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Academic Paper

Title: How salient is the nurse~square merger?
Author: Kevin Watson
Email: click here TO access email
Institution: University of Canterbury
Author: Lynn Clark
Email: click here TO access email
Institution: Lancaster University
Linguistic Field: Phonology; Sociolinguistics
Abstract: This article reports the results of an experimental investigation into listeners' evaluative reactions towards the nurse~square merger in the north-west of England, in an attempt to shed light on its salience. Although speakers across England's north-west have a nurse~square merger, its realisation differs: in Liverpool, speakers typically merge to a mid front [ɛː], while speakers from St Helens, just 20km further east, merge to a mid central [ɜː]. To test listeners' responses to each variant, we presented two groups of listeners from each of these localities with read sentence data from a single speaker. The speaker was from the north-west of England and had a centralised nurse~square vowel in his native accent (representing the St Helens model). To achieve a matched-guise, the original nurse~square vowels were acoustically manipulated to give the impression of fronting (representing the Liverpool model). Listeners from Liverpool and St Helens were asked to react to guises along the status dimension, and their reaction was measured in real-time using bespoke audience response software administered via the web. The novelty in this approach is that it can be used not only to show that listeners do indeed react to the guises, but also to examine precisely when this reaction takes place. Our results show that (a) overall, speakers with a nurse~square merger are not rated highly on the status dimension, regardless of whether they have a merger to a front or central vowel; (b) listeners' real-time reactions can be correlated with instances of nurse and square; and (c) listeners' responses to nurse can be different from responses to square. We discuss these results in relation to the salience of this merger in particular and to salience in general. We suggest that the salience of nurse and square is related to the local social context and the micro-linguistic context in which they appear.


This article appears IN English Language and Linguistics Vol. 17, Issue 2.

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