University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


This paper reports on an experiment designed to measure how listeners's perceptions of speaker age and ethnicity condition identification of lexical items with THOUGHT/LOT vowels in New York City English (NYCE). Several independent studies have recently reported evidence of THOUGHT-lowering and/or LOT/THOUGHT merging in NYCE led by younger non-White speakers. Spoken corpus data by Wong (2012), Becker (2010) and Haddican et al. (2021) suggest rapid THOUGHT lowering, particularly in Asian and Latinx communities. Similarly, younger Asian and Latinx NYCE speakers favor merged LOT/THOUGHT responses in controlled homophony judgment tasks (Johnson 2010, Haddican et al. 2016). Moreover, matched-guise results by Becker (2014) suggest that raised THOUGHT is associated mainly with older White speakers. Unaddressed in this literature is whether listeners use perceived social information about the speaker--i.e. perceptions of age and ethnicity--in their phonemic categorization of low back vowels in comprehension of NYCE (Rubin 1992, Hay, Warren and Drager 2006, Koops 2011). Here, we report results from a forced-choice lexical identification experiment intended to investigate this. Consistent with previous production and matched guise results, judges tended to misidentify LOT auditory stimulus items as THOUGHT more often when the item was accompanied by a photo of an Asian speaker than a White speaker. The analysis revealed no effect for the age comparison. The results suggest that NYCE-native listeners actively use social information about speaker ethnicity in the categorization of LOT/THOUGHT items in comprehension.



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