Listening to the past – new study into the changing accent of Glasgow

Published: 1 March 2012

A study from the University of Glasgow is the first of its kind to investigate the evolution of the Glaswegian accent over the course of a century

A research team, led by Dr Jane Stuart-Smith of the School of Critical Studies at the University of Glasgow has been awarded £235,000 by the Leverhulme Trust to study the evolution of speech in the city over the course of the past century. The project is now asking members of the public to come forward with their own examples of audio recordings, particularly from before 1980 and especially involving teenagers and women. 

Jane Stuart-Smith on our changing accents

The ‘Sounds of the City’ project is the first of its kind to use new, state-of-the-art audio analysis techniques to chart the evolution of speech over the course of a century to build up a picture of precisely how and why accents change. The study will track changes in the Glaswegian accent and look into how the various linguistic and social factors that shaped UK accents over the course of the last hundred years may have contributed to phonetic change. Studying this ‘fine phonetic variation’ will allow researchers from the University to understand accent change in a new, scientifically rigorous way.

The city of Glasgow has traditionally been an important centre for the study of sociolinguistics, dating back to the pioneering work carried out by Professor Ronald Macaulay in Glasgow in the 1970s. While researching the Glaswegian accent, Professor Macaulay recorded and catalogued numerous samples of speech, leaving behind the basis for a unique audio resource. This presents Dr Stuart-Smith and her team with an ideal opportunity to study phonetic change across the generations by applying new scientific research techniques to the old recordings.

The research team will apply acoustic imaging techniques to analyse the recordings in order to identify a range of accent features, including gradual changes that may have taken place over generations, more abrupt ones that may have come into use much more recently, and features that haven’t changed at all.

Dr Stuart-Smith said: “Some sounds in Glaswegian seem to be stable over time, for example, the vowels in words like ‘cat’ or ‘coat’ or ‘mate’, whereas others are changing. Our recent research has shown that Glaswegian vernacular is innovative in showing features like [f] for /th/ in words like ‘think’ and ‘tooth’; these changes seem to have entered the dialect quite abruptly. But Glaswegian is also showing other changes which look much more gradual: weakening of the pronunciation of /r/ in words like ‘car’ and ‘card’ look as if they have been taking place over a much longer period.”

Once they have evidence of how the Glaswegian accent has changed, the team will move on to looking at the part that social factors may have played in this.

Dr Stuart-Smith: “Language change is known to result from the interplay of linguistic and social factors. The actual linguistic context of a sound is important in whether a sound will change and how that might happen. Linguistic constraints can include: any adjacent sounds, the kind of phrase that the sound occurs within, it also incorporates the intonation of the phrase, or where in the phrase the sound occurs – all these factors can affect sound change.

“At the same time, there are also many social pressures on language change, ranging from the kinds of social groups that people belong to, the strength and persistence of social networks, whether speakers have the opportunity to mix with speakers of other dialects, to the kinds of social personae that people express and develop when they communicate with people every day.

“This study presents a unique and very exciting opportunity for us; until now, studying accent change over time has been a relatively neglected area of research and we are among the first to be looking at this using empirical evidence to build up a scientifically rigorous process.”

BBC Scotland's interview with Jane Stuart-Smith on was broadcast on Good Morning Scotland on 1 March, you can listen again here:

First published: 1 March 2012

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