Naomi Nagy

Linguistics at U of T

VOT across the Generations:
A cross-linguistic study of contact-induced change

Naomi Nagy and Alexei Kochetov

ICLaVE 6 Abstract

Previous research shows that bilinguals can produce voiceless stop categories differently in L1 and L2. For example, simultaneous English-French bilinguals tend to realize English /p, t, k/ with a long voice onset time (VOT) lag and the corresponding French stops with a short lag, as expected for both languages (Flege 1987; Fowler et al. 2008). Yet, the L1 and L2 categories appear to be ‘cognitively linked’ and continuously influence one another. As a result, the bilingual production in both L1 and L2 is different from that of monolinguals: the same English-French bilinguals were found to produce English stops with a shorter than expected lag, and French stops with a longer than expected lag (Fowler et al. 2008).

In contrast to most previous studies of bilingual VOT based on experimental elicitations (read words or sentences) and examined stable sociolinguistic contexts, we investigate VOT of voiceless stops in conversational speech in a transitional bilingual context, with a focus on inter-speaker variation. We examine the speech of bilinguals whose Heritage Language (HL) is a European language (Italian, Russian, or Ukrainian) and who also speak English. The data are drawn from the Heritage Language Documentation Corpus (Nagy 2009), consisting of sociolinguistic interviews conducted in Toronto with speakers in several generations of six heritage languages, stratified by age and sex. The interviews were conducted in the HL and produced ~1 hour of conversational speech from each participant, covering topics ranging from speaker's upbringing to their attitudes toward ethnic communities in Toronto. This approach allows us to describe naturalistic speech and examine contextual effects.

We present a subset of data: /p, t, k/ in stressed syllables before /a/ and /o/ (~150 tokens per speaker), produced by 18 individuals representing 3-5 generations of speakers in three HL languages. Unlike in English, voiceless stops in Italian, Russian, and Ukrainian are realized with a short lag VOT, defined as <25 ms. To ascertain the degree of contact-induced influence, we compare the HL patterns to those of monolinguals. Preliminary results, based on a subset of tokens from 6 speakers of Russian and 6 speakers of Ukrainian, and published reports on monolingual standards (Lisker & Abramson 1964, Sundara 2005), support our hypothesis that VOT of bilinguals in the HL will drift away from the monolingual short lag toward the long lag of English. This table illustrates the inter-speaker variation, reporting average VOT measurements for 5 speaker groups, for word-initial /t/:

short lag

(Ukrainian & Russian)

Heritage Language Speakers

long lag



Gen. 1

Gen. 2

Gen. 3

< 25 ms


20 ms

29 ms

39 ms

> 30 ms


22 ms

30 ms

51 ms

Our results reveal variation both within and across the heritage languages. We expect correlations with several indices of language contact and use to emerge in the full data set. The shift away from monolingual patterns is expected to be greater for speakers born and raised in Toronto (2nd & 3rd generations) than for those who grew up in Europe (1st generation). We expect stronger effects of generation and ethnic orientation in this transitional sociolinguistic environment than one would see in a stable bilingual environment, as speakers will be located at different points in the trajectory of assimilation toward English. We also expect bigger differences in our conversational data than have been shown in reading tasks, given the greater effect sizes seen in less monitored speech styles (Labov 1972, among others).


Flege, J.E. 1987. The production of “new” and “similar” phones in a foreign language: Evidence for the effect of equivalence classification, Journal of Phonetics 15:47-65.

Fowler, C.A., Sramko, V., Ostry, D.J., Rowland, S.A., & Hallé, P. 2008. Cross language phonetic influences on the speech of French-English bilinguals. Journal of Phonetics 36:649-63.

Labov, W. 1972. Sociolinguistic Patterns. Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Lisker, L. & A. Abramson. 1964. Cross-language study of voicing in initial stops: acoustical measurements. Word 20: 384-422.

Nagy, N. 2009. Heritage Language Variation and Change in Toronto.

Sundara, M. 2005. Acoustic-phonetics of coronal stops: A cross-language study of Canadian English and Canadian French. J. of the Acoustical Society of America 118: 1026–1037.


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