Prosodic Characteristics of Orkney and Shetland Dialects: An Experimental Approach

By Watt, Dominic | Scottish Language, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Prosodic Characteristics of Orkney and Shetland Dialects: An Experimental Approach


Watt, Dominic, Scottish Language


PROSODIC CHARACTERISTICS OF ORKNEY AND SHETLAND DIALECTS: AN EXPERIMENTAL APPROACH. By Klaske van Leyden. Utrecht: Landelijke Onderzoekschool Taalwetenschap (LOT) 2004.

Graduating PhD students in the Netherlands are required to publish their doctoral theses in book form, the customary print run for which is 150 copies. Klaske van Leyden clearly understands her potential readership better than did her printers, however, who reportedly thought her request for a print run of twice this size excessively, and expensively, optimistic. Van Leyden's hunch was in the event more than borne out: her thesis Prosodic Characteristics of Orkney and Shetland Dialects (henceforth PCOSD) was for a while last year one of the biggest selling titles in the bookshops of Kirkwall and Lerwick, despite its narrowly focussed topic and frequently demanding technical content. Evidently, then, Orcadians and Shetlanders seem to have an above average interest in their respective dialects, and even if much of van Leyden's book will be inaccessible to those lacking specialisms in phonological theory, acoustic phonetics and formal statistical methods, the sections which deal with the historical background and development of the Orkney and Shetland dialects (including Norn), the relationships of the archipelagos with Scandinavia, Scotland and continental Europe, and some of the contemporary dialects' key phonological properties, are likely to be both comprehensible and of interest to the general reader in and furth of the Northern Isles. Van Leyden had the foresight also to produce for non-specialist readers a short, non-technical companion volume summarising the chief findings of the study, a copy of which was unfortunately not available to the reviewer.

As indicated by PCOSD's full title, van Leyden's approach is experimental rather than purely descriptive. Its particular strength lies in the fact that rather than drawing conclusions about the prosodic structure of the two dialects solely on the basis of speakers' productions and informal observations, she has also elicited Orcadian and Shetland listeners' fine-grained perceptual judgments about carefully prepared stimulus recordings exemplifying prosodic aspects of the two dialects. She has also been careful throughout to include data from 'control' dialects, such as Scottish Standard English (SSE) and (Bokmal) Norwegian, so as to attempt to relate the characteristics of contemporary Orkney and Shetland speech to neighbouring language varieties. In the design and implementation of the perception experiments, the results of which account for the bulk of PCOSD, she has exploited recent innovations in speech analysis software which allow sophisticated multi-parametric manipulation of sound signals by selective editing and resynthesis, besides equipping the researcher with a formidable battery of spectrographic analysis tools (with which one can, if desired, make durational measurements to within millionths of a second, and almost instantaneously extract huge volumes of data about frequency properties and acoustic intensity from digital files sampled thousands of times per second, just at the click of a mouse button). In this respect, her study represents an excellent example of how questions in phonological theory that would have been extremely troublesome to answer before the relatively recent advent of cheap, fast and user-friendly speech analysis programs can now be addressed with great effectiveness and comparative ease.

Van Leyden's experiments focus on two major prosodic characteristics of the two dialects, namely their intonational properties and the relative durations of certain vowels and consonants. The experiments investigating the consonant/vowel duration parameter were, like the phenomenon itself, relatively straightforward: Orcadian and Shetland speakers were asked to read aloud a list of monosyllabic words containing vowel + consonant (VC) sequences in which the duration of the vowel is traded off against the duration of the consonant which follows it. …

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