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The Low-Back Merger

The merger of // and // is reported to be `` `the norm in Canada, and is spreading with great rapidity in most areas of the USA', despite being `unknown in England'.''9.27 This merger may be found in Chicano English, since it is claimed9.28 to occur in the Anglo speech of California. However, ``the low back merger has been the subject of surprisingly little systematic study'' (Herold, 1990:8). Most previous work in the US amounts to repeated anecdotal observations and claims that the merger has occurred, while some studies purporting to bear on the issue of the merger (Johnson 1974, Moonwomon 1987) examine only the // class, and thus can say nothing about its patterning relative to the // class. Thus a systematic comparison of the acoustic patterning of the // and // classes in another California dialect would be a positive contribution to the largely anecdotal literature on this merger.

Among the vowels in the conversation studied are 53 tokens of the // class, and 28 tokens of the // class. Measurements of the formant frequencies at chosen nucleus locations are presented in Figure [*]. Some preliminary discussion is necessary to interpret this chart.

Herold (1990) notes that the phonological environment of these vowels is highly skewed: // occurs much more often than // before /l/ while // occurs much more often than //before /p/. Since /l/ has a strong backing effect on preceding vowels, (see below: Effects of Adjacent Consonants), and the phonetic realization of // is generally phonetically backer than that of //, confusion is possible between the effect of vowel identity and the effect of the phonological environment. Thus we also display the following consonant along with the tokens of the // class (Wells' lexical sets, THOUGHT and CLOTH). Since // tokens (Wells' LOT set) are much more common, and almost never precede /l/, we display them here with just a ``.'', and without the following consonant.

Figure: LOT vs. THOUGHT, with following consonants.

The measurements of // tokens are displayed with the symbol ``c'', plus the following consonant. As may be seen, // tokens are generally higher and backer than // tokens. This difference is consistent with the view that the merger has not taken place: the difference could be due to the underlying phonological distinction between the two lexical classes.

However, notice that following consonants for the raised and backed tokens are few: /l, n, /. Since /l/ is known to have a backing-and-raising effect on preceding vowel nuclei (again, see below in Effects of Adjacent Consonants), since nasals are known to frequently have a raising effect on preceding vowels,9.29, and since the raised tokens before /n/ are in the clitic word, on, it remains possible that these differences may be attributable to other allophonic or coarticulatory effects. Since the remaining THOUGHT-class tokens, with following /s, z, t, / occur well within the main body of the LOT distribution, it is likely that the difference of distributions of the two lexical classes is not due to an underlying lexical distinction.

It would appear that more data from more speakers, targeted towards answering this particular question would be useful in making certain whether or not // and // are merged in Chicano English, However, the evidence here, though superficially supporting the hypothesis that they two classes are separate for this speaker, on a closer examination do not support that hypothesis. It would appear that this is a Low-Back Merged dialect of English.9.30

next up previous
Next: Summary Up: Los Angeles Chicano English Previous: All Vowels at Once.
Thomas Veatch 2005-01-25