Here are some excerpts:
Annan is sitting in a conference room at the Boys & Girls Club on Benning Road NE, listening to her colleague Melissa Ricks talk about growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in a co-op near Columbia Heights... Annan is listening intently, not just to the stories, but to how Ricks is telling them. The words Ricks chooses and the way she pronounces them can tell a story of their own, says Annan, who’s recording the conversation so that she can listen again. Certain vowels, for example, might indicate how much Ricks still feels she belongs to the District, now that she’s in her early 40s and a mother of two living in the suburbs...One of the specific details Annan is listening for is what she calls a “merger” — whether Ricks pronounces “Maryland” a bit like “Muriland,” and “very” like “vury.”
“This area, the D.C. area, has very interesting vowels,” explains Annan, who is project coordinator of the long-term study of D.C. language at Georgetown. The merger she’s looking for, more widespread among whites, is a distinctive feature of African American speech here. “It goes up as far as P.G. County,” Annan says. But not much farther, as far as she can tell. And you won’t hear black folks speaking like that in northern Virginia, she says.