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Quantifying dialect similarity by comparison of the lexical distribution of phonemes

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Recent research has sought to quantify the relationships between dialects (e.g. Nerbonne et al. 1999, Nerbonne and Heeringa 2001, McMahon et al. 2007) by measuring phonetic similarity. As Wells (1982: 78-80) discusses, however, the phonetic realisation of phonemes is only one dimension on which varieties can differ. Another important dimension is the lexical distribution of phonemes, regardless of their phonetic realisations or underlying features. To give a well known example, varieties in the north of England share a similar lexical distribution of the phoneme /ʊ/ (in words such as bush, cut, put, rush) which marks them as different from varieties to the south (e.g. Cockney, which has /ʊ/ in bush and put but /ʌ/ in cut and rush), and from varieties further north (e.g. Scottish Standard English, which has /ʉ/ in bush and put and /ʌ/ in cut and rush). In this example, Cockney and Scottish Standard English have the same lexical distribution of phonemes despite differences in realisation and symbolisation, whilst northern Englishes have a different lexical distribution.

In this paper, I address the question of how we might quantify such structural relations, specifically with reference to varieties of English and Scots. A new method is proposed which compares lexical distributions of phonemes across strictly comparable data sets and which results in similarity scores (expressed in percentage terms) for each pair of varieties compared. The resultant similarity matrices can be used to construct visual representations, such as trees, networks and maps, which reveal the relationships, in terms of lexical distribution of phonemes, between the varieties considered. It is hoped that this method, which relies wholly upon the lexical distribution rather than the phonetic realisation of phonemes, will give us new insights into the relationships between varieties of English and Scots.

Nerbonne, J., Heeringa, W. and Kleiweg, P. (1999) “Edit Distance and Dialect Proximity”. In: David Sankoff and Joseph Kruskal (eds.) Time Warps, String Edits and Macromolecules: The Theory and Practice of Sequence Comparison. Stanford: CSLI Press, v-xv.

Nerbonne, J. and Heeringa, W. (2001) “Computational Comparison and Classification of Dialects”. In: Dialectologia et Geolinguistica 9, 69-83.

McMahon, A., Heggarty, P., McMahon, R. and Maguire, W. (2007) “The Sound Patterns of Englishes: Representing Phonetic Similarity”. English Language and Linguistics 11(1), 113-142.

Wells, J. (1982) Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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