Elite sociolects, vowel systems and the winds of sociolinguistic change in the UK: a phonetic, sociophonetic and methodological review.

Activity: Talk or presentationLecture and oral contribution


This plenary talk will address and discuss several issues surrounding the definition an elite sociolect and of vowel systems and vocalic variation and change over the 20th century in the UK. Systematic vowel variations and changes, mostly in the form of chains shifts and mergers, have been particularly fruitful topics in North American sociolinguistics. This has led to hypotheses such as those put forward in Labov (1994), as to the possible and less likely routes of sound change in vowels systems. On the basis of this accumulated research, it has become well-known that the most active ‘movers and shakers’ of the most common types of endogenous language change within a community are commonly to be found in the ‘middle’ of the socio-economic hierarchy, within the upper-working and lower-middle classes (Labov 2001). Longtitudinal studies of communities such as Philadelphia (Labov et al. 2013) provide significant time depth and contribute much to historical linguistic theory. On the other hand, studies of phonetic and phonological variation in British English have more consistently featured consonantal variations such as t-glottalling, l-vocalization and variable rhoticity, although vocalic variations such as those along large scale north-south isoglosses (the STRUT/FOOT merger isogloss, for example) have also featured in the literature. These studies have often made a distinction between working class and middle class speakers, but have mostly ignored upper-middle and upper class speakers. The question therefore remains: what do larger-scale sociolinguistic variation and change dynamics look like in these social groups? And how have different sociolinguistic ecologies through time shaped these dynamics? My own research has recently focused on vocalic variation in elite sociolects spoken in the United Kingdom, and this talk will present new findings in that area. I will focus on examples of research into vowel shifts during the 20th century, and consider some of the sociolinguistic changes (Coupland 2016) that have had an impact on elite sociolects during that time. Along the way, I will make digressions that consider topics such as the state of play in ‘Big Data’-driven developments in variationist phonetic studies and other methodological issues, such as vowel formant normalization (Fabricius et al 2009). Coupland, N. (2016). Labov, vernacularity and sociolinguistic change. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 20(4), 409– 430. https://doi.org/10.1111/josl.12191 Fabricius, A. H., Watt, D., & Johnson, D. E. (2009). A Comparison of Three Speaker-Intrinsic Vowel Formant Frequency Normalization Algorithms for Sociophonetics. Language Variation and Change, 21(03), 413–435. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954394509990160 Labov, W. (1994). Principles of Linguistic Change. Vol. 1: Internal Factors. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.
Period18 Aug 2018
Event titlePhonetics and Phonology in Denmark 2018
Event typeConference
LocationÅrhus, Denmark
Degree of RecognitionNational