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What Houstonians Don't Know They Know About Language and Race

Abstract/Résumé: As most speech perception researchers suggest, the multidimensional processes involved in perception tap into various types of information that range from acoustic, contextual, social, and, as it turns out, attitudinal. In addition, recent work shows that we are aware of much more than we know we are aware of. In other words, we covertly are aware of, and have attitudes towards, a great deal of language variation. Perceptual tests show that we can react as if we have certain information, even if we claim no conscious knowledge of such information. In this talk I present results from several experiments that show that lifelong residents of Houston, Texas, are aware of language variation due to factors such as ethnicity and age, even if they report in language attitudes tests that they have no such awareness. For instance, we have found that respondents who claim no knowledge of word-final glottalization or vowel length differences due to ethnicity, show longer reaction times to glottalization or vowel-length values that conflict with actual glottalization or vowel-length patterns found in different ethnic groups: they react as if they “know” about the differences, without claiming such knowledge overtly. In addition, listeners reveal through reaction-time tests, that they are aware of how different features co-vary stylistically, again without overtly claiming such knowledge. Listeners also reveal attitudes towards the subconscious characterizations of speakers, again even if they are unaware of the specific features that they are reacting to. Several respondents in these studies made claims about the “correctness” or “clarity” of a speaker’s speech, based solely on feature differences that they did not claim to know existed. Thus, people have acquired knowledge about, and have covert attitudes regarding, language variation in their community, without being aware that they have this knowledge. We pay attention to a lot more than we think we do, we know more than we think we know, and we base a great deal — maybe most — of our language attitudes on this covert awareness.