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LINGUIST List 18.2372

Wed Aug 08 2007

Diss: Socioling/Phonetics: Johnson: 'Stability and Change Along a D...'

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        1.    Daniel Johnson, Stability and Change Along a Dialect Boundary: The low vowels of Southeastern New England

Message 1: Stability and Change Along a Dialect Boundary: The low vowels of Southeastern New England
Date: 08-Aug-2007
From: Daniel Johnson <danielezrajohnsongmail.com>
Subject: Stability and Change Along a Dialect Boundary: The low vowels of Southeastern New England
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Institution: University of Pennsylvania
Program: Department of Linguistics
Dissertation Status: Completed
Degree Date: 2007

Author: Daniel Johnson

Dissertation Title: Stability and Change Along a Dialect Boundary: The low vowels of Southeastern New England

Dissertation URL: http://www.danielezrajohnson.com

Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics

Subject Language(s): English (eng)

Dissertation Director:
William Labov

Dissertation Abstract:

This dissertation focused on the low vowels in the area between Boston, MA
and Providence, RI. Today, most speakers in Providence have a low central
/ah = o/ in FATHER and BOTHER, and a distinct raised back /oh/ in DAUGHTER.
This configuration of two vowels, also common in western New England and
elsewhere in the U.S., will be called the Mid-Atlantic / Inland North
system (MAIN). Boston speakers also have two low vowels, but /ah/ is
fronted, with /o = oh/ merged in low back position: this is the unique
Eastern New England system (ENE).

A review of earlier descriptions and recordings of these varieties (Chapter
2) shows that a system of three distinct low vowels, such as is found in
England, was original to colonial New England and survived into the 19th
century. Complementary mergers then developed in the two parts of the
territory -- /ah/~/o/ in Providence, /o/~/oh/ in Boston -- but their
patterning in time and space indicate internally-motivated change, not any
type of diffusion.

The geographic study (Chapter 4) located the resulting boundary between the
two dialects by interviewing c. 180 senior citizens and young adults in 40
cities and towns. For the older group, there was a sharp boundary between
the MAIN and ENE systems, generally matching colonial settlement patterns
despite the two-vowel systems themselves being much newer. Most young
adults agreed with their senior citizen counterparts. Some were unclear or
had merged all three categories, but in general, during the twentieth
century, mergers did not 'expand at the expense of distinctions'.

In the family study (Chapter 5), several MAIN communities which had
appeared stable showed sudden /o/~/oh/ merger among children, leading to a
one-vowel system. Interviews with c. 35 families revealed this especially
in South Attleboro MA (under 18 merged) and in Seekonk MA (under 10
merged). These age-based changes divided some families between older
(distinct) and younger (merged) siblings, although the youngest children
were seen to pattern with their (distinct) parents. Children initially
acquire their parents' systems, then reorganize them upon forming peer
groups, but are fairly stable from then on. To explain why the mergers
happened in the order they did, the 'migration hypothesis' proposed that
when a certain proportion of merged young children enter a peer group,
those from distinct backgrounds abandon their distinction.

The migration hypothesis was supported with data from the U.S. Census and
the school survey (Chapter 3), which focused on the factors affecting
individuals' acquisition of the low vowels. A simple minimal pair
questionnaire was administered to c. 1500 schoolchildren, and the results
analyzed by mixed-model logistic regression. The details of subjects'
biographies consistently affected their responses. In ENE, students who had
moved from MAIN areas -- even years earlier -- marked more /o/~/oh/ pairs
'different' than natives did. And even for 12th graders, parents played
an important role, if they were from other dialect areas. Mothers had a
greater effect overall, especially on their daughters, while fathers'
smaller effect was primarily on their sons. These perception-like patterns
are more intermediate and complex than the production patterns recorded in
the other studies.

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