather than a personal insult. While the semantic content of Reads is often potentially face-threatening, the speech act conjured by the linguistic style allows for the Read to accomplish increased solidarity between the performers. 

In prep. Calder, Jeremy. ‘The library is open!’: dimensions of rhythm in drag queen ritual insult.

Rhythmic style: Jock vs. Burnout

With Daria Popova

This project is a rhythmic analysis of the speech of two stylistic opposites from Eckert's Belten High study (1989): a jock and a burnout. Daria Popova and I propose a multi-dimensional analysis of rhythmic style that goes beyond the duration metrics (e.g. PVI) generally used in studies of variation. While the duration metrics do not capture any significant rhythmic differences between the two speakers, an analysis of the placement of accents and pauses illuminates highly significant stylistic differences. The burnout's rhythmic style contains a far greater number of phonetically accented syllables and phrase-internal pauses than the jock's, whose style is characterized by fewer accented syllables and pauses that align with phrase boundaries. If we assume that accents that are restricted to semantically focused syllables, and pauses that correspond with phrase boundaries are less marked, the burnout's style is more marked than the jock's. This allows for a more emphatic linguistic style that enhances the dramatic quality of the burnout's narratives.

2014. Calder, Jeremy and Daria Popova. Dimensions of rhythm: the multi-layered nature of rhythmic style. Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 20.2.