sociophonetics, ethnicity, panethnicity, Pacific Islander, LBMS, vowel shift, teen language


Despite the growing numbers and visibility of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders (NHPIs) in the U.S., these Americans are generally overlooked in the research on language variation. American dialectology tends to focus on speakers of European descent, and most research on minority ethno-racial groups has concentrated on larger demographic groups, such as African American and Latinx American groups. This combination of research deficits limits our understanding of linguistic variation and the social forces that influence it. In addition, it may reinforce stereotypes of “ethnolects” as nonstandard and wholly separate from regional and stylistic influence. (See Eckert, 2008.) Many of the largest NHPI communities are located in Western states, including Utah. Considering the speech of NHPIs in the dialect research of this area can enhance our understanding of the processes taking place in individual locales, as well as the larger region. In addition, it can lead to greater understanding of language in diaspora populations, post-migration identity formation, and the formation of new ethnolects.

This study uses data collected from teens at two Salt Lake County high schools as part of the Teen Language and Identity (TLI) project. Ethnographic work from the project reveals that NHPI participants of Polynesian descent identify not only with their heritage country, but also with a single pan-ethnic “Polynesian” or “Poly” group with shared social networks, practices, and deliberate linguistic choices. This paper focuses on how participants use low-level phonetic features, most likely below the level of conscious awareness, to mark ethnicity. It analyzes vowel formant measurements extracted from TLI word list recordings to answer three questions:

  1. Do the teens in the study participate in the linguistic practices previously described for Utah and for the West?
  2. Do European Americans and NHPIs pattern together, or is there a distinctive NHPI pattern in Utah?
  3. How does the ethnic composition of the socio-cultural context affect ethnic-based vowel patterns?

The analysis focuses on a subset of vowel features that have been observed in parts of the West, specifically the Low-Back-Merger Shift (LBMS; Becker, 2019), in which low back vowels tend to merge, and front lax vowels lower and/or retract. (See also Fridland, Kendall, Evans, & Wassink, 2016; Fridland, Wassink, Hall-Lew, & Kendall, 2020; Fridland, Wassink, Kendall, & Evans, 2017.) Vowel formant measurements from TLI word list recordings are compared to Bowie’s (2017) study of historical Utah data using predefined benchmarks, and the effects of social factors are analyzed using mixed effects regression analysis. Results show the Utah teens employing many of the LBMS features, with statistical differences based on gender, ethnic group, and school. Girls’ speech generally reflects a more advanced state of LBMS than boys’, and more LBMS features are present in the speech of the Euro American participants than in the speech of their NHPI peers. Furthermore, speech in the more urban, diverse school generally reflects more advanced levels of LBMS than the speech from the suburban school with less diversity.

Original Publication Citation

Johnson, L. M. (2021). Vowel Pronunciation as Ethnic Marker: Pacific Islander Teens in Utah NWAV49 New Ways of Analyzing Variation, online.

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Assistant Professor

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