Academic journal article Southwest Journal of Linguistics

An Outline of the Pre-Rhotic Vowel System of Shetland English, with Reference to General American, Received Pronunciation, and Scottish English

Academic journal article Southwest Journal of Linguistics

An Outline of the Pre-Rhotic Vowel System of Shetland English, with Reference to General American, Received Pronunciation, and Scottish English

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. There is significant variation across the English-speaking world concerning the range of contrastive vowels in pre-rhotic positions, which often display a reduced inventory compared with the total or overall vowel system within a certain accent or dialect. This article presents an analysis of the pre-/r/vowel system within the accent spoken in the Shetland Islands, the northernmost locality of the British Isles, made in comparison with General American, Received Pronunciation, and Scottish English. A number of vowel sets affected by various mergers in the reference varieties are examined in detail, and it may be concluded that nearly all vowel contrasts are maintained before/r/, which, while characteristic of some forms of Scottish English, is rare among English accents across the world. The Shetland accent displays a larger inventory of contrastive vowels before/r/than most varieties of American English, as it remains unaffected by a number of historical sound changes reflected in American English. *

1. INTRODUCTION. For several reasons, vowels in pre-/r/ contexts constitute a significant and long-standing issue within English linguistics. Historically, a number of sound changes have affected vowels in pre-/r/contexts specifically, and variation regarding the application of such changes has given rise to some of the most salient differences that may be observed today across English accents and dialects around the world. Pre-/r/positions typically display a reduced inventory of phonemic vowel contrasts, compared to the total or overall vowel system within a certain accent or dialect. Furthermore, even if the reduction in the number of contrastive items is disregarded, it is nevertheless often difficult to identify vowels before/r/phonemically with vowels in other positions because of differences in phonetic quality. In fact, the problem of cross-contextual phonemic matching is a classic issue within phonology (Anderson 1985, Twaddell 1935) and is reflected for instance in the lack of consensus regarding what phonemic symbols to use for pre-/r/vowels in American English (Clark and Hillenbrand 2003). In English dialectology, therefore, pre-/r/positions are commonly identified as containing potential subsystems of vowels and studied separately to capture this significant aspect of variation across the English-speaking world (Wells 1982, Labov et al 2006, Kurath and McDavid 1961).

This article presents an analysis of vowels in pre-/r/ contexts in the local accent of Scottish Standard English (SSE) spoken in the Shetland Islands. The Shetland accent is unusual among English accents and dialects around the world in two ways in this regard, namely, 1) the phonetic nature of /r/, and 2) the size and nature of the vowel inventory in pre-/r/positions. It is one of the few varieties of English that maintains a tap or a trill as the principal realization of /r/. Although a trill remains part of the general stereotype of Scottish English (Wells 1982, Ladefoged and Maddieson 1996), in reality it is currently in sharp decline in Scotland (Chirrey 1999, Stuart-Smith 1999). Second, the Shetland accent maintains most of its vowel contrasts in pre-/r/contexts, and it is relatively unproblematic to identify contrastive items therein with those of other contexts. Yet, there is very little research available on Scottish pre-/r/vowel systems, and, in fact, none on Shetland.

Previous scholars have discussed the relationship which most plausibly exists between the phonetic nature of/r/and the size and nature of the preceding vowel systems. Labov (1994), for instance, suggests that the diachronic reduction of phonological vowel space in pre-/r/contexts which English has undergone most probably in some way is related to changes in the phonetic nature of /r/. The basic idea is that more consonantal articulation types such as trills or taps, which historically were more common in English, have less of an effect on preceding vowels than the more vowellike, and often rather complex, articulation types found in most English accents and dialects today. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.