Critical to the study of languages and how they change are longitudinal studies, which allow for the examination of communities over time. This study focuses on African American English as spoken in Harlem, New York City. African American English refers to a nonstandard variety of English characteristically spoken by African Americans in the United States. This term covers a wide range of ways of speaking, from very casual to very formal, as spoken by a range of individuals from different age groups, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Today, Harlem is undergoing rapid change due to gentrification. This has resulted in a decrease of its black majority as new residents come in. The aim of this research is to examine the ways in which the language of Harlem's African American residents has changed since the 1960s, in light of the significant changes the neighborhood itself has undergone. That is, what is happening to African American English, now that Harlem is no longer home to just African Americans?

This study will observe and record roughly seventy-two residents of Harlem, from a range of age groups and socioeconomic classes. Social and linguistic data will be collected through sociolinguistic interviews with individuals and groups and ethnographic observations, which will then be compared to previous linguistic research conducted in Harlem in the 1960s. The current research promises to build a more comprehensive picture of language contact and change, and will shed light on issues pertaining to mediums for language transmission. This study also has implications for education, especially in urban centers, where black students continue to struggle in schools throughout the United States. A better understanding of African American English and the social circumstances under which it is used can help educators to differentiate between dialectal differences and actual learning deficiencies, and thus provide the necessary support for students.

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Critical to the study of languages and how they change are ‘apparent time’ studies, in which speakers of different ages are sampled and their speech is compared across generations. While there have been several community studies of Puerto Rican English to date, few offer us a diachronic perspective. The current study fills this gap by examining Puerto Rican English spoken in East Harlem, New York City, across two generations of speakers. Puerto Rican English refers to a nonstandard variety of American English characteristically spoken by native English speakers in the United States who identify as being of Puerto Rican descent. Although Puerto Rican English can be spoken by anyone from any ethnic background, it is primarily spoken by U.S.-born Puerto Ricans and other second generation (and beyond) Latinos in communities throughout the eastern United States. The New York City neighborhood of Harlem is of particular importance for the field of sociolinguistics, as it has been the site of several groundbreaking studies on African American English, Puerto Rican English and Spanish-English codeswitching. Research for these studies took place in 1960s and 1970s, at a time when the New York City Housing Authority had just finished constructing some of the largest public housing complexes in the area. This study aims to determine how residential shifts that have taken place in East Harlem over the last half century are visible at the linguistic level, with particular attention paid to the movement of residents from smaller privately-owned tenement buildings to larger government-owned low-income housing projects. While New York City’s tenements have tended to be relatively ethnically homogenous, its public housing is more diverse, bringing East Harlem’s Puerto Rican and African American residents into closer contact than in previous decades. The current research investigates how inter-ethnic contact, brought upon by relatively rapid community change, is reflected in language. This study focuses on two linguistic variables, prosodic rhythm and production of the diphthong /ay/ (as in words like bide and bye), in the English of 30 Puerto Rican-identified native English speakers across two generations. With regard to rhythm, Puerto Rican English is traditionally fairly syllable-timed as result of contact with Spanish, a phenomenon which listeners describe as a "staccato-like sound". With /ay/ monopthongization, words like bide, bite and bye can be pronounced "bahd", "baht" and "bah" respectively. The presence of /ay/ monophthongization in Puerto Rican English is thought to be the result of contact with African American English. This project seeks to determine to what extent the use of these variables may be changing over time, as East Harlem’s Puerto Rican community has come into closer contact with African Americans over the last half century. Particular attention is paid to the whether or not the rhythm of Puerto Rican English has changed to become more stress-timed like that of African American English, and whether or not usage of /ay/ monophthongization has increased, now that contact with African Americans has increased. Results indicate that despite showing a great deal of influence from African American English with high rates of /ay/ monophthongization, Puerto Rican English in East Harlem still maintains a prosodic rhythm that is much more syllable-timed than that of African American English or standard American English. We argue that whatever process is happening that causes some speakers to speak in a way that is more stress-timed, this process is being mitigated by what appears to be an over-arching effort by the community to keep Puerto Rican English more syllable-timed, possibly to differentiate it from African American English and standard American English. This finding suggests that even when a community appears to be undergoing some kind of language shift, in this case from Spanish to English, it does not mean that the community loses its identity immediately or entirely. Rather, speakers can find new resources for asserting an identity that differentiates them from others with whom they are in contact. For New York City-born Puerto Ricans, this resource is at the level of rhythm, where we find that one can maintain a cultural identity even without speaking Spanish. Additionally, this work provides an updated look at the status of English in New York City, one of the most complex and nuanced speech communities in North America. By examining the English spoken by East Harlem’s Puerto Rican population, we contribute to the understanding of New York City speech more broadly.

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New York University
New York
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