Stability and change along a dialect boundary: The low vowels of Southeastern New England

Daniel Ezra Johnson, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation focuses on the low vowels in the area between Boston MA and Providence RI. Providence has a low central /ah = o/ in father and bother, and a distinct raised back /oh/ in daughter. This will be called the Mid-Atlantic / Inland North system (MAIN). Boston has a fronter /ah/, and /o = oh/ merged in low back position: the Eastern New England system (ENE). The 'geographic study' located the boundary between the two dialects by interviewing senior citizens and young adults in 40 communities. For the older group, there was a sharp boundary between the MAIN and ENE systems, generally matching colonial settlement patterns. Most young adults agreed with their senior citizen counterparts. Some were unclear or had merged all three categories, but in general, during the twentieth century, mergers did not expand at the expense of distinctions. In the 'family study', several MAIN communities which had appeared stable showed sudden /o/∼/oh/ merger among children. Interviews with families revealed this especially in South Attleboro MA (under 18 merged) and in Seekonk MA (under 10 merged). These age-based changes divided some families between siblings. Children initially acquire their parents' systems, then reorganize them upon forming peer groups, but are fairly stable from then on. To explain why the mergers happened in this order, the 'migration hypothesis' proposed that when a certain proportion of merged young children enter a peer group, those from distinct backgrounds abandon their distinction. This hypothesis was evaluated with data from the U.S. Census and the 'school survey', which focused on the factors affecting individuals acquisition of the low vowels. A questionnaire was administered to some 1500 schoolchildren, and analyzed by mixed-model logistic regression. Subjects' histories consistently affected their responses. In ENE, students who had moved from MAIN areas—even years earlier—marked more /o/∼/oh/ pairs "different" than natives did. And even for 12th graders, parents played an important role, if they were from other dialect areas. Mothers had a greater effect overall, especially on their daughters, while fathers' smaller effect was primarily on their sons.

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Recommended Citation

Johnson, Daniel Ezra, "Stability and change along a dialect boundary: The low vowels of Southeastern New England" (2007). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3271774.