Kamala Harris and the Prosody of Parody

« previous post | next post »

I’ve been working on a description of Kamala Harris’ distinctive prosody for a while now, so when I saw Maya Rudolph’s parody of Harris’ victory speech on SNL last Saturday (which happened less than 3 hours after the original!), I wondered if it might shed more light on what’s happening with Harris herself.

While Harris frequently highlights her racial backgrounds in speeches, she, like most other speakers of Standard African American English (SAAE, see Spears 1988) carefully avoids most of the highly stigmatized morphosyntactic features of AAE, but relies heavily on prosodic cues to index her black identity. For example, Harris uses a number of features that sociolinguists have documented as more typical of AAE, such as a greater density of prominences, more (and more dramatic) prominent syllables with two tones, and fairly flat tones at the ends of phrases. Rudolph’s parody of the VP-elect relies on the same types of prosodic features, but they’re dialed up to 11. Looking at the two speeches, we see a number of places where Rudolph talks about the same topics as Harris and uses similar phrasing, but exaggerates her already unique prosody. While there are many ways that linguists can code prosody, these are labelled with the low and high mark conventions of the MAE-ToBI system, which basically indicates where prominent tones appear, and whether the tones are low, high, or a combination of low and high.

Here’s Harris talking about women of color:

And here’s Rudolph doing the same:

Here we see a high density of prominences (pitch accents), occurring on every content word in both clips, as well as examples of prominences containing two tones, though Rudolph employs a wider F0 range, likely for performative effect.

Here’s Harris talking to the nation’s children:

And here’s Rudolph talking to the “little black and brown girls” (albeit to a different punch line):

In both of these clips, despite their differences in length, we see a similar pattern of content words containing prominences with two tones, as well as delays in the maximum F0 peaks, that can appear as late as the following syllable. We also see boundaries characterized by a fairly long plateau with either a level tone or a long gradual fall.

The distinctive locations whether both Harris and Rudolph mark prominences in their phrases, as well as the tones they use to signal them, carry sociolinguistic meaning that indexes Harris’ participation in black community speech norms. There are certainly some bigger questions about how prosody allows listeners to recognize parodic performance, but in this case, Rudolph’s parallel but dramatized version of Harris’ SAAE prosody helps to contextualize Harris’ real performance.

[Author links are broken — my home page is here.]

Comments are closed.