Consonant Variation in Southern Speech

Lisa Lipani – llipani@uga.edu
Michael Olsen – michael.olsen25@uga.edu
Rachel Olsen – rmm75992@uga.edu
Department of Linguistics
University of Georgia
142 Gilbert Hall
Athens, Georgia 30602

Popular version of paper 4aSC19
Presented Thursday morning, December 5, 2019
178th ASA Meeting, San Diego, CA

We all recognize that people from different areas of the United States have different ways of talking, especially in how they pronounce their vowels. Think, for example, about stereotypical Bostonians who might “pahk the cah in Havahd Yahd”. The field of sociolinguistics studies speech sounds from different groups of people to establish and understand regional American dialects.

While there are decades of research on vowels, sociolinguists have recently begun to ask whether consonants such as p, b, t, d, k, and g also vary depending on where people are from or what social groups they belong to. These consonants, p, b, t, d, k, and g, are known as “stop consonants,” because the airflow “stops” due to a closure in your vocal tract. One acoustic characteristic of these consonants is voice onset time, the amount of time between the closure in the vocal tract and the start of vocal fold (also known as vocal cords) vibration. We wanted to know whether some groups of speakers, say men versus women or Texans versus other Southern speakers, pronounced their consonants differently than other groups. In order to investigate this, we used the Digital Archive of Southern Speech (DASS), which contains 367 hours of recordings made across the southeastern United States between 1970 and 1983, consisting of approximately two million words of Southern speech.

The original DASS researchers were mostly interested in differences in language based on the age of speakers and their geographic location. In the interviews, people were asked about specific words that might indicate their dialect. For example, do you say “pail” or “bucket” for the thing you might borrow from Jack and Jill?

We used computational methods to investigate Southern consonants in DASS, looking at pronunciations of p, b, t, d, k, and g at the beginning of roughly 144,000 words. Our results show that ethnicity is a social factor in the production of these sounds. In our data, African Americans had longer voice onset time, meaning that there was a longer period of time between the closure of the stop consonant and the start of vocal fold vibration, even when we adjusted the data for speaking rate. This kind of research is important because as we describe differences in the way we speak, we can better understand how we express our social and regional identity.

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