Differences without distinctions, and distinctions with little difference: COT/CAUGHT vowels among mobile speakers in New York City and Toronto


In community-level language change, phonological mergers tend to spread at the expense of distinctions, an observation known as “Herzog’s Principle” (Labov 1994). This principle might partially be explained in terms of asymmetric constraints on individuals in contact situations (e.g. Herold 1990, Labov 1994). For example, while a speaker who distinguishes cot/caught need only neutralize this contrast to accommodate in the face of a merged dialect, a speaker with the cot/caught merger who would acquire a distinction must presumably not only create a new category but determine, for potentially hundreds of lexical items, whether each belongs in this new category. In this talk, I investigate whether such an asymmetry holds via analyses of two mobile speaker populations: natives of Toronto, Ontario now living in New York City and natives of New York City who now live in Toronto. Based on data from minimal pair tasks, word lists, and conversational speech collected from 60 speakers, I argue that native-cot/caught-merging speakers can, even in adulthood, acquire a small phonetic difference between these word classes given sustained new dialect input; however, this split seems to be the result of changes in individual lexical items, not a category-level split resulting in new phonemic structure. Similarly, speakers with a native cot/caught distinction may come to approximate or even merge these categories in conversational speech as a result of new dialect exposure, but their underlying contrast remains robust. That is, both groups of speakers exhibit structural stability yet phonetically and lexically gradient change. I discuss these results in light of their implications for theories of phonological representations, and consider avenues for future research.


As always, the talk is open to member of the greater university community, and will be followed immediately by a reception in the Linguistics department library. You must be over 21 and possess valid ID to attend the reception.