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LINGUIST List 23.2780

Wed Jun 20 2012

Review: Phonetics; Sociolinguistics: Van der Harst (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <rajivlinguistlist.org>

Date: 20-Jun-2012
From: Chiara Meluzzi <chiara.meluzziyahoo.it>
Subject: The Vowel Space Paradox
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Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/22/22-4827.html
AUTHOR: Van der Harst, Sander
TITLE: The Vowel Space Paradox
SUBTITLE: A Sociophonetic Study on Dutchs
SERIES TITLE: LOT dissertation series
PUBLISHER: LOT (Landelijke Onderzoekschool Taalwetenschap)
YEAR: 2011

Chiara Meluzzi, University of Pavia-Free University of Bozen, Italy


This book deals with a sociophonetic analysis of the Dutch vowel system. The
book is divided into eight chapters: Chapter 1 is a general introduction to the
work and its aims; Chapter 2 offers a wide review of the state of the art
concerning both speech styles and the acoustic analysis of the Dutch vowel
system; Chapter 3 presents the data set; Chapter 4 deals with four main
methodological problems in the acoustic analysis of vowels; Chapters 5 and 6
present the analysis of the vowel space of Dutch in word list data and
spontaneous speech data, respectively; Chapter 7 compares the results of the two
previous chapters; and Chapter 8 sums up the main findings of the work.

In Chapter 1, van der Harst situates his study in the field of sociophonetics,
defined as being “at the interface of phonetics and sociolinguistics” (p. 1).
The author illustrates the seven main aims of his work, which are all classified
as being either general, theoretical, methodological or descriptive. The general
aim of the book is to demonstrate “the fruitfulness of integrating
sociolinguistics and phonetics” (p. 4). The theoretical aim is to solve the
so-called Vowel Space Paradox that concerns acoustical vowel space variation in
different speech styles. This paradox emerges in the acoustical analysis of
vowels in different speech styles because “whereas the variation between vowels
decreases in spontaneous speech, the variation within vowels increases, which
does not lead to large increases in vowel confusions” (p. 5). The four
methodological aims are sociolinguistic (one) and phonetic (three) in nature: on
the one hand, the author proposes a method to elicit standard language in three
different speech styles; on the other hand, the author wants to find the best
method for formant measurements, normalization and temporal representation of
vowels. Finally, the descriptive aim of the book is to describe the
sociogeographic variation of Standard Dutch, in particular, between Netherlandic
and Flemish Dutch.

Chapter 2 is a wide review of the state of the art concerning both speech styles
and the analysis of Dutch vowels. Three main definitions of “style” have been
found in the literature: a continuum from formality to informality (e.g. Labov
2001); audience design (Bell 1984); an act of identity of the speaker (Meyerhoff
2006) relating to the context of the interaction and the speaker’s communicative
goals. Van der Harst decides to follow a classic Labovian approach to style,
since it has been demonstrated that intraspeaker variation found with Labov’s
method corresponds with interspeaker variation. The review of literature
concerning vowel space reduction leads to the formulation of three research
hypotheses (pp. 48-52): (1) In spontaneous speech, the vowel space is reduced;
(2) In spontaneous speech, the sociogeographic variation within a vowel
increases; (3) Vowels which show large sociogeographic variation in F1 or F2
dimension in formal tasks are not supposed to reduce in that dimension in
spontaneous speech. The three hypothesis are tested in Chapter 7 in order to
solve the Vowel Space Paradox.

Chapter 3 presents the data set, collected in 1999-2000, for a wider
sociolinguistic project on the pronunciation of Standard Dutch in the
Netherlands and in Flanders. For his work, van der Harst analyzed the speech of
160 high school teachers of Dutch. The corpus was stratified for two communities
(the Netherlands and Flanders), eight regions (four for each community), two age
groups (22-40 and 45-60 years old), and finally, for gender. In this chapter,
the author also discusses the first methodological problem of the book, i.e.,
how to elicit different speech styles of standard language in a sociolinguistic
interview. For this purpose, each speaker was asked to perform different tasks
in order to elicit different speech styles; the more formal tasks were logatome
(i.e. monosyllabic pseudoword) reading and word list reading, while the informal
task was a short interview. Logatome reading and word list reading elicited
4,800 and 4,640 tokens, respectively. The data from the logatome reading task
were previously analyzed by Adank (2003), whose findings are summed up and used
in van der Harst’s analysis in Chapter 5. The word list data consisted of 319
monosyllabic Dutch lexemes containing the 15 full vowels and the three
diphthongs of Dutch in two opposite phonological contexts, i.e., with the target
vowel followed by /s/ (the /s/-context) and by /t/ (the /t/-context). After the
more formal tasks, spontaneous speech was collected through 15 minute interviews
on various topics. These more informal data were analyzed only for a subset of
20 speakers, producing a total of 1,426 tokens.

