Sound change and social meaning: the perception and production of phonetic change in York, Northern England
This thesis investigates the relationship between social meaning and linguistic change. An important observation regarding spoken languages is that they are constantly changing: the way we speak differs from generation to generation. A second important observation is that spoken utterances convey social as well as denotational meaning: the way we speak communicates something about who we are. How, if at all, are these two characteristics of spoken languages related? Many sociolinguistic studies have argued that the social meaning of linguistic features is central to explaining the spread of linguistic innovations. A novel form might be heard as more prestigious than the older form, or it may become associated with specific social stereotypes relevant to the community in which the change occurs. It is argued that this association between a linguistic variant and social meaning leads speakers to adopt or reject the innovation, inhibiting or facilitating the spread of the change. In contrast, a number of scholars have argued that social meaning is epiphenomenal to many linguistic changes, which are instead driven by an automatic process of convergence in face-to-face interaction. The issue that such arguments raise is that many studies proposing a role of social meaning in the spread of linguistic innovations rely on production data as their primary source of evidence. Observing the variable adoption of innovations across different groups of speakers (e.g. by gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status), a researcher might draw on their knowledge of the social history of the community under study to infer the role of social meaning in that change. In many cases, the observed patterns of could equally be explained by the social structure of the community under study, which constrains who speaks to whom. Are linguistic changes facilitated and inhibited by social meaning? Or is it rather the case that social meaning arises as a consequence of linguistic change, without necessarily influencing the change itself? This thesis explores these questions through a study of vocalic change in York, Northern England, focusing on the fronting and diphthongization of the tense back vowels /u/ and /o/. It presents a systematic comparison of the social meanings listeners assign to innovations (captured using perceptual methods), their social attitudes with regard to those meanings (captured through sociolinguistic interviews), and their use of those forms in production (captured through acoustic analysis). It is argued that evidence of a consistent relationship between these factors would support the proposal that social meaning plays a role in linguistic change. The results of this combined analysis of sociolinguistic perception, social attitudes and speech production provide clear evidence of diachronic /u/ and /o/ fronting in this community, and show that variation in these two vowels is associated with a range of social meanings in perception. These meanings are underpinned by the notion of ‘Broad Yorkshire’ speech, a socially-recognized speech register linked to notions of authentic local identity and social class. Monophthongal /o/, diphthongal /u/, and back variants of both vowels are shown to be associated with this register, implying that a speaker who adopts an innovative form will likely be heard as less ‘Broad’. However, there is no clear evidence that speakers’ attitudes toward regional identity or social class have any influence on their adoption of innovations, nor that that their ability to recognise the social meaning of fronting in perception is related to their production behaviour. The fronting of /u/ is spreading in a socially-uniform manner in production, unaffected by any social factor tested except for age. The fronting of /o/ is conditioned by social network structure — speakers with more diverse social networks are more likely to adopt the innovative form, while speakers with closer social ties to York are more likely to retain a back variant. These findings demonstrate that York speakers hear back forms of /u/ and /o/ as more ‘local’ and ‘working class’ than fronter realizations, and express strong attitudes toward the values and practices associated with regional identity and social class. However, these factors do not appear to influence their adoption of linguistic innovations in any straightforward manner, contrasting the predictions of an account of linguistic change where social meaning plays a central role in facilitating or inhibiting the propagation of linguistic innovations. Based on these results, the thesis argues that many linguistic changes may spread through the production patterns of a speech community without the direct influence of social meaning, and advocates for the combined analysis of sociolinguistic perception, social attitudes and speech production in future work.
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