UCL Psychology and Language Sciences


Speech Science Forum - Sophie Holmes-Elliott (QMUL)

19 January 2023, 4:00 pm–5:30 pm

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Momentous acquisition: A real-time perspective on linguistic change across the early life-span

This event is free.

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Justin Lo


Children start their linguistic lives by acquiring the systems transmitted by their caregivers: ‘the vernacular that we speak, the first language that we have mastered perfectly, and use without doubt or hesitation— is our mother’s vernacular’ (Labov, 2001). However, in order for language change to occur, children must diverge from the linguistic systems they initially inherit. This ‘early lifespan change’ (Sankoff, 2019) involves a process of ‘vernacular reorganisation’ (Labov, 2001) where children move away from the linguistic template set by their parents until they ultimately settle on their relatively stable adult systems.

This process underpins the mechanism of language change; incrementation, where ‘successive cohorts and generations of children advance change beyond the level of their caretakers and role models’ (Labov, 2007). Children’s acquisition of features therefore appears to include a sensitivity to age-based vectors of variability, what Bermudez-Otero (2015; 2020) identifies as ‘momentum based learning’. As well as an increase in rates, incrementation ‘may take the form of increases in frequency, extent, scope, or specificity’ of a particular feature undergoing change’ (Labov, 2007). In other words, when children increment change, they do so in terms of the overall rates of a feature, but it is not just the variable rates of a form that are open to change, the underlying grammar can also be reorganised.

In order to view these processes directly we need to track speakers’ development across time. This talk presents findings from two different real time studies in order to examine incrementation, in both the variable rates of a form, and also reorganisation in the variable grammar.

The findings are based on a number of different features, from two separate research sites:

1. Hastings, a coastal town in southeast England part of the larger Southern British English (SBE) dialect region.

Results across three features are examined in a real time corpus of child speakers at two time points as they develop between ages 9 to 13 years. These patterns are related to apparent time data from the same community and are used in order to investigate the ease to which children acquire and increment changes in rates for features differing social statuses within the community. 

2. Buckie, a small fishing town on the northeast of Scotland which exhibits a number of highly localised dialect patterns.

One feature, T-glottaling, is examined in the speech of caregivers, and across real time in the speech of their children as they develop from pre-schoolers (2:6 – 4;0 years) and into preadolescents (11 – 13 years). This analysis builds on the findings from Hastings; as well as examining changes in rates, it also presents an analysis of the variable constraints in order to probe the extent to which vernacular reorganisation is possible.

Taken together, both studies provide an insight into the mechanism of language change as it plays out in real time. In each case, children appear to exhibit what Labov (2012) refers to as an ‘outward orientation’ where they integrate, or calibrate, their own evolving systems in light of input they receive from their wider communities until they assume the leading position in ongoing language changes (cf Holmes-Elliott, 2020).

About the Speaker

Sophie Holmes-Elliott

at Queen Mary University of London

More about Sophie Holmes-Elliott