Sixty Years of Speech: A Study of Language Change in Adulthood

  • Bei Qing Cham Department of English Language and Literature Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences National University of Singapore
Keywords: lifespan change, intraspeaker variation, sociophonetics, Received Pronunciation

Abstract


Research on language change has been complicated and hindered by the problem of obtaining quality data. In many cases, the large volume of time required to collect recorded speech at different intervals, as necessary in lifespan studies, is prohibitive. Researchers further risk having participants drop out, leading to a limited pool of data. One way to avoid this is to use recordings available in the public domain that have been recorded for other purposes. The BBC broadcaster Sir David Attenborough is one of the few people who have had occasion to be recorded regularly over a great span of their lives. In this study, a selection of clips from wildlife documentaries that he has narrated furnishes the data for a glimpse into the possibilities of language change in adulthood. Received Pronunciation, the accent that Attenborough commands, is in the spotlight in this study. Two features of speech, namely, the presence and degree of t-glottalisation and the TRAP/STRUT vowel distinction, are examined in Attenborough’s speech against a background of known changes in the general usage of Received Pronunciation. The aim of the study is thus to see if language change occurs within the speech of an adult individual, particularly one whose speech is almost iconic. His narration from the 1960s is compared with narrations from the 1980s and 2000s in a dataset spanning nearly 60 years with the aim of discerning any trajectories of change. Some patterns in his formant values for several vowels across the three year groups are also discussed to provide an idea of what sort of changes can occur in the course of nearly 60 years. The study ultimately finds limited change in level of t-glottaling and only a slight movement of his TRAP/STRUT vowels towards each other between the narrations of the 1960s and the 1980s, with no perceptible change thereafter. The changes in community use of Received Pronunciation seem to affect him little. In terms of the overall vowel space, the trend seems to be towards a centering of most of the vowels, particularly the front vowels. Some plausible explanations for the limited amount of change are discussed in the article, which include Attenborough being seen as a steward of the accent as well as its utility to him in his position as a renowned broadcaster. The article also brings up the need for more research into the interface of gerontology and sociolinguistics, as the quite pronounced centering of the vowels may suggest natural age-related pronunciation effects.

References

Bauer, L. 1985. Tracing phonetic change in the received pronunciation of British English. Journal of Phonetics 13(1):61–81.
Boersma, Paul, and David Weenink. 2014. Praat: Doing phonetics by computer [Computer program, Version 5.4.02]. Accessed 15 September 2014, URL http://www.praat.org/
Brugman, Hennie, and Albert Russel. 2004. Annotating multimedia/ multi-modal resources with ELAN. In Proceedings of LREC 2004, Fourth International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation, ed. M. T. Lino, M. F. Xavier, F. Ferreira, R. Costa, and R. Silva, 2065–2068. Paris: European Language Resources Association.
Cameron, Deborah. 2003. Gender issues in language change. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 23:187–201.
Fabricius, Anne H. 2007. Variation and change in the TRAP and STRUT vowels of RP: A real time comparison of five acoustic data sets. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 37(3):293–320.
Fruehwald, Josef. 2011. handCoder [Praat script]. Accessed 30 September 2014, URL http://val-systems.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/handcoder-praat-script.html
Gimson, A.C. 1966. An Introduction to the Pronunciation of English. London: Edward Arnold.
Harrington, Jonathan, Sallyanne Palethorpe, and Catherine Watson. 2000. Monophthongal vowel changes in Received Pronunciation: An acoustic analysis of the Queen’s Christmas broadcasts. Journal of the International Phonetic Association 30(1-2):63–78.
Hoit, Jeanette D., and Thomas J. Hixon. 1987. Age and speech breathing. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 30(3):351–366.
Johnson, Daniel E. 2014. Rbrul [R script, Version 2.25]. Accessed 15 October 2014, URL http://www.danielezrajohnson.com/rbrul.html
Labov, William. 2006 [1966]. The Social Stratification of English in New York City. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
R Core Team. 2014. R: A language and environment for statistical computing [Computer software]. Accessed 15 October, URL http://www.R-project.org/
Rosenfelder, Ingrid, Joe Fruehwald, Keelan Evanini, and Jiahong Yuan. 2011. FAVE (Forced Alignment and Vowel Extraction) [Computer program suite]. Accessed 1 October, URL http://fave.ling.upenn.edu
Sankoff, Gillian. 2004. Adolescents, young adults and the critical period: Two case studies from ‘Seven Up’. In Sociolinguistic Variation: Critical Reflections, ed. C. Fought, 121–139. New York: Oxford University Press.
Shapp, Allison, Nathan LaFave, and John Victor Singler. 2014. Ginsburg v. Ginsburg: A longitudinal study of regional features in a Supreme Court Justice’s speech. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 20(2):149–158.
Wagner, Suzanne E. 2012. Age grading in sociolinguistic theory. Language and Linguistics Compass 6(6):371–382.
How to Cite
Cham, B. Q. (1). Sixty Years of Speech: A Study of Language Change in Adulthood. Lifespans and Styles, 2(1), 17-26. https://doi.org/10.2218/ls.v2i1.2016.1427
Section
Articles