The Stoop.

The Stoop (to quote their website) “is a podcast about blackness, race, and identity in America, hosted by Leila Day and Hana Baba.” I’m not much of a podcast person, but I was listening to my local NPR station, WFCR, and heard a snippet of what sounded like a really interesting episode, “The problem with sounding white”: “We explore voice and unpack what it means linguistically, socially, and professionally when you’re black but supposedly ‘sound white.'” It caught my attention right away by repeating, with gusto, the phrase “interdental fricative,” and went on to discuss code-switching, linguistic profiling, and other related matters. It ends with a talk with poet Chinaka Hodge, who studied linguistics with Renée Blake; she says when she’s told she sounds white, she says: “Do I sound white like a Scottish person? Do I sound white like a Brahmin?” She mentions Blake’s concept of “r-fulness” and gives examples. All in all, it’s a great way to spend 18 minutes, and I highly recommend it.


  1. Rhoticity is interesting because it seems to have grown more racialized over time. I saw a paper a while back arguing that the increase in rhoticity and in GOAT-fronting among white Southerners since 1960 or so was at least in part a reaction against black speech. And a lot of the features that distinguish black from white speakers in the bulk of the country (especially the subtler “black accent” that many people still have when speaking standard English) are basically lowland Southern ones.

  2. Greg Pandatshang says:

    By the way, I’ve noticed various instances of rappers switching to a deliberately exaggerated rhotic accent. My impression is that back in the 90s, this would only be used to put on a mocking “white”- or “nerdy”-coded voice, but more recently can be used simply for emphasis. e.g. “Rack City” by Tyga at 0:59:

    P.S. I don’t know what to say about Azealia Banks’ rhotic accent in “212”. That’s sort of sui generis.

  3. @GP: Yeah, that kind of hyperrhotic pronunciation (marked by velarization and/or retroflexion) is common among non-rhotic speakers flirting with rhoticity. You’ll hear it from non-rhotic white folks here in New England when they’re trying to speak more formally or “correctly”, and it’s a telltale sign of a Brit doing an American accent. And as you note, it’s also a feature of the “white comedy accent” used e.g. by Dave Chappelle.

  4. “I saw a paper a while back arguing that the increase in rhoticity and in GOAT-fronting among white Southerners since 1960 or so was at least in part a reaction against black speech.”

    An equally valid explanation is that they were reacting to the very negative stereotypes in the rest of the country about their own speech at a time when they were moving into closer business contact with the rest of the country.

  5. J.W. Brewer says:

    A further factor is quite significant migration since 1960 from north to south by rhotic white northerners as part of a general economic/population shift from Rustbelt to Sunbelt — at a low enough level of migration newcomers (or at least their children) will assimilate to the local accent but above a certain level the newcomers will probably affect the local accent in subtle ways that may cumulatively over time become less subtle. Obviously such incomers are more highly clustered in some parts of the south than others (e.g. metro Atlanta or Charlotte vs more rural areas that have not experienced significant population growth), and perhaps the areas where the incomers are concentrated are also the areas where the “indigenous” white Southerners are disproportionately likely to feel sociologicial/economic incentives to shift their speech for the reasons Jim suggests, which might make it hard to tease apart different causal explanations.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    Re Brits trying to do an American accent, as I’ve probably noted before in other contexts, there’s a minority of Rolling Stones songs where Jagger uses his “hillbilly country and western” singing voice rather than his “Negro rhythm and blues” singing voice (which after 50+ years has just become the default sense of “how Mick Jagger sings”), and he way overshoots on the rhoticity when in the C&W mode. Obviously quite a fair number of actual American C&W singers are non-rhotic, but he must have hit upon rhoticity as a way of contrasting the C&W accent with the R&B accent. (You occasionally hear little flashes of rhoticity in Led Zeppelin songs, but I think that’s because Robert Plant spent his boyhood, just west of Birmingham, right about where the rhotic/non-rhotic isogloss in BrEng ran back in the 1950’s, although I believe non-rhotic expansionism has pushed the boundary closer to the Welsh border since then.)

