Dialect Contact

When speakers from different dialect backgrounds interact with each other, it can lead to potential dialect change. This creates an ideal opportunity for researching how speakers adapt to one another and adopt features from other dialects. In my work on dialect contact, I investigate the features that cross dialect lines, and what role social meaning plays in that transfer.

(TH)-fronting in Grays Ferry

As part of the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus project, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in a neighborhood in South Philadelphia. In this neighborhood, white male participants produce high rates of (TH)-fronting (a feature of African American English), despite also espousing overtly hostile attitudes toward their Black neighbors. I found that interracial conflict, particularly over control of the local neighborhood park, provided the source of both the borrowing and the hostile attitudes. I argue that (TH)-fronting has been adopted as a marker of street or hegemonic masculinity within this white community. This data is a classic example of linguistic diffusion in adult speech, in which speakers borrow a phonological feature but simplify its phonological conditioning.

  • Betsy Sneller. 2014. Antagonistic contact and inverse affiliation: Appropriation of (TH)-fronting by White speakers in Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 20.2. [pdf]
  • Betsy Sneller. (Under Revision, LVC). Phonological rule spreading across hostile lines: (TH)-fronting in Grays Ferry.

Burls vs. Wiwos: Artificial language experiment

Artificial language games enable researchers to investigate aspects of language learning, dialect contact, and signalling convergence that would otherwise be impossible to test in real world situations. In collaboration with Gareth Roberts, I conducted artificial language experiments to test the hypotheses that emerged from my ethnographic work on dialect contact in Grays Ferry. We found that phonological borrowing occurred at the highest rates when it was both socially relevant and when it indexed an acquirable trait (like "tough") -- in other words, when it was a 2nd order indexical variant!

  • Betsy Sneller and Gareth Roberts. 2016. Alien species and alienable traits: An artificial language game investigating the spread of cultural variants between antagonistic groups. In Papafragou, A., Grodner, D., Mirman, D., and Trueswell, J.C. (Eds.). Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. [pdf]
  • Betsy Sneller and Gareth Roberts. 2018. Why some behaviors spread while others don't: A laboratory simulation of dialect contact. Cognition 170: 289--311. [pdf]