Tuesday, 8 October 2013

R you an Arsenal supporter?

Ahsenal or Arsenal? 

Did you know that being a football fan can affect your pronunciation? This is what Jessica Love and Abby Walker discovered from their interviews with fans of English Premier League and American football.

They interviewed 20 male soccer fans at a pub in Columbus Ohio showing live screenings of English soccer matches. During the first part of the interview they asked open ended questions such as  ‘please share a happy memory about your favourite team’; in the second half of the interview they asked participants to read aloud and briefly comment on specific English and American football terms such as Arsenal or Blackburn Rovers, Pittsburgh Steelers or Chicago Bears. Nine of the participants spoke standard British English, had been born and raised in England and had been in the US for at least two years. The other eleven participants had been born and raised in the US and had all been exposed to British English either through having British friends or colleagues or by regularly watching broadcasts of English Premier League football. Most of the 20 participants were fans of both English and American football.

The researchers focused on one of the most striking differences between British and American standard English – the pronunciation of /r/ in words like cart or, more importantly here, in the first syllable of Arsenal or the last syllable of Pittsburgh. The interviews yielded 2369 words such as this, where speakers of standard American English, but not speakers of Standard British English, would be more likely to pronounce an /r/. Importantly, although we tend to think of ‘r’ as either present or absent, fine-grained phonetic analysis shows that the degree of constriction that produces /r/ is actually a continuous measure. This allowed the researchers to measure meaningful degrees of constriction resulting in pronunciations that were more or less /r/ like, even though listeners may not easily detect the differences.

As you might expect, the biggest effect on whether an /r/ was pronounced was nationality: the American speakers produced more /r/ like pronunciations overall. However, all speakers, whether or not they were American, produced more /r/ like pronunciations when they were talking about American football than when they were talking about English Premier League. In other words, they
shifted towards the dialect they associated with the sport.

More detailed statistical analysis showed that American speakers shifted only in the second part of the interview, when they were reading aloud and briefly commenting on a specific sports-related term. The English speakers shifted more systematically, in both parts of the interview. Perhaps this simply reflects exposure to the dialects: the English speakers were currently living in the US, and it was American speakers with the most exposure to British English who had the largest shift when talking about English football.

However, Love and Walker argue that identity may be a further relevant factor. They claim that their participants were emotionally invested in the sports teams they follow: being an Arsenal Gunner or an Ohio State Buckeye, they say, is part of a sports’ fan’s identity, just like gender, ethnicity or nationality. Perhaps this accounts for the finding that the British speakers who were fans of both American and English football produced more /r/like pronunciations overall and had the largest shifts between less/r/like and more /r/like pronunciations: in other words, they were changing identities when they talked about American football or English football, along with changing their pronunciation of /r/. One speaker who was a staunch fan of the Gunners but not of any American football team did not shift his pronunciation of /r/ at all.

The researchers point out that to test whether identity as a sports fan is really relevant, we would need to interview people about a different topic. Would a conversation about the British Monarchy, they ask, be as effective in eliciting a shift towards British English as a conversation about a favourite Premier League soccer team?


Love, Jessica and Walker, Abby (2012) Football versus football: Effect of topic on /r/ realization in American and English sports fans. Language and Speech. Prepublished 11 September 2012.

doi 10.1177/0023830912453132

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

1 comment:

  1. I tend to use more monophthongs (Minnesota/east Dakota style) when I talk about hockey or North Dakota than in the rest of my life.