  7. An equally valid explanation is that they were reacting to the very negative stereotypes in the rest of the country about their own speech at a time when they were moving into closer business contact with the rest of the country.

    That wouldn’t explain the GOAT-fronting, though. That trait moved them further from both African Americans and white non-Southerners.

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    GOAT-fronting would move them closer to white northerners like me and others whose pronunciation was influenced by growing up somewhere relatively close to Philadelphia or Baltimore. You sayin’ our Middle-Atlantic phonology ain’t the sort of high-prestige marker there’s an obvious social benefit for emulating?

  9. “the ‘white comedy accent’ used e.g. by Dave Chappelle”

    Do you have any links (to Chappelle or anyone else)?

  10. Michael Can't Decide On A Pseudonum says:

    Here’s a link to Chappelle’s standup. He doesn’t use the white comedy accent through the entire act, but he does use it several times in the first few minutes.

    Edit: …and of course there’s a typo in my nym du jour.

  11. Chinaka Hodge, who says that she’s often told that she sounds white, has a tell that reveals she’s black, one that’s common among educated African-Americans who are assimilated into white culture: she does not voice final consonants, or at any rate voices them less than most white people do. So “Stanford” is “Stanfort” and “sounded” is “soundet” or “sounnet.” You’ll often hear “United States” as “Uninet States.” White speakers either replace the final consonant with a glottal stop – “Stanfor’ University” – or voice the “d” – “she’s at Stanford” – but many educated black speakers give full value to the final consonant but don’t voice it. (Black people who “sound black” typically suppress the final consonant altogether.)

    These sorts of ethnic or regional pronunciations are pretty common. My mother, for example, pronounced “bottle” with a full glottal stop – “bah’l” – thereby revealing that she was a New York Jew (most Americans flap the tt and voice it – “boddle”). If you pointed it out to her it made her furious, as she was very defensive about having an “accent.”

  12. @Bloix: Does this AAVE feature exist for final stops other than /d/? If so, I don’t recall hearing it.

  13. J.W. Brewer says:

    John McWhorter’s most recent book on the subject (“Talking Back, Talking Black”) gives IIRC several other examples of such “tells” where black AmEng speakers whose pronunciation (at least when they’ve code switched to the poshest register they have) lacks most obvious AAVE features but still has a few subtly distinctive features that will allegedly be detectable by an ear attuned to such things.

  14. Greg Pandatshang says:

    bottle /ˈbɑʔḷ/ is New York Jewish thing? I’ve often wondered about the glottal stop two of my former coworkers have in button /ˈbʌʔṇ/ … New York Jews they ain’t, though. (both about forty, one miscellaneous white gentile from upstate New York; the other Mexican American from the Midwest, I think an L1 Spanish speaker but with flawless GA from early childhood acquisition).

  15. Well, [ˈbʌʔṇ] is the default in NAmEng. Unless you mean something more like [ˈbʌʔǝn]? That one’s more marked – I associate it most of all with teenage girls.

    Re: the above, final devoicing of /d/ is also a classic NYC Jewish thing.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    a classic NYC Jewish thing

    That surprises me. East Yiddish doesn’t have final devoicing, right? It also lacks the aspiration-glottalization complex, but that could be attributed to some kind of hypercorrection…

  17. Rodger C – as you can no doubt tell from my lack knowledge of proper transcription, I am no linguist – I only say what I’ve heard and sometimes I think I know more than I do. And I think you’re correct – that it’s only d/t, not any other voiced/unvoiced combination.

  18. Greg Pandatshang says:

    Well, I’m a NAmEng speaker and I have what I would transcribe as [ˈbʌɾṇ]: it seems to me that my tongue is making contact with the alveolus prior to beginning to starting on the “n”, so I figure that alveolar contact is the “tt” consonant, which therefore is not a glottal stop. [ˈbʌʔǝn] might very well be a better transcription of what I’m hearing from these other people, but it sure sounds to me like there’s something different (from most other people here in the Midwest) about the way they’re realizing that second consonant.

  19. I certainly have /ˈbʌʔn̩/, and I am a not-quite-New-York not-quite-Jew.

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