Chapter 4 deals with the other three methodological aims of the book, since the
author wants to define an acoustical analysis which “is to be considered the
proper one for the seg(socio)phonetic study of vowel variation” (p. 65). Even if
other approaches are available for the acoustic study of vowels (e.g. the whole
spectrum approach), the author prefers a formant analysis approach. The first
methodological problem is to define the best method to obtain valid formant
values. Formant analysis is based on Fant’s (1960) Source-filter Theory,
according to which the speech signal is the product of independent components,
i.e., the source and the filter; in the production of vowels, vocal fold
vibration is the source and the vocal tract acts as a filter. Formants are
usually estimated using Linear Predictive Coding (LPC) with a fixed number of
LPC coefficients (i.e. the default method) or by varying the number of LPC
coefficients according to both speaker and vowel (i.e. the adapted method).
Although the adapted method yields better automatic measurements, in particular,
for back vowels, van der Harst states that the default method equally gives good
results (p. 89). The second methodological issue is to find the best formant
normalization procedure for the sociophonetic analysis of vowels. Such a
procedure should indeed minimize the anatomical variation related to gender and
age of the speaker, while preserving phonemic and sociolinguistic variation. The
author statistically compares 17 normalization procedures. He concludes that
LOBANOV (Lobanov 1971) is the most effective at removing anatomical differences
and preserving sociolinguistic variation (p. 121), and is therefore used in the
remaining part of the book. The author also investigates the best temporal
representation of vowels in sociophonetic analyses of vowel variation. The
problem is defining the appropriate number of time points in which to analyze
formant values in order to properly describe a vowel. Two main approaches are
evaluated by the author, i.e., target approaches and dynamic approaches. The
first is the traditional approach used in many phonetic and variationist
studies; formant values are analyzed at single points in time (namely, the
middle of a formant transition) for monophthongs and at two time points for
diphthongs. The dynamic approach is mainly used in forensic linguistics and
incorporates more information about vowel dynamics. The author analyzes two
different dynamic approaches: the time points approach measures monophthongs and
diphthongs at more than one or two time points, respectively, while the
regression approach uses regression coefficients to describe the development of
formants over time. The author demonstrates that the dynamic approach, and in
particular, the time point approach, improves the sociophonetic analysis of
formants of both monophthongs and diphthongs. However, in different phonological
contexts, the effect of coarticulation on the dynamic vowel representation
remains unclear. Due to this possible effect of phonological context on
different vowel tokens, the author decides to follow the traditional (i.e.
default) method by analyzing the midpoint of monophthongs and the onset and
offset of diphthongs.

In Chapter 5, the analysis of data begins with the tokens collected from the two
formal tasks, which are supposed to focus the attention of the speaker on
his/her production. Two different kinds of variables are taken into account in
the statistical analysis of data: a phonological variable, considering the role
of the coda of the syllable; and social variables such as gender, age and
community of the speaker. The analysis of phonological context reveals that “in
s-words the vowel was considerably longer than in t-words” (p. 149). A following
statistical analysis was conducted on formants (F1 and F2), considering both
phonological and social variables and the different interactions between them.
For F2 dimension, the vowel space of Flemish speakers appears to be smaller than
that of Netherlandic speakers; for the author, this means that “the Netherlandic
speakers pay extra care to their speech” (p. 199), as has been previously noted
in literature. Another community difference is the lower onset of Netherlandic
diphthongs, which, according to Jacobi (2009), could be referred to as a Polder
Dutch characteristic, because in this variety of Dutch, diphthongs are
pronounced with a wider mouth opening. Even if it is commonly claimed that
Polder Dutch features are used mainly by young, highly-educated women (Stroop
1998), no relation between the two variables of gender and community was found
in the author’s data set. At the regional level, vowel data showed a difference
between Flemish and Netherlandic Dutch. The two regions seem, however, “to cross
the border” (p. 201); Netherlands-South vowels are indeed similar to Flemish
ones, while Flander-Brabant shows similarities with Netherlandic Dutch.

Chapter 6 analyzes data from spontaneous speech in two Netherlandic communities:
the central community Netherlands-Randstad (N-R), and the peripheral region
Netherlandic-South (N-S). Spontaneous speech is defined as “speech that is
unscripted and unprepared to a large extent” (p. 203), which means that
attention paid to speech is assumed to be lower than in reading tasks. The
statistical analysis confirms that phonological context (i.e. the coda of
syllables) influences vowel quantity but that these differences do not clearly
correlate with social variables. For /ε/ and /ʏ/, an important community
difference has been found; N-S vowels are longer and more open than N-R vowels,
even if N-S vowel space tends to be more symmetrical than that of N-R. The
author gives a sociolinguistic explanation of his findings, claiming that “N-S
vowels may shift in the direction of the vowels of the standard variety cultural
and economic centre of the Netherlands (i.e. N-R)” (p. 229). However, no age or
gender differences were found for these vowels. Only the diphthong /œy/ showed a
gender difference within the N-R region; women showed a more open onset than
men, and the author interprets this fact as confirmation of the rise of Polder
Dutch vowels being led by women.

