I'm reading Labov's Principles of Language Change (Volume 1:Internal Factors and Volume 2:Social Factors) and I've come across something absolutely fascinating and totally contradictory to what they teach in Linguistics 101.
First, a little background for non-linguists. Linguistics started out in the reconstruction of language change - what's usually called historical linguistics today. One common phenomenon in language change is called the phonetic merger, where two sounds that used to be different become indistinguishable. Five hundred years ago, the words meet and meat were pronounced very differently, which is why they're still spelled differently. Then, the vowels in the middle merged in sound at some point. This can be tested with a minimal pair test: If you say "meat" or "meet" in isolation, or in a sentence where either word could be used, people can't tell the difference.
Now, when two sounds merge, they sound the same. The general understanding is that this is a one way process: two words that sound the same never, ever start to sound different. Or at least, that's what I was taught. Turns out this isn't exactly true.
Labov talks about something called the near-merger, where two sounds become so alike that listeners can't tell them apart, but using recordings and frequency measurements, a computer can still tell them apart. As an example, he shows that New Yorkers can't hear any difference between source from sauce in speech, but do clearly pronounce them differently. Labov implies that this might explain how line and loin, which sounded the same in the 18th century, have since become very different in most dialects of English - they never merged completely in the first place.
Now, I can think of a sociolinguistic explanation of how this kind of situation could exist and remain stable. Exposure to speakers of different dialects - one's that preserve larger distinctions - through media like TV could influence people's speech enough to retain a difference. But that difference might falls below the threshold of conscious comprehension. Furthermore, the inability of New Yorkers to consciously detect the difference between source and sauce doesn't mean that it doesn't contribute unconsciously to their ability to understand words in context.
However, I suspect that TV can't explain all cases of near-mergers.
The existence of near mergers undermines the idea that phonetic spelling systems can be easily constructed, as minimal pair tests may not reveal all real distinctions. Furthermore, it implicitly undermines the idea that language is a property of individuals, since this distinction relies on its social effect to persist. And, it really strikes hard at the notion that language can ever be modeled synchronically. Near-mergers only exist because of past distinctions, they can only be modeled in the light of the overt past distinction that they retain.
This is serious stuff.
I'm thinking, though, about whether the idea of a near-merger might apply to morphology and syntax. In morphology, I can think of one: gender in Dutch. Dutch no longer makes an overt distinction between masculine and feminine except in the choice of pronoun and the archaic ''te + dative'' construct. Yet, speakers are routinely capable of making masculine/feminine distinctions correctly. I thought the main reason was that so many people in Belgium speak dialects where the masculine/feminine distinction is still morphologically significant, but now I wonder. What if Dutch speakers who have never used anything other than the standard dialect were able to make those distinctions? Would this be the morphological analogy to a near-merger?
Labov has some other stuff that I think leads to interesting conclusions in creolistics, but that's a different post.Posted 2006/06/11 18:31 (Sun)