GURT talk: Shifting Accents and Evolving Style: Stylistic Variation Among Mobile Speakers

This past Saturday I presented some of my ongoing work on stylistic variation among mobile speakers, at the Georgetown University Round Table in Linguistics.  This year's theme was Variable Properties: Their Nature and Acquisition, and the conference brought together a nice mix of scholars working in formal linguistics, L2 acquisition, sociolinguistics, and various other subfields.

Talk abstract:

Geographically mobile speakers may acquire phonetic and phonological features of a new regional dialect, depending on a range of linguistic, social, and developmental factors (e.g. Payne 1980; Chambers 1992; Kerswill 1996; Hazen 2001; Sankoff 2004; Nycz 2013; Walker 2014). Studies of the structural constraints on new dialect acquisition reveal how linguistic competence may change with exposure to new input. Investigating how these new forms vary stylistically, meanwhile, can reveal the extent to which individuals learn and use new socio-indexical links in adulthood, and thus how communicative competence (Hymes 1972) more broadly can change.

This talk examines topic-based stylistic variation in the (oh), (o), (aw), and (ay) word classes among 7 native speakers of Canadian English (CE) living in the United States: five in New York City, and two in Washington, D.C. For each speaker, automatically extracted vowel measurements (via FAVE; Rosenfelder et al 2011) were hand-corrected and coded for topic and stance; where appropriate, mixed effects linear regression models were built for each word class to determine whether speakers a) showed evidence of shifting towards a new regional norm and b) varied their realization of this variable according to which place they were talking about (Canada or the U.S.) and the kind of stance expressed about that place. Results indicate that all speakers show some evidence of gradient shift towards U.S. norms for all four vowels, though only (aw) – whose raised variants before voiceless segments are a stereotype of Canadian English - shows consistent style shifting: speakers realize their pre voiceless (aw) vowels with higher (i.e., more Canadian-like) nuclei when expressing ambivalence about or distance from the U.S., and lower nuclei when expressing closeness to or positive affect about the U.S. Moreover, only the Canadians in New York show limited topic- and stance- based shift in (oh), whose raised variants are a stereotype of New York City English: (oh)s are higher when expressing positive affect or closeness to the U.S. (and New York City specifically), and lower when expressing negate affect or distance. These results suggest that mobile speakers continue to exploit the socio-indexical links in their native dialect while also learning and using new links in their adopted dialect – but only if those links are sufficiently socially salient.