Monday 24 December 2012


Season's Greetings to all our readers.

We look forward to your continued interest in 2013.

Best wishes from the Linguistics Research Digest team.

Friday 14 December 2012

Say it like you mean it

If you've ever heard someone talk to a young child, or have done it yourself, you've probably noticed that it's quite different from how adults talk to other adults. Research comparing talk directed to infants with talk directed to adults has consistently borne this out. In addition to using features such as repetition and “simple” sentences in infant directed talk (or IDS), ‘prosodic’ features such as rhythm, pitch, intonation and stress also vary significantly, and to beneficial effect. It appears that young children not only prefer listening to IDS, but they also use its prosodic features in language learning. IDS stress patterns, for instance, help focus children’s attention on target words, as well as identifying grammatical class, and understanding word boundaries. Features of IDS prosody such as intonation and stress therefore appear to be important for helping young children to acquire lexical, morphological and syntactic information.

Deborah Herold,  Lynne Nygaard and Laura Namy have now found that adults also use prosody to help children understand the meanings of words.  They investigated the use of prosodic cues in the speech of fourteen, native English-speaking mothers interacting with their individual children. The average age of the children was 23 months. The researchers investigated six words with opposite meanings: happy/sad, hot/cold, big/small, tall/short, yummy/yucky, and strong/weak. Each pair was illustrated by images that would be easily recognisable to young children such as, for big/small, a big flower and a small flower and accompanying sentences which included the word being investigated, such as “look at the big one/look at the small one”. The mothers were asked to read and talk about the “picture book” with their children, and to make sure that they read each sentence at least once during the session. The mothers’ speech was then compared with earlier recordings where the mothers had produced each of the sentences as if it was directed to an adult. The two sets of recordings thus yielded talk directed to infants and talk directed to adults, for comparison, and the participants were unaware of the real aim of the study.

Herold, Nygaard and Namy found that mothers systematically varied prosodic cues such as loudness and duration in order to differentiate the meanings of the pairs of words. Adjectives such as happy, tall and strong were all produced more loudly than their opposites (sad, short and weak) (though the differences were negligible for the three remaining pairs of words). Happy, hot, big, short, yucky and weak were all produced with shorter duration than their opposites. Interestingly, happy was the only member of a pair to feature both greater loudness and shorter duration, which the researchers hypothesise may have something to do with the communication of positive emotion. If so, this is a new and significant finding: previous studies have shown that prosody can communicate something about the emotion of the speaker, but this research suggests that features of IDS prosody can provide  information about positive and negative meanings, even when the speaker is not actively experiencing those emotions themselves.

These findings are the first to show that when they are directing their talk to children, speakers use consistent and reliable prosodic cues to mark different word meanings. They add to a growing body of work on the significance of prosody in first language acquisition.
Herold, Deborah S., Nygaard, Lynne C. and Namy, Laura L. (2012) Say it like you mean it: mothers’use of prosody to convey word meaning. Language and Speech 55: 423-436.

doi 10.1177/0023830911422212

This summary was written by Ishtla Singh

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Is ‘Star Wars’ pronounced the same in Dorset as in New York?

Dorset or Dawset? Losing the /r/ sound in the southwest of England.

How do you pronounce ‘Star Wars’?  Can you hear the /r/ in either or both words?  If you can, you are using what linguists call ‘non-prevocalic /r/’. This refers to the presence of the /r/ sound in ‘non-prevocalic environments’, that is places in a word where there is no following vowel sound.  For example, ‘Star Wars’ could be pronounced sta(Ø) wa(Ø)with no /r/ sound (i.e non-prevocalic /r/ is absent or the phrase is ‘non-rhotic’) or star wars with the /r/ sound (i.e non-prevocalic /r/ is present or the phrase is ‘rhotic’).

In England, except for a small area of Lancashire and the southwest of England, all accents of English are described as non-rhotic and in some dialects rhoticity is changing.  For example, recent studies in the southwest of England suggest that rhoticity is in decline, whereas in the USA, in New York, it seems that the opposite process is occurring and former non-rhotic accents are becoming rhotic.

Caroline Piercy was interested in this phenomenon in the dialect of Dorset, southwest England.  She focused her study on four different age groups of speakers with equal numbers of male and female speakers in each.  Her results showed a decline in the use of non-prevocalic /r/ over time, with average rhoticity of her speakers being 29%.  The Survey of English Dialects in 1967 found rhoticity in the Dorset dialect to be 97%, so there has been a marked change over time.  Piercy also discovered that there was a strong correlation of age and rhoticity, with the youngest group of speakers not using non-prevocalic /r/ at all, signifying that this linguistic change from rhotic to non-rhotic is now complete in the Dorset dialect.

Piercy considered different linguistic scenarios where the /r/ could or could not be pronounced.  For example, she focused on the type of vowel preceding some instances of non-prevocalic /r/ and found that a word like ‘nurse’,  with a stressed vowel before the non-prevocalic /r/ was the most likely situation for the /r/ to occur.  Preceding vowels that were stressed like this were shown to favour rhoticity more than those that were unstressed, so that the /r/ was less likely to be pronounced in words like ‘your’ or ‘were’ for example. 

