Black Country English in the Spotlight: A Stylistic Analysis of Variable Contrast between Phonemes in an Urban Regiolect of British English
When examining the COT /CAUGHT merger in central Pennsylvania, Labov (1994) uncovered a stylistic phenomenon, known as the “ Bill Peters Effect” , whereby speakers heavily differentiate between /ɑ/ and /ɔː/ in spontaneous speech, but converge the two lexical sets into a near-merger situation during controlled tests comprising isolated minimal pairs. Whilst it is interesting to discover that a speaker or a community of speakers may exhibit stylistic preferences for merging two variants in particular speech contexts, it is unclear as to what precisely drives this intraspeaker and interspeaker variation. By examining the distinctive Black Country variety of English (BCE) (Clark and Asprey 2013), this paper aims to discover if the Bill Peters Effect is specific to the COT /CAUGHT merger in North American Englishes (Drysdale 1959, Labov 1994, Boberg 2001, Majors 2005, Hall-Lew 2013) or whether it can be observed in merging situations between phonemes in other dialects of English. A study was conducted with 14 native BCE speakers in order to examine in which speech contexts individual speakers distinctly alternate between the FOOT /STRUT and PRICE /CHOICE lexical sets and produce merged variants. The normalised F1 distances between each speaker’s realisation of FOOT /STRUT and PRICE /CHOICE across three different speech conditions were collected and analysed. The results show that BCE speakers show a stronger preference for merging the lexical sets in a controlled wordlist task, where lexical sets are elicited in isolation, than in less formal spontaneous speech, producing the opposite effect to Labov’s Bill Peters Effect.
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