In narratives prepared for primarily African American audiences, African American comedians highlight and exaggerate linguistic features that index traits they attribute to the African American community as well as to the white middle-class establishment. Most prominent among the segmental features that the comedians emphasize is the diphthongal variable/ai/. They produce a monophthongal [a] variant when constructing African American characters and a highly fronted [ai] when portraying the establishment middle class. Characters from both groups appear in situations where their attitudes and behavior highlight the traits attributed to them. African American characters are cast as humanly and culturally rich survivors whose common sense and resilience allow them to “make a way out of no way.” In contrast, establishment characters appear as narrowly logical, ethnically bland, and ineffectual. The positive portrayal of African Americans is itself a tool of survival that stems from a self-empowering community ideology that serves as a buffer against the effects of perceived racism.

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