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Who’s to Say? Exploring the Theory Behind How Word Pronunciations Change

On May 10th, University of Pennsylvania Professor Meredith Tamminga presented her new research in the field of linguistics. The question driving her research is: what kinds of people lead sound change? In other words, do certain people influence the way we pronounce words more than others? And if so, why?

In the field of linguistics, there is a general debate over whether sound “leaders” or sound “imitators” are more responsible for affecting how society pronounces words. In short, leaders are people so influential or magnetic that their speech mannerisms are copied by others over time. Imitators are people especially prone to mimicking how others speak, and thus, changes in pronunciation might more easily spread through them.

Tamminga’s research is dedicated to exploring these linguistic theories centering on “leaders” and “imitators,” primarily because she believes they rely on too many assumptions. That is to say, can research substantiate the theory that either sound leaders or imitators propagate “sound change?”

To answer this question, Tamminga ran two different linguistic experiments. The first was to determine whether or not sound leaders are responsible for changing how we pronounce words. In this study, she brought 40 white Philadelphian women aged 18 to 25 into a lab, and recorded thirty minutes of conversation between pairs drawn from the group. From these recordings, Tamminga noted how these women pronounced certain words.

Specifically, she tracked how they pronounced the words “face, price, tooth, down, goat, thought, and dress.” The first six words were chosen because their pronunciations have shifted measurably over time.The word “dress” served as the control, as, based on historical data, its pronunciation had remained stable for the past several decades.

Strangely, Tamminga found that women with more “advanced” pronunciations of certain words, were more likely to use the archaic pronunciations of other words. Which is to say, she found in this sample no evidence that sound change leaders exist because there was no one speaker who consistently used advanced pronunciations across the board.

In her next experiment, Tamminga tested whether or not sound imitators exist. To do this, she subjected 34 University of Pennsylvania students to a Long-VOT shadowing task (VOT stands for “voice onset time”). Each student was provided with a baseline pronunciation of a word, then exposed to a pre-recorded model talker who used a different pronunciation of the word. They then had to imitate the model talker. The extent to which these students imitated the model talker determined whether they were sound imitators.

In this case, there was some evidence that sound imitators exist. Certain students were much more likely to mimic the model talker, though most either mimicked them poorly or not at all. Interestingly, though Tamminga ran this experiment twice with a two week gap between each session, students were consistent in how they imitated the model talker. Revealing, perhaps, that if people are likely to mimic once, they will do so again in the future.

Tamminga concluded by saying that her research complicates the notion of there being sound “leaders” and sound “imitators.” While there are those who lead sound change in some respects, and others who imitate certain pronunciations more frequently, people are typically too complex to be categorized as either a sound “leader” or “imitator.” To truly understand the factors that lead to sound change in society, Tamminga notes that more research using larger sample sizes will be necessary in the future.

– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History

This page was last updated: May 15, 2017



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