Studying Vowels in Southwestern Vermont
On October 20, 2021, faculty member Thomas Leddy-Cecere and Malhy Méndez '20 presented original sociolinguistic research on speech in the Bennington region as part of New Ways of Analyzing Variation 49, the premiere North American sociolinguistics conference.
The fieldwork for this research—the first carried out in the Bennington area since 1939—was conducted by Bennington students as part of Leddy-Cecere’s Spring 2019 class Language and Society in Vermont and its Neighbors.
This work belongs to a subfield of linguistics known as "sociophonetics," which explores connections between the sounds of speech and elements of speakers' social identities.
During the course, members of the class used specialized recording equipment to conduct interviews with residents of Bennington and surrounding communities. At each interview, participants discussed life in their home town/region and their relationship to it, and also completed read-aloud tasks designed to gather data about particular types of sounds. Interview recordings were then processed using spectral analysis software to measure the component frequencies of those sounds, which were then studied using statistical methods to identify relevant trends.
The first round of results focused on interviews with 20 speakers, ranging from their teens to their seventies, raised and currently residing in Bennington or one of thirteen surrounding communities in Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts.
"We were specifically interested in how these speakers produced the vowels in words like cart, cot and caught -- which linguists label 'low back vowels,' and have elsewhere noted to be a source of significant variation in the pronunciation North American English," said Leddy-Cecere.
Previous research Leddy-Cecere's class reviewed established that west and south of Bennington, the vowels of words like cart and cot tend to be produced similarly, with those of words like caught standing out as distinct; north and east of the Bennington region, words like cot and caught are commonly pronounced with the same vowel, and those like cart with a different one.
"We wanted to understand how speakers in the Bennington area would align with these broader trends, and if these alignments might tell us anything about those speakers' social connections and orientations," said Leddy-Cecere.
After statistically comparing over 6,000 individual vowel measurements, Leddy-Cecere and Mendez identified a fair amount of variability across the speech of their 20 participants: 11 of the 20 speakers pronounced the cart and cot vowels the same and the caught vowel differently, 5 pronounced the cot and caught vowels the same and the cart vowel differently, 3 pronounced all three vowels distinctly, and 1 pronounced all three vowels the same.
This study represents a change from the last—and only—time the Bennington area was linguistically surveyed, as part of the Linguistic Atlas of New England project (H. Kurath 1939). At that time, neither the differentiation of the cart and cot vowels nor the nondifferentiation of the cot and caught vowels were identified as typical for the region, though they were (and remain) well established elsewhere in Vermont.
The appearance of these accent features among some speakers in and around Bennington in this recent data suggests that the area's level of linguistic integration with the rest of Vermont, though far from complete, has increased over time. This interpretation is supported by the associations of these features with particular social factors: those who speak in these ways were found to predominantly be younger (<40), and to live in more northerly parts of the survey area, closer to the features' traditional Vermont territory.
The study also found evidence of important, ongoing connections between ways of speaking in Bennington and neighboring Upstate New York.
Among those speakers who maintained a differentiation between the vowels of cot and caught, most (11 of 14) displayed a unique "twist" on this feature, which is thought to have arisen relatively recently in northeastern New York. This twist involves the resorting of some words, which have historically contained the vowel of cot to instead contain the caught vowel. An example is golf, which speakers pronounced like gaw-lf, rather than the expected gah-lf. That this New York-based linguistic innovation is present in Bennington, alongside more Vermont-oriented traits, shows that the Bennington region's inter-state connections remain strong and constitute a key part of our area's social fabric to this day.
"Our work, though placed on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is ongoing, and we look forward to corroborating and building upon these observations with the help of more Bennington students and local community members as our investigations resume," said Leddy-Cecere.