Valerie Fridland

University of Nevada, Reno

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The spread of the Cot/Caught Merger in the Speech of Memphians: An Ethnolinguistic Marker?

Recent research (DiPaolo 1990, 1995, Eckert 1988, Feagin 1986, 1987, 1993, Fridland 2000, 2001, Gorden 1997, Labov 1972, 1991, 1994, 1996, Labov, Ash and Boberg 1999) reveals that the Northern and Southern regions of the U.S. are distinguished by two separate and diverging shifts involving the whole vowel system and that a low-back vowel merger (the cot/caught merger) and the absence of any systemic rotation distinguishes the rest of the U.S. from the North and South. Interestingly, while the merger of the low-back vowels is widespread throughout the West, recent evidence (Feagin 1993, Labov, Ash and Boberg 1999) suggests it may be spreading into some areas of the South, a region which traditionally has maintained this distinction. Fridland (1998) noted the merger may be occurring among younger White speakers in Memphis, TN, but did not explore whether African-Americans in Memphis were showing any evidence of a Southern expansion of the merger. However, Fridland (2003) and Fridland (forthcoming) suggest that the vowel system of African-Americans and European-Americans is remarkably similar in terms of the spread of the Southern Vowel Shift and /ay/ monophthongization. Such findings would suggest that low-back vowels would show the same sort of patterning. The aim of this paper is twofold: First, the paper will examine if, in fact, the low back merger is evident in the speech of young White Memphians and, two, if the low back merger is evident in the speech of young Black Memphians. Linguistic and social conditioning of any incoming changes will be examined and compared in the two groups. Initial results suggest that African-Americans, regardless of degree of contact with the local White community, age or gender, appear to strongly maintain the distinction in the low back vowel classes. Given the similarity of the vowel system in terms of front and back vowel positioning and /ay/ monophthongization in the Memphis community, such results are surprising, particularly in light of earlier reports of the spread of the cot/caught merger into the young White Southern community. Thus, the paper will also explore the role of speakers’ orientation to the local and larger community in the spread of these features.

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