Chapter 7 compares the values and findings of the different vowels in the three
speech styles in order to solve the Vowel Space Paradox. The three hypotheses
offered in Chapter 2 are discussed according to the statistical analysis of data
in the two previous chapters. The first hypothesis (i.e. in spontaneous speech,
the vowel space is smaller than in the reading tasks) fits more for monophthongs
and for F1 dimension, but is not supported by diphthongs in the logatome reading
task (p. 253). The second hypothesis (i.e. in spontaneous speech, vowels show
larger sociogeographic variation than in the two reading tasks) is valid only
for /u/ among monophthongs and for /œy/ among diphthongs, whereas /ε/ and /ʏ/
showed opposite behavior. A lack of interaction between speech style and region
was also found. These results demonstrate that the second hypothesis does not
clearly describe and explain sociogeographic vowel space variation. The third
hypothesis (i.e. vowels with large sociogeographic variation in F1 or F2
dimension do not reduce their space in that dimension in spontaneous speech) is
violated by /ε/, /ʏ/ and /ɑ/ (p. 285). Since the three hypothesis have been
rejected, the author proposes a new solution for the paradox. In his opinion, it
is important to consider the local structure of the vowel space of the target
vowel, i.e., of the vowel which increases or shifts in variation among the
different speech styles. Since speakers always try to avoid phonemic confusions,
a vowel could move or increase its space in two cases: (1) If the local
surrounding structure is empty; (2) If the two vowels maintain a contrastive
difference in at least one dimension other than F1 and F2 (e.g. duration, onset
position), when there is a neighboring vowel in the vowel space. For van der
Harst, this should be considered a proper solution for the Vowel Space Paradox
(pp. 304-5).

Finally, in Chapter 8 the author sums up the main findings of his work,
according to the seven aims proposed in the first chapter. A final section
illustrates a wide range of proposals for further research in sociophonetics.


At a general level, the book is well structured and the arguments concerning
both research hypotheses and results are very clearly illustrated. The author
clearly made a great effort to guarantee cohesion throughout the different
chapters, which is very helpful for the reader. The review of the state of the
art in Chapters 1 and 2 is very valuable because it sums up the main approaches
to a key term in sociolinguistic research, i.e., style. Chapter 3 offers a good
example of how a corpus should be structured in this kind of research. Chapter 4
is a precise and rigorous analysis of three main methodological problems in
sociophonetic research; the observations and suggestions given by the author in
this chapter deserve to be carefully considered by scholars in both phonetic and
variationist areas of research.

The only weakness of the book is found in the analysis of spontaneous speech
data (Chapter 6). The author’s aim “to obtain a set of vowel tokens that is
maximally balanced” (p. 205) was problematized by a lack of tokens in every
phonological context. In particular, /ʏ/ does not show any occurrences in some
speakers’ speech production. In these cases, the author used the mean values of
/ʏ/’s F1 and F2 detected in the word list and logatome data “in order to avoid
bias of the unbalanced data set” (p. 209). However, this mere quantitative
problem might have important consequences in the analysis, since one of the main
aims of the book is to compare different speech styles. It should be the case
that this choice did not modify the statistical results, but the author should
have considered and explained this problematic issue. Moreover, the
sociolinguistic observations exposed at the end of the same chapter deserved a
wider explanation, in particular regarding the observed shift of N-S vowels to
an N-R language variety.

These few problematic points aside, van der Harst’s book should be considered an
important contribution to sociophonetic research. This book could also be
particularly interesting and useful for both “classical” sociolinguists and more
skilled sociophonetic readers: the former scholars would find important
methodological and bibliographical suggestions, while the latter will find ideas
on critical reflections concerning the sociophonetic study of variation. In
conclusion, this book is a clear example of “the usefulness of the integration
of sociolinguistics and phonetics” (p. 12).


Bell, Allan. 1984. Language Style as Audience Design. Language in Society 13:

Fant, Gunnar. 1960. The Acoustic Theory of Speech Production. The Hague: Mouton.

Jacobi, Irene. 2009. On Variation and Change in Diphthongs and Long Vowels of
Spoken Dutch. Doctoral disseration, University of Amsterdam.

Labov, William. 2001. Principles of Linguistic Change. Social Factors. London:

Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2006. Introducing Sociolinguistics. New York/London: Routledge.

Stroop, Jan. 1998. Poldernederlands. Waardoor het ABN verdwijnt. Amsterdam:
Uitgeverij Bert Bakker.


Chiara Meluzzi is a PhD student at the University of Pavia and the Free University of Bozen (Italy). After a Master’s thesis on female language in Ancient Greek comedy at the University of Eastern Piedmont (Vercelli), for her PhD dissertation, she is now working on the sociolinguistics of the Italian variety spoken in Bozen (South Tyrol). Her primary research interests include sociolinguistics, pragmatics, dialectology, language contact and historical linguistics.

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