Naomi Nagy

Linguistics at U of T

Talk for CVC III, York University, June 20-21, 2009


Boston R: Neighbo(r)s Nea(r) and Fa(r)

Naomi Nagy, University of Toronto

Production of post-vocalic (R) among white and African-American Bostonians, and white speakers from two towns in nearby New Hampshire, is examined. Efforts to line up the findings with the transmission/diffusion dichotomy (Labov 2007) fare worse than a model of (dis-)accommodation (Niedzielski & Giles 1996).

A corpus of ~11,000 tokens shows patterns among lifetime residents of the region stratified by age, sex, ethnicity, and linguistic marketplace. Environments were categorized according to morphological and phonological contexts and lexical frequency (as well as other characteristics that lack significance). Multivariate analysis first confirms that (R) is undergoing change: younger speakers have higher rates of [r-1] than older speakers in all locations and ethnicities.

Differences in the relative ranking of constraints suggest that this is not a straight-forward pattern of inter-generational transmission, nor can it be interpreted as diffusion, which entails simplification or decrease in the effects of conditioning factors. On the contrary, a new factor (lexical frequency) emerges as significant only in the speech of the younger speakers. Furthermore, the change toward rhoticity has progressed further in NH than in Boston, suggesting dis-accommodation  by NH speakers to the Boston accent rather than transmission from the metropolis to smaller towns (à la Trudgill 1974) and replicating findings reported for vowel mergers (Nagy 2001).

This lexical frequency effect emerges only in pre-consonantal environments, interpreted as deletion environments (cf. McCarthy 1993), but not pre-vocalic environments, which are insertion environments. This  supports the prediction that frequency determines the order or degree in which different words are affected in lenition changes, but not other types of changes (Phillips 1984, Abramowicz 2007, Dinkin 2008), with intriguing ramifications for Exemplar-type theories: frequency can account for changes in only one direction (and not for feature-changing processes).


Abramowicz, L. 2007. Sociolinguistics meets exemplar theory: frequency and recency effects in (ing). Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 13.2:27-37.

Dinkin, Aaron. J. 2008. The Real effect of word frequency on phonetic variation. Penn Working Papers in Linguistics 14.1 97–106. 

Labov, W. Transmission and diffusion. Language 83: 344-386.

McCarthy. J. 1993. A case of surface constraint violation. Canadian Journal of Linguistics/Revue Canadienne de Linguistique 38.2:169-195.

Nagy, N. 2001. 'Live free or die' as a linguistic principle. American Speech 76, 1: 30-41.

Niedzielski, N. & H. Giles. 1996. Linguistic Accommodation. In H. Goebl, P. Nelde,  Z.  Starý  and W. Wölck , eds. An International Handbook of Contemporary Research. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter. 332–42. (

Phillips, B. 1984. Word frequency and the actuation of sound change. Language 60: 320-42.

Trudgill, P. 1974. Linguistic Change and Diffusion: Description and Explanation in Sociolinguistic Dialect Geography.  Language in Society 3: 215-246.


email: naomi dot nagy at utoronto dot ca | Return to my home page