Variation and change in the nativization of foreign (a) in English

Charles Soren Boberg, University of Pennsylvania


The phonological nativization of foreign (a) in English (as in tobacco, potato and bravado) exhibits complex, intersecting patterns of diachronic, geographic, social and lexical variation that have never before been examined in depth. The aim of this disseration is to describe the variation, develop a probabilistic model of nativization outcomes in British and American English, and explain the patterns observed in phonological terms. A random sample of standard dictionaries generates a database of 847 tokens for analysis. Diachronic analysis shows that modern nativization patterns were established in the 18th century and involve three principal outcomes: /ae/ (as in fat), /a:/ (as in father) and variation between these vowels. A quantitative analysis of the 360 tokens borrowed after 1700 reveals important British-American differences in the relative frequency of each outcome: British nativization results in 70% /ae/, 26% /a:/ and 4% variation, whereas American nativization results in 51% /ae/, 31% /a:/ and 18% variation. A multivariate analysis of the effects on nativization of a range of factors in each dialect yields a probabilistic model of lexical variation, showing that the lexical distribution of outcomes is not random. In British nativization, prosodic factors dominate: /ae/ is the default vowel, appearing regularly in closed syllables, while /a:/ appears in open syllables. The most striking feature of American nativization is a diachronic trend toward /a:/, which has taken over from /ae/ as the default vowel, appearing in closed and open syllables indiscriminately. The difference between these patterns is explained in terms of the phonological properties of the competing outcomes in each dialect: /ae/ and /a:/ are differentiated primarily in terms of quantity in British English and quality in American. The qualitative nature of American nativization allows for substantial variation between /ae/ and /a:/ in individual words. An analysis of regional and social variation reveals an absence of strong dialect or social differences, suggesting a nationally homogeneous pattern, while a survey of speakers' attitudes towards variation in nativization demonstrates a strong subjective bias in favor of /a:/ as the more appropriate nativization of foreign (a).

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Recommended Citation

Boberg, Charles Soren, "Variation and change in the nativization of foreign (a) in English" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9800844.