How stable is the standard? A real-time study of Scottish Standard English.

The How Stable is the Standard project is funded by a Research Incentive Grant from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland.



Project Description

The majority of sociolinguistic research carried out since the advent of audio recordings has been undertaken on variation and change in the vernacular. Lay assumptions are always that the standard variety is stable and immutable. By contrast with more usual ‘apparent’-time studies, which compare speech recorded at a single point in time across generations as a proxy for time depth, there is rather little empirical work on real-time change, which compares speech recorded at different timepoints. There seems to be even less research looking at the extent to which standard varieties vary over time.


One example of the few studies on standard accents over time is Harrington (e.g. 2007), who conducted longitudinal analyses of Queen Elizabeth II’s speech, based on up to 50 years of her annual Christmas broadcasts dating back to the 1950s. Elsewhere, Van de Velde, van Hout, & Gerritsen (1997) studied phonological changes in both Northern and Southern standard Dutch (in the Netherlands and Flanders, respectively) over 50+ years from the 1930s to the 1990s; Hernández-Campoy & Jiménez-Cano (2003) studied the diffusion of standard Castillian Spanish pronunciation patterns into southeastern Spanish, specifically Murcia, over a 25-year period from the mid 1970s until 2000; and Thøgersen & Pharao (2013) studied a shibboleth of standard Danish pronunciation over 50+ years from the mid 1950s through the first decade of the 2000s. All four of these studies focused on standard dialects spoken in Europe, and were based on a particular speech register, namely broadcasts for radio and/or television. All the studies indicated some degree of shift in fine-grained phonetic realization of the respective standard, with changes linking to vernacular norms and to social change more broadly.

Since Aitken (1984), English in Scotland is generally considered to be a sociolinguistic continuum ranging from Scots vernacular to Scottish Standard English. Whilst, historically, Scots continues earlier forms of Northern varieties of Anglian, with influences from contact with Scandinavian and Celtic as well as substantial levelling towards Anglo-English, Scottish Standard English continues varieties of Southern English which were introduced by the Scottish upper and middle-classes from the 17th century and became established during the 18th and 19th centuries (e.g. Corbett et al 2003). Johnston’s (1985) careful auditory phonetic analyses of the refined ‘Kelvinside’ and ‘Morningside’ accents in the early 1980s noted not only accommodation towards Anglo-English RP pronunciation norms, for example the use of diphthongs /ɛɪ əʊ/ for monophthongs /e o/ in words like face and goat (see also, e.g. Schützler 2011 and references there), but also indications of shifts towards what he interpreted to be a developing confidence in a Scottish Standard, for example the retention of coda /r/ in words like car.

In this 12-month project we will build a small-scale electronic spoken corpus of Scottish Standard English spoken in Glasgow, from up to 24 male speakers recorded in the 1970s and 1990s and representing three generations. Building and analysing the corpus will exploit recent technological advances in the automated processing of speech. Data drawn from the corpus will permit an initial investigation of stability and/or change over a generation of real-time during the period of political devolution and the creation of the Scottish parliament. Specifically, we will focus on the stressed vowel system and the extent to which this accommodates towards Anglo-English norms or maintains Scottish qualities. The project is intended to be both a stand-alone real-time project and to serve as the core for expansion into a long-term research programme on the fate of the Standard in Scotland through audio recordings across the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.