Visualizing Spectral Change

What does a monophthongal vowel look like versus a diphthongal vowel in F1/F2 space? Well, I guarantee you, the difference is not as easy to interpret if you only have 2 or 3 measurements per vowel as is the norm. The two graphics I have inserted below (created using R) are what they look like when you take 21-time normalized measurements across the duration of the vowel.

First is a Loess curve created from several hundred BAT tokens extracted from sociolinguistic interviews with 18 African American speakers:


And here is the front lax vowel system (again several hundred tokens for each class) extracted from sociolinguistic interviews with 5 Southern white speakers:


I don’t know about you, but I find this particularly cool! Note that the space between nodes represents rate of spectral change. For African Americans it appears there is a definable steady state but the same isn’t true for Southern white speakers (at least for BET and BAT).

Finally, here are the front lax vowels for both speaker groups (African Americans in green and Southern whites in blue). This is the exact same data presented in the above two graphics except I used a generalized additive model. Monophthongized African American front lax vowels are characterized by parallel F1/F2 movement. Click on the image for a bigger graphic.


This is just a tiny sample of what I’m currently working on; I’m so fascinated by it I couldn’t help but share. Enjoy!

I have a lot of tweaking I plan to do to this methodology (including anchoring the onset/offset to better account for effects of neighboring phonetic environments), but I’m seeing it headed cool places even now.

ETA: This is completely something I’m experimenting with, if I hadn’t made that clear. Comments/suggestions/emails are especially welcome for this reason!

Megan L. Risdal


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Ash in Old English and Today: Exemplifying Language Variation and Change

Hey everyone, I’m back.

Here’s an outline of a presentation on /æ/ variation and change I just put together for an Old English literature class I’m taking. About half of the students are non-linguists, so it starts with basic principles of vocalic variation and change and uses them to make a conceptual link from Old English variation to modern American English examples. I just thought it might be sort of fun to share. I apologize for any inaccuracies; I haven’t studied historical linguistics and I’m honestly quite terrible at history in general. Enjoy.

Megan L. Risdal

Ash in Old English
•Low, front, & unrounded vowel.
Long and short varieties:
–/æ:/ (e.g., dæl) and /æ/ (e.g., Þæt).
•<Æ/æ> originated from the Latin alphabet.
What does Ash look like?

Many of the sound changes that occurred to ash, e.g., raising (or lowering of F1) to be discussed later, involved variation in configurations of F1 and F2 values over vowel duration.

•First and second formants (acoustic resonances of the human vocal tract) measured in Hz.
F1 = height (inverse relationship). F2 = frontness (higher freq. = fronter).
Systemic Vocalic Changes

It’s important to keep in mind that vowel changes weren’t isolated, they were systemic. A change in an individual vowel led to subsequent changes in the neighboring vowel space. A few possible types of individual vocalic variation are merging, splitting, and breaking. Splitting and breaking are implicated in a few changes in ash in Old English and today.

•Affect entire vowel systems (e.g., Northern Cities Shift, Great Vowel Shift).
–Each of a series of vowels receives a new place of articulation trigged by an individual vocalic change.
•Individual Vocalic Changes: Merging, Splitting, and Breaking.
•Occurs when allophones of a phoneme change from complementary distribution to contrastive (different phonemes).
•For example, the nasal and oral vowel contrast in modern French.
Phonetic: Vowel –> Nasalized / __ nasal C. This is a conditioning environment.
Today: chat = /ʃa/ and chant = /ʃã/ without a conditioning environment (nasal versus oral consonant).
Breaking: One vowel, e.g., short-a, broken into several parts with a  glide in-between.
•For example, the Southern Drawl in the US.
–/æ/ –> [ajə] / __ voiceless aspirants & nasals.
Southern breaking ANAE 2006
Breaking in Old English
•Short /æ/ broke before h, rC, lC, and sometimes w.
•Long /æ:/ broke only before h.
•/æ/ –> <ea> / __ in the above contexts.
Back umlaut in Old English

This process, also known as back mutation, is similar to breaking. It’s important to note, though, that the phonological context is different in back umlaut versus that of breaking although it has a similar result. There was a lot of dialectal variation present and back umlaut of short /æ/ was most common in Mercian.

•Short /æ/ sometimes became the short diphthong <ea> before a back vowel in the next syllable.
–Short /æ/ –> <ea> / __ C + back vowel
•Certain intervocalic consonants trigger this process while others block it (varied by dialect).
Raising in Old English
•Vowel changes from a low tongue position to a higher tongue position (e.g., pre-nasal short-a in most varieties of modern American English).
•Second Fronting: /a/ fronted to /æ/ and long /æ:/ raised to /e/.
–/æ/-raising spread from the 5th through 9th centuries. Later dates = umlaut.
Ash and Old English Dialects

Systematic vocalic changes spread through dialect regions over time, revealing synchronic phonological variation.

(1 & 2)  For example, in the Southwest c.6-700AD , long  /æ:/ raised to   /e/ first, followed by umlaut whereby /ɑ/ fronted to /æ/.

–Therefore, dæl = dæd in SW England, but elsewhere dæl =/= ded.

–Evident in class 4 and 5 strong verbs: spræcon in West Saxon, but sprecun in non-West Saxon dialects.

(3)   Next, short /æ/ raised to short /e/ circa late 7th century and spread northward.

(4)   Finally, umlauted /ɑ/ (at this point /æ/) also raised to /e/ a century   later. Prior to this, it was a split.

