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Accent of birth? Linking phonological variation to attitudes and identities on the Scottish/English border

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The ‘Accent and Identity on the Scottish-English Border’ project (AISEB) project (ESRC RES -062-23-0525) seeks to identify and explore the connections between three types of data elicited from inhabitants of four border towns (Gretna, Carlisle, Eyemouth and Berwick-upon-Tweed). The first type mixes impressionistic phonetic transcriptions and acoustic measurements of consonant and vowel variables in their speech which are known to vary in line with social and geographical factors. The second relates to the ways in which inhabitants of the border region categorise themselves and others living on either side of the border, and their attitudes towards these groupings and the labels used to denote them (Scottish, English, British, Northumbrian, Borderer, etc.). Interviewees are also asked about their language attitudes, and to specify particular features they associate with the different varieties of English spoken in the area. The third type of data derives from a series of perception experiments, in which listeners are exposed to speech stimuli manipulated so as to elicit judgments of the speaker’s nationality and demographic characteristics.

In this paper I focus specifically on /r/, which is mentioned by our informants as a key diagnostic feature of Scottish versus English speech more often than any other phonological variable. Patterns of phonetic variation and the presence or absence of /r/ in syllable codas are examined in detail in the speech of older and younger men and women in each of the four communities. These are then related to informants’ overtly expressed attitudes towards the local accent and the national groupings to which they can be said to belong. I consider these results in light of current explanations of historical sound change which foreground the role of language-internal factors, versus those which place the motivations and communicative needs of speakers first.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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