The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Minicourse (12/6, 12/8) - Nicole Holliday (Pomona College)

Prosody and Identity in Linguistic Variation: Minicourse

Times: 12/6 and 12/8, 12:30pm-2pm
Location: 32-D461


Variation in intonation and voice quality is among the least well-described phenomena in both phonetic and sociolinguistic research. This is especially a limitation due to research in recent years that has described the importance of such variables for speakers and listeners in presenting and interpreting social-indexical information (Purnell et al 1999, Thomas and Reaser 2004, Holliday 2021). This body of research has also shown that intonation and voice quality variables can carry a range of social meanings that can be controlled and manipulated by speakers both at and below the level of consciousness. Thus, we begin with the premise that speakers’ use of pitch, prosody, and voice quality variables is a robust area to investigate the intersection of language and identity, as well as the nature of phonetic variation. In this minicourse, participants will be introduced to basic concepts in sociophonetics, with special attention to prosodic and voice quality variables. The course will concentrate on the theory and application of methods that help to elucidate how speakers communicate various aspects of personal identity, as well as how listeners perceive them. These fundamental aspects range from the community-level, such as region and race/ethnicity, to the more individual-level, such as persona construction.

On the first day of the minicourse, learners will be introduced to the major questions of sociolinguistics in the 21st century, as well as sociophonetic methods and analytic procedures, with a focus on prosodic and voice quality variables. The readings for this day come from Erik Thomas’ influential textbook, Sociophonetics: An Introduction (2011), in order to provide students will an equitable starting point for better understanding such analyses. On Day 2 of the minicourse, participants will read two journal articles that focus on different types of questions in sociophonetics. The first paper, Thomas and Reaser (2004) is a foundational work that describes several decades worth of research on the issue of ethnic identification in sociolinguistics. The second paper, Burdin, Holliday, and Reed (2022), is a more recent study focusing on describing production-level differences between speakers of three different lects of American English. Participants will leave with a better understanding of how prosody works in sociolinguistic variation, which will enhance their ability to ask questions about variation that they may encounter in their own research.


Burdin, R.S., Holliday, N.R. and Reed, P.E., 2022. “American English pitch accents in variation: Pushing the boundaries of mainstream American English-ToBI conventions”. Journal of Phonetics94, p.101-163.

Holliday, N.R., 2021. “Perception in black and white: Effects of intonational variables and filtering conditions on sociolinguistic judgments with implications for ASR”. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence, pp.102.

Purnell, T., Idsardi, W. Baugh, J. 1999. “Perceptual and Phonetic Experiments on American English Dialect Identification.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18 (1): 10–30.

Thomas, E.R. and Reaser, J., 2004. “Delimiting perceptual cues used for the ethnic labeling of African American and European American voices”. Journal of sociolinguistics8(1), pp.54-87.

Thomas, E.R. 2011. Sociophonetics: An introduction. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.