Do you hear what I hear? Experimental measurement of the perceptual salience of acoustically manipulated vowel variants by Southern speakers in Memphis, TN


For the past twenty-five years, the results of most sociolinguistic research suggest productive changes serve as social indices, uniting and dividing groups of speakers by gender, class, ethnicity, and so forth (Eckert, 1988, 2000; Labov, 1994, 2000; Milroy, 1980; Trudgill, 1974). Although the reoccurrence of patterned use of linguistic variants by different groups within communities appears to suggest a paralinguistic social function for variation, the effect of low-level phonetic variation on the perception of social traits is still relatively unexplored. To this end, the current article is an attempt to study speakers' perceptual awareness and social evaluation of specific vowel variants using acoustically manipulated speech samples. For the study, guises of the same speaker were manipulated according to Southern and Northern regional shifts to determine whether such differences function as perceptual cues for listeners. Although experimental in design, this study provides a method of measuring speakers' sensitivity to slight changes in formant position and attempts to determine whether such subtle phonetic changes are indeed used as socially salient categorization cues by speakers. © 2004, Cambridge University Press. All rights reserved.

Publication Title

Language Variation and Change