Benjamin Torbert

Duke University and NC State University


Salience Measurements of Southern Vowels

Not many studies have attempted to empirically measure the salience of various linguistic variables. Though Sociolinguists can often intuit what features tip listeners off about the region or ethnicity of a given speaker, there is not a great deal of quantitative support in the literature for judging which features are considered salient by the common listener. To find out whether fronted /o/ is a perceptual marker indicating to listeners that a speaker is from the South, and whether it is a marker of ethnicity, I conducted two perception experiments in which speakers from various parts of the Eastern US, some who back /o/ and some who front /o/, were played for a group of undergraduates at North Carolina State University. The frames were very short, so as to isolate /o/ as much as possible while still preserving recognizable speech. The participants were asked to rate the speakers on a scale of one to five from "most Southern" to "least Southern," and to guess the ethnicity of the speakers. Combining methodologies of Graff, Labov and Harris (1986), Gooskens (1997) and Thomas and Reaser (2002), I included unmodified, monotonized and low pass filtered tokens (to eliminate F0 variation and segmental information, respectively) in order to better isolate the /o/ variable, in both prevoiced and prevoiceless environments. Among participants surveyed, fronted /o/ was not salient for determining region, but was salient for determining ethnicity.

I then repeated the experiment with /ai/ in pre-voiceless contexts. Unsurprisingly, unglided /ai/ proved salient for determining Southern-ness to the listeners, but was not salient for ethnicity.

By the time of LAVIS in 2004, I will have completed similar perceptions test on most of the Southern vowel system; lowered /e/ and lowered /i/ will be treated next. This paper may serve as a springboard towards a detailed study of the salience of various vowel variations characteristic of both White and African American varieties in the South.

Gooskens, Charlotte. 1997. On the Role of Prosodic and Verbal Information in the Perception of Dutch and English Language
    Varieties. Doctoral Dissertation. Catholic University of Nijmegen.
Graff, David, William Labov and Wendell A. Harris. 1986. Testing Listeners' Reactions to Phonological Markers of Ethnic Identity: a
    New Method for Sociolinguistic Research. Diversity and Diachrony, David Sankoff, ed. John Benjamins: Amsterdam.
Thomas, Erik. 2001. An Acoustic Analysis of Vowel Variation in New World English. PADS 85. Duke University Press:
    Durham, NC.
Thomas, Erik, and Jeff Reaser. 2002. Perceptual cues used for ethnic labeling of Hyde County, NC, voices. Paper presented at
    ADS Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA, January 2002.