Fast forward at least 1,000 years…
Go to the website for the Atlas of North American English (ANAE) by Labov, Ash, and Boberb (2006). From there, click on North American English Dialects. On the left-hand side, click on word comparison and in the window that opens to the right, change the word token to that. For an example of Southern breaking, click on the dot from Fayetteville, North Carolina (south of Raleigh). Next, click on the light blue dot in Eau Claire, Wisconsin (western Wisconsin, near the border of Minnesota) for an example of ash-raising typical of the Northern Cities Shift.
Why is ash important?
Click here for a YouTube clip from a documentary in which Bill Labov is interviewed about the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. This short video showcases the significance of this ongoing sound change. Listen to the words that Bill Labov plays from his gating experiment and see if you can determine what the speaker is saying.

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Altruistic Collaboration in Academia

I have a lot of writing on the docket for today, so I figured  a good way to get into the groove might be to blog a little bit first. Get those fingers warmed up, you know? So I’ll talk about the reason why I haven’t been as active on my blog as I had been hoping I would be. And no, it’s not for lack of ideas!

As I’m now an affiliated academic, a Master’s student in sociolinguistics at North Carolina State University specifically, I’ve encountered the concept of intellectual property in some pleasant and less pleasant ways. Personally, I like the free sharing of ideas and I’m happy to offer my input on projects as I’ve received so much help with my own projects here at State. It’s not a quid pro quo situation, either. For example, I have this project I started up and it garnered enthusiasm from two other academics in my department (one an ABD student and the other a professor) who immediately (and I mean immediately) generously offered to contribute their corpora and general expertise to my investigation. Simply because we share something in common: we want to know the answer to the questions being asked, academics as we are.

Stemming from their enthusiasm, they have aided me enormously along the way. It’s probably just as much because I’m a completely green sociophonetician as they truly are invested in my work. It’s an absolutely great feeling; this project, ambitious as it is, would not be possible without their contributions. And it’s cases like this where I can’t conceive of how learning and progress can be made without such altruistic collaborations between colleagues. Further, it inspires me to give what I can to those who can benefit from my skillset. For example, many of the students in my program haven’t had a background in advanced statistics whereas on account of my undergraduate major (psychology) I have such a background. I’m strongly motivated to give back what I can when I can.

On the other hand, there is also a guarded, more selfish sentiment present as well, where often the time it takes to help a green sociolinguist isn’t worth it. And I’m speaking generally of what I know about academics as a whole, not just of my department. Personally, I find that I learn just as much from my labmates as I do from my professors. And there seems to be this idea that what we create, how we do what we do, and essentially everything creative about our work is our property that needs protection. I understand it, to agree, but I don’t believe the stuff we’re working on for class projects is in huge danger of being scooped.

So on the one hand, there are enormous benefits to be gained from collaboration and we would be less knowledgeable about the world around us if we didn’t share our ideas and skills. And every field has produced its share of calls for greater interdisciplinary collaboration. On the other, what we create is our currency in academia–I feel this pressure even as I look forward to applying to PhD programs next year whenever I revise my gradually developing CV. How nice it would be to have a first-author publication! So it feels like we are at the same time justified in our desire to defend ownership of our “property.”

Coming back to what this means for my blog. I have been working on a number of projects grown from classes I’m taking in sociophonetics and variety in language. One is in my typical vein of measuring language attitudes; another focuses on ethnic discrimination and perceptual cues in vowel quality; the last is a fine-grained analysis using smoothing spline ANOVAs of two speech communities who show superficial alignment in BAT raising. So I have a lot of lovely things going on. And I would love to share bits and pieces on this blog, but I have not yet resolved how I feel about the competing forces of free sharing of ideas versus the concept of intellectual property. Additionally, I have to weigh the benefits of sharing with the general public of course and also consider my position as a young sociolinguist student.

Right now, I suppose my philosophy on the matter isn’t fully developed. It’s a lot to think about. Any thoughts? For the time being, I’m going to get back to finishing off two class papers and writing two abstracts for submission to conferences. Fingers crossed!

Megan L. Risdal

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Language Attitudes and Speaker Impressions — Survey (please share!)

Hello everyone,

I am working on a class project for a class I am taking at North Carolina State University with Walt Wolfram and I could use your help. I am collecting data via an online survey of language attitudes and speaker impressions. The survey consists of four parts: (1) a short questionnaire designed to assess language attitudes, (2) some demographic questions for statistical purposes, (3) a couple of recordings of individuals telling familiar children’s fairy tales along with questions about your opinions of the speakers and their speech, and (4) a very brief personality questionnaire. I believe it’s a fun, thought-provoking survey and I hope you find it to be so, too.

It would be so very helpful if you would take the time to complete the survey! Anyone over 18 can participate — linguists and non-linguists alike. Note, though, that participation does require you to do some listening. It takes about 15 minutes to finish. If you have any questions about your participation, the survey, or the study’s results, you can email me at mlrisdal (at) ncsu (dot) edu.

Go to survey:

Thank you so much for your willingness to participate! Please do share this with anyone who may be interested. For the purposes of the study, it is necessary that I receive responses from a broad sample of people, especially geographically and ethnically.

Megan L. Risdal

P.S. I am aware that the audio does not work for some devices or browsers. I apologize if you encounter this issue! To my knowledge, it has worked consistently on PCs and Macs using Chrome.

P.P.S Comments will be removed from this post and saved in my personal documents, so if you wish to give me any messages about the survey, please do so via anonymous comment which you can do at the end of the survey, or via email.


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Just for Fun–Surprise Vowel Plot!

Just for fun, I measured /æ/ among female speakers in the stimuli I’m putting together for a class project. You can see that the African American speakers (in blue and red) have more raised /æ/ than the white female speakers. Both groups are college-aged students from urban North Carolina. Mostly I’m just pleased with the aesthetics of this vowel plot–which I’ve only just been learning how to make! Now on to measuring the males for /æ/ and females and males for /o/! If you can’t tell, I’m loving grad school!

Megan L. Risdal

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