Mechanisms of merger: The implementation and distribution of the low back merger in eastern Pennsylvania

Ruth Herold, University of Pennsylvania


The purpose of this study was to find out how the low back merger (involving the vowels in cot/caught) was implemented in eastern Pennsylvania and to identify the factors responsible for triggering the merger. The study also provides up-to-date information about the geographic distribution of the merger in Pennsylvania and demonstrates that the merger is characteristic of an area where it was not previously documented. Auditory coding and acoustic measurements of data from sociolinguistic interviews were used to trace the progress of the merger in apparent time. Multivariate analysis of the acoustic data was used to distinguish the effects of phonetic conditioning on vowel quality from the effect of phonemic identity. The results of the analysis indicated that the merger could not be attributed to either of the two mechanisms of merger proposed in the literature (phonetically gradual approximation and lexically gradual transfer) since it was neither lexically nor phonetically gradual in its implementation. A third mechanism of merger, merger-by-expansion, was accordingly posited. In merger-by-expansion, the lexical restrictions on the distribution of each of two phonemes are removed and each phoneme expands into the phonetic range formerly occupied exclusively by the other. In Chapter Three, information about the geographic distribution of the low back merger drawn from fieldwork and a telephone survey is used to demonstrate that the merger was triggered in the mining towns of eastern Pennsylvania by a massive influx of immigrants, especially Poles and other Slavs, and did not spread from the western part of the state. In Chapter Four, the definitions of falsely reported merger and near-merger are refined. In conclusion it is proposed that complete phonemic merger may typically be triggered by language or dialect contact rather than by gradual phonetic approximation and that chain shifts need not be understood as occurring in order to preserve phonemic oppositions.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Herold, Ruth, "Mechanisms of merger: The implementation and distribution of the low back merger in eastern Pennsylvania" (1990). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9026574.