Acoustical Society of America - 161st Meeting Lay Language Papers
Perceived imitation of regional dialects
Sara C. Phillips - firstname.lastname@example.org
Cynthia G. Clopper
Department of Linguistics
The Ohio State University
1712 Neil Ave.
Columbus, OH 43210
Popular version of paper 5aSC2
Presented Friday morning, May 27, 2011
161st ASA Meeting, Seattle, Wash.
It has been well documented by experimental linguistic studies that talkers tend to spontaneously imitate one another during conversation. Many different aspects of their speech and mannerisms may converge. For instance, they may start to use similar gestures, match their speech rates, or imitate one another's pronunciation (ex. Giles et al. 1991).
In this study, we explored how one sociolinguistic factor, regional dialect, interacts with spontaneous phonetic imitation. We wanted to see if speakers imitate only idiosyncratic properties of the talker’s voice or if they imitate properties of the talker's dialect, too.
To answer this question, we asked participants to repeat words produced by talkers from the Northern and Midland dialects of American English. On the map below, the Northern dialect region is in red, and the Midland region is in green.
The most well known differences between these two dialects are in the pronunciation of certain vowels. For instance, Northern speakers might say the vowel in "block" so that it sounds more like the word "black", at least to speakers of other dialects. Midland speakers, on the other hand, pronounce the vowels in "caught" and "cot" identically, while the distinction is maintained by Northerners.
We recorded the participants in the word repetition task and then we played the recordings to listeners who performed an "AXB" task that provided ratings of perceived imitation. Listeners heard three pronunciations of the same word, labeled "A", "X", and "B", and were asked whether A or B sounded more like X.
You can hear an example of what the listeners heard by clicking on the sound files below.
Does pronunciation A or B sound most similar to, or like a better imitation of, X?
Pronunciations A and B were produced by the same speaker. B is her normal pronunciation of the word, while A is her repetition of X produced in the word repetition task. If you chose pronunciation A, then you perceived imitation of the original version, X.
Listeners were more likely to identify the repeated token as an imitation when comparing it to the original talker than to a talker from a different dialect. There was no such difference when the talker was switched with another speaker from the same dialect. This listener sensitivity to dialect mismatch suggests that the speakers in the word repetition task were imitating dialect, not just the individual talker.
The acoustic analysis, however, pointed to a somewhat different conclusion. It appears that speakers were imitating aspects of pronunciation that are not known to mark dialect, such as the duration of the vowel or final consonant of the word. In our experimental materials, the Northern talkers produced longer vowels and consonants than the Midland talkers. This difference may have resulted in the appearance of dialect imitation, even though participants were really only imitating idiosyncratic features of the talkers’ speech. If they were imitating dialect features, we would have expected to find effects of vowel pronunciation instead. While we did find weak evidence for vowel imitation, the effect was not significant.
Taken together, these results suggest that while speakers imitate characteristics of individual talkers’ speech, they do not necessarily imitate well-known dialect markers. It may be that our effect of dialect on imitation was due to peculiarities of our speakers rather than real differences between the Northern and Midland dialects.
Giles, H., Coupland, N., & Coupland, J. (1991). Accommodation theory: Communication, context, and consequence. In H. Giles, J. Coupland & N. Coupland (Eds.), Contexts of Accommodation (pp. 1-68).