Published: April 17, 2019

What happens to speakers with Indiana accents when they move to Colorado?

By Timothy Meier
Course: Language Sound Structures (Ling 3100)
Advisor: Evan Coles-Harris
LURA 2019

You have an accent. Regardless of where you grew up and learned to talk, you speak a dialect. Your accent may not be as conspicuous or as stigmatized as some, but we all have specific pronunciations for everything we say. Accents are not fixed, though; our dialects can change over time. If someone moves to a different region, their pronunciation of certain sounds may start to conform to the dialect of that new area. This phenomenon is called phonological accommodation.

In my Language Sound Structures class in the spring of 2018, I studied phonological accommodation in my own speech. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, and moved to northern Colorado in 2012 after graduating from high school. Now I know it may not seem like the residents of the Midwest and of Colorado have “accents,” let alone different ones, but we do. Two particular sounds that are distinct in pronunciation between the Midland dialect (where I grew up) and the Western dialect (Colorado) are the vowels /oʊ/ (the sound in oh or boat) and /ʌ/ (the sound in uh or chuck). I wanted to see how my accent has changed since moving to Colorado.

My prediction was that my pronunciation of /oʊ/ and /ʌ/ would be somewhere between the Midland and Western dialects. I thought my speech would have adjusted a bit in that time but not so fully as to be indistinguishable from a Western accent.

To study vowels, phoneticians look at things called formants. When humans speak, we produce complex sound waves containing many different frequencies; formants are essentially the loudest frequencies in a complex wave. The first formant (F1) of a vowel tells us how high or low our tongue is in our mouths when we produce a vowel, and the second formant (F2) tells us how far front or back our tongue is in our mouths.

For my study, the primary formant of interest was F2 because, according to Labov, Ash, and Boberg’s (2008) The Atlas of North American English (ANAE), Midland speakers typically “front” their /oʊ/ and /ʌ/ vowels quite strongly; that is, they produce these vowels with the tongue farther forward in the mouth than do speakers of the Western dialect. So I could determine which dialect’s pronunciation I was closer to by comparing my F2 values with those provided in the ANAE.

In order to measure my vowel formants, I recorded myself reading two separate lists of fifty words each; one list contained words with /oʊ/ and the other list words with /ʌ/. I inserted the words into the carrier sentence “Say X again” in an effort to produce more natural speech during recording. Then I was able to use a computer program called Praat to measure the formants of these vowels in my speech (because formants are frequencies, they are measured in hertz [Hz], or cycles per second).

One other important aspect of my experimental design is that I took steps to avoid the effects of the observer’s paradox. According to the observer’s paradox, when test subjects know what they’re being tested for, they have a tendency to unintentionally behave differently than normal. Because of this, critical thinkers may understandably have qualms about my study since I knew exactly what I was looking for and what I was hypothesizing—it’s possible that I could front /oʊ/ and /ʌ/ as a result of being “observed,” even if I wouldn’t typically do so in my normal speech. In an effort to avoid this paradox, I recorded myself speaking before I had even decided what sounds to study (/oʊ/ and /ʌ/). My hope was that I would later be able to compare some sounds from these recordings with those in my word-list recordings and see if there were any notable discrepancies.

So what was the verdict? I was pleased to find that my observer’s paradox data agreed with my word-list data, which gave greater weight to the validity of my results. But I was surprised to find that my pronunciation of these two vowels had not only shifted—it had shifted dramatically! My data demonstrated quite thoroughly that I had lost my Midland fronting of these vowels; in fact, according to the ANAE, my production was even somewhat backed compared to average productions across dialects.

I think this is a fascinatingly clear example of phonological accommodation. This study could be furthered in all sorts of ways that could provide interesting insights into phonological accommodation patterns relating to different ages, sexes, amount of time immersed in a new dialect, and many other factors. It could also be furthered in ways that could improve our understanding of the pragmatics of interactions among speakers of different dialects and our understanding of why phonological accommodation takes place socially, psycholinguistically, etc. It could even be furthered to study phonological accommodation in speakers of non-native languages, which could in turn provide beneficial insights into second-language acquisition.

If my vowels could change so thoroughly in only six years, what other changes could occur in people’s speech? Have you moved to your current location from a different area? If so, your accent may have changed without you realizing it.

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