Does Geographic Relocation Induce the Loss of Features from a Single Speaker’s Native Dialect?
Over the past few years, academics such as Sankoff and Blondeau (2007) and Harrington (2006) have exhibited a marked interest in dialect variation and language change across the lifespan. Though it was acknowledged that individuals could temporarily adapt their language to accommodate to other interlocutors, permanent changes to their underlying grammar were previously thought impossible. What has come to light, however, is that as individuals we have been given increasing opportunities to be much more mobile; and as a result, our language has too. The aim of this study is to provide evidence for the claim that social and geographical mobility (in this case geographical) can cause an individual’s language to change. It was motivated by the belief that language cannot change after an individual has surpassed the critical period. The study focuses on one individual speaker in particular: the musician Ringo Starr. The speaker in question lived in Liverpool until the age of 40, before relocating to America. The data for this investigation were sourced from a number of TV and Radio interviews with Starr, taken from 20 years prior to and 20 years after his geographic relocation. In both cases, the interlocutors were speakers of British and American English varieties. The study examines three stable variables that exist in the speaker’s native dialect of Liverpool English — realisation of /t/ to /r/, non-rhoticity, and NURSE ~ SQUARE merger — and investigates whether these remain stable features, are lost completely, or are altered by geographical relocation. The study found that, although the speaker did not lose any features of his native dialect completely, the salience of the variables was affected by the move to the US. The speaker reduced his levels of /t/ to /r/ realisation and became more rhotic in certain phonological and lexical contexts. He retained the NURSE ~ SQUARE merger, but the results showed that he increased his frequency of F1 of NURSE vowels, articulating them slightly lower. Starr never acquired new, American variables such as the alveolar flap. What these results demonstrate is that an individual is capable of changing their language after the supposed “critical period”; it shows that not all change can be attributed to temporary accommodation. Dialect contact with varieties of American English appears to have resulted in some changes to Starr’s grammar.
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