Blackfoot Final Vowels: What Variation and its Absence can Tell us about Communicative Goals

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University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics
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Bliss, Heather
Gick, Bryan

This paper investigates variation in the production of word-final vowels in Blackfoot, an Algonquian language spoken by approximately 3350 people in Southern Alberta and Northern Montana. The Blackfoot community perceives the language as partitioning into varieties, based on the age of the speaker; ‘old Blackfoot’ is richly polysynthetic and spoken by people born in the 1930s and earlier, whereas ‘new Blackfoot’ is thought to be missing certain inflections, and is spoken by people born in the 1940s or later. Final vowels, which encode a morphosyntactic distinction referred to as obviation, are thought to be particularly susceptible to language loss. Gick et al. (2012) document the phonetic properties of one Blackfoot speaker’s final vowels, demonstrating that, for her, final vowels are not absent but instead soundless in some environments, in that there are distinct articulator positions for -a and -i vowels without any corresponding acoustic distinction. We investigate the articulatory, acoustic, and phonological properties of the final vowels of four additional speakers cross-cutting age, dialect, and gender. Using ultrasound, video, and audio recordings, we found that while there is phonetic variation across speakers in the realization of final vowels, not one speaker altogether omits them. In short, there is variation, but of a limited nature. The robustness of the final vowels reflects the fact that they serve an important communicative function in the grammar by encoding obviation.

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