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Studying the impact of language on identity

Alan Flurry

Shannon Rodriguez studies a dialect of English spoken by Latinos born in Georgia, a particular blend of Southern drawl, clipped Latino vowels and a more general mainstream American accent. Speakers pull features from each to emphasize different parts of their identity.

In January, she presented her dissertation on the topic “Latino English in Georgia:  a sociophonetic analysis of ethnicity and identity” to the board of regents.

The work has a personal angle for the Ph.D. candidate.

“I am a white female and my husband and his family are Latino,” said Rodriguez. Her children, aged 1 and 3, are Southern Latinos and will eventually find their way to their own “ethnolect,” a dialect spoken by a particular ethnic group. “It’s very close to home for me.”

While conducting her research, Rodriguez interviewed Latinos and Hispanics across Georgia who have lived here most of their lives. She asked them questions like “What does it mean to be Latino? What does it mean to be Southern?” Rodriguez applied the tools of linguistics to drill down on how an ethnolect can vary. “I look at the acoustic phonetics. I look at the vowels and their trajectories in vowel spaces, the way they’re pronounced and see how they might be different within speakers of Latino English,” she said.

Then she codes their interview data for identity topics around ethnicity and place, she said. She wants to know if a subject identifies more strongly with where they live, the Latino community or—most likely—a unique personal combination.

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Image: Linguistics Ph.D. candidate Shannon Rodriguez standing outside of Gilbert Hall. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

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