Monday 4 March 2013

Accommodating across social borders

How do people on either side of the border accommodate to each other?

It’s easy to see that language changes, but how do the changes happen? One key way is when we’re talking face to face with someone who speaks a bit differently to us. Both people unconsciously accommodate to each other’s way of speaking. If this happens often and if many people make the same kinds of linguistic adjustments to their speech, the changes become more permanent.

One puzzle, though, is why only some aspects of language are changed during this accommodation process, while others remain the same. Dominic Watt, Carmen Llamas and Daniel Ezra Johnson propose that this depends on the social meanings attached to different linguistic features, and also whether or not the features are already involved in language change. They reached this conclusion after research in two towns on either side of the border between England and Scotland. People tend to speak differently on either side of the border, so they analysed the speech of a 25-year old Scottish woman interviewing people from Eyemouth, Scotland and Carlisle, England.  In each town she interviewed 2 older men aged between 65 and 82, and 4 younger male speakers aged between 11 and 13.

As expected, the interviewer adjusted her own way of speaking to match that of her interviewers. She did not do this, though, for features that were stable in the two communities. For example, the pronunciation of /r/ after a vowel in words such as cart or car is very frequent in Eyemouth but almost nonexistent in Carlisle, and this pronunciation does not seem to be changing in either town. Regardless of the way her interviewee spoke, the interviewer did not change the overall frequency with which she herself pronounced /r/ in these words. Watt, Llamas and Johnson suggest that features such as these are very noticeable, so they are less susceptible to unconscious accommodation.

The interviewer was more likely to adjust her speech when it came to traditional, declining, forms in the Scottish variety. For example, older speakers in Eyemouth pronounce from as ‘frae’ more often than younger speakers in the same town, and are more likely to use ken than know in phrases such as do you ken John? But rather than matching the frequency with which her interviewee used a particular form, the interviewer adjusted her language in line with her social assessments of her interlocutor. When she was talking to older Scottish men, she unconsciously increased her frequency of the traditional forms, to such an extent that she overshot the frequencies used by the older men themselves. When she was talking to younger Scottish men, the reverse process happened: she undershot their use of these forms, employing them less often than the young men did. The researchers comment that for these features the interviewer seems to be reacting not to actual usage of traditional forms but to her perception of their usage, which she associates with both Scotland and older speakers.

With forms that are currently undergoing change in both communities, the interviewer reacted towards the age of the person she was talking to. For example, older speakers in both the Scottish and the English speech communities tended to pronounce ‘r’ in words like very or brown as a tap, [ɾ]. They also vocalised /l/ in words such as feel or sold, pronouncing it as [o] or [u]. The interviewer’s speech reflected this: in both localities, she used more tapped /r/ and more vocalized /l/ with older speakers than younger ones. Again, though, the interviewer seemed to be responding to her perceptions of the national identities of the informants, as she used more [ɾ] with the older Scottish speakers than with the older English speakers, even though the older English men used more [ɾ] than the older Scottish men.

The researchers point out that although more research is needed, their findings reveal that the ability of linguistic forms to index social meanings is crucial to whether or not individual speakers accommodate to them. Consequently, understanding the social meaning of different forms is central to our understanding of the process and progress of linguistic change in the speech community more generally.
Dominic Watt, Carmen Llamas, and Daniel Ezra Johnson (2011) Levels of Linguistic Accommodation across a National Border. Journal of English Linguistics 38: 270-289.

doi 10.1177/0075424210373039

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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