Houston English

My colleague Nancy Niedzielski and some of her students have started work on the Houston Urban English Survey and some preliminary results were presented at our grad workshop last weekend. Andrew Pantos and Elizabeth Gentry gave presentations ontheir summer work with long-term (40+y.o) and teenagers respectively. They’d earlier presented their work at NWAV.
One very interesting thing that came out of the work was in relation to /ai/ monophthongisation. It’s one of the sibboleths of “Southern” speech but the environments for monophthongisation are different in different area. InTexas it usually occurs in open monosyllables (“my” is [maː] or [mæː]) and before voiced stops (“ride” is [raːd]), but not before voiceless stops (so “night” is [najt], not *[naːt]).  However, the teenagers in Elizabeth’s study didn’t monophthongise, and explicitly associated it with “Southern” and/or “older” speech. This was the case even when their parents do monophthongise.

From the point of view of characterising sound change, this is really interesting. Would we want to characterise this as a reversal in sound change? Or is it a change in rule application? That is, speakers have a rule that monophthongises /ai/ to [a:] or [æː] in some environments, but in the kids they don’t apply that rule on the model of more prestigious “northern” or “western” dialects?


5 responses to “Houston English

  1. Was there any distinction (by older speakers) in monophthongization before a flapped /t/ and /d/? Is there a possibility that the alternation is not conditioned by the following C but by the quality of the /ai/ diphthong?

  2. You’re thinking of the writer/rider/righter sort of thing? I’m not sure, I’ll ask.

    It’s well documented elsewhere that if the diphthong stays, it stays before voiceless stops. But presumably the quality of the diphthong is affected by the following consonant anyway (cf. monophthongs which are much longer before voiced stops).

  3. Surely you’d want to call it inter-dialectal borrowing, and as such neither reversal of a sound shift nor a change in an existing rule? I suppose in principle any sound change can reverse as long as it hasn’t led to mergers, but we can surely assume that this particular diphthongisation would not have taken place if it weren’t to these teenagers listening regularly to people who already use the diphthongal pronunciation (TV, radio, people who moved in from the north, etc.)

  4. I asked Andrew and Elizabeth and they don’t have data on that, but it’s in the works.

    But Lameen, what’s being borrowed? The lexical items or the (lack of) rule?

  5. The clearest test for whether they’re applying a rule or not that I can think of offhand would be whether they use the diphthongal pronunciation for words restricted to Southern dialects and not found in dialects that have retained the diphthong. Do they? (Are there any?)

    But I guess this ties in to a broader issue of phonology in situations where people are using more than one dialect. Obviously Midwesterners have a phonemic /r/ in core, and Brits don’t; but do New Yorkers have a phonemic /r/ that they normally drop, a phonemic /:/ that they sometimes pronounce [r], or what? Or do they simply have two phonological entries for the same lexical item?

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