This dissertation is an ethnographic study of phonetic variation and social practice in a multiethnic secondary school in Sheffield, UK. I analyse the use of phonetic variation by adolescents in this school with the aim of advancing recent debates surrounding indexicality, social meaning, and language and ethnicity (Silverstein 2003; Eckert 2008a,b; Campbell-Kibler 2011b). I report quantitative and interactional analyses of two phonetic variables: word-final /i/, which has both a regionally enregistered variant and a supralocal sound change variant, and word-initial /t/, which has no known social associations or correlations within Sheffield. This allows me to examine how the degree of enregisterment attributed to a linguistic feature affects how it can be used for making ethnographically-specific social meanings.
The quantitative acoustic phonetic analysis demonstrates a number of differences between female communities of practice in the school, suggesting that these variables mark identity distinctions. The male communities of practice are not significantly different from each other in the statistical analysis, but there are some differences between clusters of male ethnic groups. I explain these differences with reference to gender differences in the social organisation of adolescent peer groups. In order to uncover the more local social meanings of this variation, I also examine how acoustically extreme tokens of each variable are used in discourse, alongside other interactional resources, for the purposes of identity construction (Podesva 2011a). The results suggest that enregistered features may have well-defined but limited social meanings (Kiesling 2009), whereas features without established social associations show extensive flexibility with respect to social meaning. This analysis also suggests that social meaning is sometimes co-constitutive, in the sense that meaning depends upon specific constellations of interactional resources, with phonetic variation playing a complex role in this enterprise (Eckert 2012). This problematises a straightforward interpretation of particular phonetic realisations as indexing pre-determined social meanings.
In summary, this dissertation (i) contributes to the growing literature on the relationship between ethnicity, social practice and phonetic variation; (ii) examines the local meanings of enregistered, supralocal and highly indeterminate phonetic variation within Sheffield; and (iii) advances an account of sociolinguistic variation that is sensitive to the co-constitutive, multi-layered and ideological nature of sociolinguistic meaning.