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Near-mergers and the suspension of phonemic contrast

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008

William Labov
University of Pennsylvania
Mark Karen
University of Pennsylvania
Corey Miller
University of Pennsylvania


In 1972, Labov, Yaeger, and Steiner reported a series of “near-mergers” that have since proved to be difficult to assimilate to the standard conception of the phoneme and that challenged our current understanding of how language production is related to perception and learning (Labov, Yaeger, & Steiner, 1972). In these situations, speakers consistently reported that two classes of sounds were “the same,” yet consistently differentiated them in production. Labov (1975a) suggested that this phenomenon was the explanation for two “falsely reported mergers” in the history of English, where word classes were said to have merged and afterward separated. It appears that sound change may bring two phonemes into such close approximation that semantic contrast between them is suspended for native speakers of the dialect, without necessarily leading to merger. This article reports on further observations of near-mergers, which confirm their implications for both synchronic and diachronic issues, and presents the results of experiments that show how phonemic contrast is suspended for an entire community.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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