Look at your FACE! – Tracing variation and change in vowels across the lifespan in Tyneside English

by Lea Bauernfeind

Dear reader,
Welcome to our blog about lifespan change in Tyneside English! If you’ve read some of our earlier blogposts, welcome back! You might already know about our corpus of Tyneside English and what we are interested in (if not, do check out the other blog posts 😉 ).
My MA thesis, like many of the theses you’ve already read about, centres around variation and change in Tyneside English. I investigate how and how much the vowels in words that sound like FACE and GOAT have changed over the lifespan of individual speakers and in how far these speakers adhere to the trends in their speech community.

I look at two groups with six speakers each, which we call the young panel and the old panel. All participants were recorded at two timepoints. The old panel speakers were in their twenties at the time of their first recording in 1971, and (almost) retired when they were recorded for a second time in 2013. The young panel speakers had just started Uni when they were interviewed for the first time around 2007, and most of them had completed their degrees and entered professional life at the time of the second recording in 2013.

FACE and GOAT in Tyneside English

In Tyneside English, there are several ways of pronouncing the vowel in words like FACE and GOAT. Very similarly to the realization of FACE (see Marie Philipp’s post here), Dominic Watt (2000, 2002) identifies three types of variants of GOAT: a supralocal variant [o:] which is generally associated with the North East, local variants [ʊə] and [ɵ:] which are explicitly linked to the Tyneside, and a national variant [oʊ] which carries overt prestige and is often referred to as “the standard”.

Both vowels are known to pattern together, that is, they are similar in their pronunciation. For example, if a speaker usually says FACE with a monophthong, it is very likely that they also say GOAT with a monophthong.

Looking at big picture changes

I investigate data that was gathered 50 and ten years ago for the old panel, as well as data that was collected ten and five years ago for the young panel. That way I can draw conclusions about how individual speakers may have changed over the course of their lifespans. For example, I can observe if they still say words like game, tray and great the same way they did when they were interviewed for the first time, or if they have changed in any way and why.

Remember the trend sample? By taking this group of speakers into account, I can also make assumptions about the reasons behind some of the changes we can observe within the greater Tyneside population. For instance, we know that many young speakers in the Tyneside region realize both FACE and GOAT as monophthongs ([e:] for FACE, [o:] for GOAT). It is widely assumed that the reason for their monophthongal choices for FACE and GOAT is that they prefer to convey to listeners that they are from the North East of England, but they don’t need the listeners to know where exactly in the North East they’re from.

Examining language patterns of individuals

Let’s take a look at one of our panel speakers: Charlotte is part of the young panel, and she was in her first year of Uni when she was recorded with her friend Lynn for the first time in 2010. By the time of the second interview, Charlotte had started a PhD in English linguistics. Usually, we assume that speakers who enter professional life adhere to the pressures of the workplace and therefore abandon variants that are regarded less prestigious. Charlotte , however, makes different linguistic choices from what we would typically see in young professionals. She increases her realizations of FACE variants as monophthongs [e:]. There are many possible reasons why she might speak this way:

(1) Since Charlotte works in English linguistics and is surrounded by colleagues and many local students, the way her speech is perceived as professional or less professional might differ from the way it would be perceived in a different workplace. If Charlotte worked in high-end retail, we would likely expect her to produce language patterns which resemble those of her customers and which might come off as “posh”. However, since Charlotte works in a field where variation in language variation is studied and cherished rather than judged, she does not need to conform to the same sort of social pressures with respect to her language that she’d encounter in other jobs.

(2) Her linguistic choices can be regarded as taking a sociopolitical stance: by choosing variants that are associated with the North East, she might express allegiance with the speech community she’s part of.

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With my research I aim to give insights into how speakers’ language patterns might change over time and how these changes are connected to their individual paths of life. For instance, both Charlotte and her friend Lynn tend to realize more monophthongs in their second interview, but they do this for very different reasons. While Charlotte works in English linguistics, Lynn has become a teacher in her local area. She says the pupils are more likely to accept and treat her respectfully if she sounds like them, so she chooses monophthongs for FACE and GOAT.

By comparing the language choices that our panel speakers make to those of the ones from the trend sample, we can observe how individual speakers behave in regard to their speech community. Do Charlotte and Lynn behave similarly to other speakers their age, or do they make different linguistic choices and for which reasons? Stay tuned!

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