Western Carolina University
 
 
 

WESTERN JOINS RESEARCHERS FROM OHIO, WISCONSIN
IN $1.7 MILLION STUDY OF CHANGING DIALECTS

Image: Martin Fischer, professor of communication sciences and disorders at WCU (right), monitors sound waves as part of a collaborative dialect research project while Robert Fox, professor and chair of speech and hearing science at Ohio State, helps a volunteer with a headset and microphone.
Martin Fischer, professor of communication sciences and disorders at WCU (right), monitors sound waves as part of a collaborative dialect research project while Robert Fox, professor and chair of speech and hearing science at Ohio State, helps a volunteer with a headset and microphone.
 

Words in the same language sure do sound different sometimes, especially in terms of how different speakers say vowel sounds.  For example, when visitors to Western North Carolina hear residents say the word “bite” they often hear something that almost sounds closer to the word “bat.” Ohioans may think Wisconsinites who say “bag” are talking about a dog asking for food ­ “beg.” To study how dialects differ from region to region and evolve from generation to generation, Western Carolina University is collaborating with researchers at Ohio State and the University of Wisconsin-­Madison.

The National Institutes of Health funded a $1.8 million five-year research project led by The Ohio State University that will document and research variations in dialect in Ohio, Wisconsin and the Appalachian area of Western North Carolina. The findings could help improve standardized tests for speech and hearing or improve voice recognition systems that understand spoken commands such as “voicemail” or “yes.” Another benefit is simply the historical preservation of how people speak in a region, the researchers said.

“The participants will be helping document their culture,” said Martin Fischer, professor of communication sciences and disorders at Western.  “We are going to focus on the Cullowhee and Sylva area as well as East LaPorte, Waynesville and Franklin. There is very little data collected on this population at the level we are going.”

Researchers recorded the first volunteers from the Sylva in late February as they read sentences and lists of words such as “heed,” “hid,” “head” and “hide.” The goal of the project is to record the speech of 120 lifelong residents of each region from a range of ages. Ideally, participants will include members of the same family such as a child, her mother and grandmother.  Researchers will listen to the recordings and study the sound waves, measuring such characteristics as the “initial voiced consonant stop burst/release spike” and “final stop closures.” The study also will explore speech from more-relaxed, informal conversations.

“All languages change naturally,” said Robert Fox, professor and chair of speech and hearing science at Ohio State, where he works with the project's principal investigator Ewa Jacewicz. For instance, hundreds of years ago the word “I” was pronounced more like a long “e” sound. “We are looking for reasons for dialect changes,” said Fox, who suggested factors changing language today could include mainstream media or the words mothers emphasize in front of their children. “A child may adopt the pronunciation of the vowel in an emphasized word to their other vowels,” he said.

Rounds of recordings will take place every few weeks with the second round to begin in mid-March. For more information about the project or how to participate as a paid volunteer, contact Martin Fischer, professor of communication sciences and disorders, at (828) 227-3289.


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Last modified: Thursday, March 9, 2006
Copyright 2006 by Western Carolina University