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New contrast acquisition: methodological issues and theoretical implications


This article presents data on the acquisition of the low back vowel contrast by native speakers of Canadian English who have moved as adults to the New York City region, examining how these speakers who natively possess a single low back vowel category have acquired the low back vowel distinction of the new ambient dialect. The speakers show remarkable first dialect stability with respect to their low back vowel system, even after many years of new dialect exposure: in minimal pair contexts, nearly all of the speakers continue to produce and perceive a single vowel category. However, in word list and conversational contexts, the majority of speakers exhibit a small but significant phonetic difference between words like cot and caught, reflecting the separation of these word classes in the new dialect to which they are exposed; moreover, the realization of these words shows frequency effects consistent with a lexically gradual divergence of the two vowels. These findings are discussed in terms of their implications for theories of phonological representation and change, as well as their methodological implications for the study of mergers- and splits-in-progress.

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English Language & Linguistics
  • ISSN: 1360-6743
  • EISSN: 1469-4379
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