When lexical frequency was taken into account, Piercy found that frequently used words were less likely to be rhotic – so that a non-prevocalic /r/ in a more common word is less likely to be pronounced than one in a less common word.  Therefore, in Dorset, it seems that the more frequent words are leading the change in rhoticity as more people drop the non-prevocalic /r/ from their speech.  However, the study in New York has found that there it is the less common words that are leading the sound change towards rhoticity, as non-prevocalic /r/ becomes more prevalent.  Interestingly and perhaps due to this fact, in both studies more frequently used words displayed less rhoticity.  One explanation for this could be that it is easier to lose a sound from speech than to gain one.  So, in words which are used more frequently, the /r/ sound is lost more quickly.  Conversely, in less frequent, ‘rare’ words it is easier for the non-prevocalic /r/ to remain or even to become more stressed, as is the case in New York. 

Overall, Piercy’s study suggests that linguistic factors, which may apply across all varieties of English, could have universal effects in the use of non-prevocalic /r/.  It is interesting to reflect on the fact that, although two dialects may be thousands of miles apart, they can still be subject to the same linguistic forces…which brings us back to Star Wars!
Piercy, C. (2012). A Transatlantic Cross-Dialectal Comparison of Non-Prevocalic /r/. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, Vol.18/2: 76-86.

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Linguistic cleanliness – will we ever accept variation and change?

How do you react when you hear people saying innit or like or how about when you see signs such as potato’s or tomatoe’s (see our previous post on the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’) in shop displays? For many people, these uses of language provoke emotional and, often, angry responses because they are viewed as ‘bad’ language and a threat to the stability of standard English.

Kate Burridge, a researcher and Professor of Linguistics, has taken a look at the attitudes and activities of ordinary people as reflected in letters to newspapers, listener comments on radio and email responses to her own comments made about language in various broadcasts. She states that linguistic purists tend to make a very clear distinction between what they see as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ in language – in other words, what is desirable or undesirable. There are two aspects to this distinction; the first is that purists tend to want to retain the language in its perceived traditional form and they therefore resist language change and the second is that they want to rid the language of what they consider to be ‘unwanted elements’, including foreign influences. Burridge likens linguistic purism to dealing with taboo practices generally – ‘the human struggle to control unruly nature’.

Some of the examples that Burridge provides are quite alarming. After her explanation of the etymology of the term ‘GORDON BENNETT’ on TV, one viewer complained that the explanation was a ‘disgrace’ and followed the comment with ‘I hope that you die (pleasantly) before me: so that I can piss on your grave’. Another took offence at Burridge’s suggestion that the use of the subjunctive was a relic of an older system and responded with, ‘The only reason it isn’t used is that people are ignorant. Grammar hasn’t been taught in school for over 30 years and now our language is suffering. It is becoming a sort of Pigeon (sic) English’. Another referred to the ‘rape of the English language’ as ‘escalating out of control’ and ‘indulged in by people of all ages’. As Burridge notes, these are clearly passionate and confident responses, indicating that language matters to a lot of people.

Burridge also notes that many extracts that she has examined express concern over the ‘Americanization’ of English, especially as it pertains to New Zealand and Australian English, where the topic is hotly debated. She refers to newspaper headlines such as ‘Facing an American Invasion’ and to one writer who considers that English is deteriorating into a ‘kind of abbreviated American juvenile dialect’.

Why, then, do people hold such strong views about language use? The view held by Burridge, and indeed most linguists, is that such lay concerns about language use are not usually based on genuine linguistic worries but are reflections of deeper and more general social concerns. She suggests that the opposition to American English is more to do with linguistic insecurity in the face of a cultural, political and economic superpower and that somehow American English poses a threat to authentic ‘downunder English’ and perhaps to Australian and New Zealand cultural identity. Similarly, links are often made between ‘bad language’ and ‘bad behaviour’ and there is often an (unjustified) idea promoted that if a person has no regard for the nice points of grammar, then that person will probably have no regard for the law. With such deeply embedded attitudes towards language use, it is perhaps no wonder that we find such emotionally charged responses.

What, though, are the views of younger people who have grown up with awareness of linguistic variation and change? Schoolchildren are taught about standard and non-standard uses and in the media there is a wide array of regional accents used by presenters and broadcasters. E-communication is also playing a role in promoting colloquial and nonstandard language to the point where it may be achieving a new kind of respectability within society. We might think that these new attitudes could signal the end of linguistic purism but according to a survey conducted by Burridge among first year university linguistics students, the results revealed that there was still an overwhelming intolerance towards language change, especially when it came to American English influence. Of the 71 students interviewed, 81% expressed concern that the use of American elements was detrimental to Australian English.

It seems then that language attitudes are very deeply entrenched and that new attitudes and practices will take much longer to change, if they ever will. As Burridge concludes, the ‘definition of ‘dirt’ might change over the years, but the desire to clean up remains the same’.
Burridge, K. (2010). Linguistic cleanliness is next to godliness: taboo and purism. English Today 102, Vol. 26/2: 3-13.

doi: 10.1017/S0266078410000027

This summary was written by Sue Fox