Although Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s eloquence as a speaker is widely recognized and his rhetorical strategies have been extensively studied, no analyses have been conducted on his language variation in different speech settings. This article examines a set of variable structures in King's speech to determine how it indexes his regional, social, and ethnic identity as he accommodated different audiences and interactions. The use of unstressed (ING), medial and final /t/ release, postvocalic nonrhoticity, coda-final cluster reduction, copula/auxiliary absence, the vowel system, and syllable timing are considered for four different speech events: the “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), the Nobel Prize acceptance speech (1964), a conversation with talk-show host Merv Griffin (1967), and the “I've Been to the Mountaintop” speech (1968). The analysis indicates stability across speech events for some variables and significant variation for others based on the speech event. His indexical profile indicates that he consistently embodied his Southern-based, African American preacherly stance while fluidly shifting features that indexed performance and formality based on audience, interaction, and intentional purpose. His language embraced ethnolinguistic tradition and transcended linguistic diversity, modeling linguistic equality in practice.
The Significance of Linguistic Variation in the Speeches of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Walt Wolfram, Caroline Myrick, Jon Forrest, Michael J. Fox; The Significance of Linguistic Variation in the Speeches of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. American Speech 1 August 2016; 91 (3): 269–300. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00031283-3701015
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