PhD project

Dialects, registers, and accents: investigating the use of sociolinguistic variants

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Application deadline

31 October 2022

About the project

Language is rich with expressive options, including words that tailor the speech to the specific situation, e.g., varying by register (potato vs. spud) or dialect (potato vs. tattie). Mastering ‘sociolinguistic competence’ is vital to communicative success, yet little is known about how speakers control the selection of one linguistic variant over another or how variants are represented and related in the mind. From the perspective of the listener, research has investigated how listeners adapt to unfamiliar accents (e.g., Eisner et al., 2013; Sumner & Samuel, 2009), but less is known about how we adapt to dialectal alternatives that extend beyond accents.

Importantly, speakers of non-standard dialects experience discrimination and prejudice in schools and the workplace, which can significantly impact education and employment outcomes. Many speakers level their accents to avoid the stigma associated with some dialects. However, accent and dialect are also major indicators of group membership and can be highly valued by ingroup members (e.g., Smith et al, 2009). This places pressure on speakers trying to balance the benefits of group membership against the costs arising from dialect discrimination.

This aim of this project is to marry the psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic sides of this problem, by combining cognitive and social psychological methods to investigate both the cognitive mechanisms behind sociolinguistic variant use and the social experiences of speakers of non-standard dialects. This project will be housed within the ‘Mind your Language’ laboratory of Dr. Alissa Melinger and supported by social psychologist colleagues at the University of Dundee.

The project will build on Dr. Melinger’s past research which has compared lexical selection processes in different variants of English to bilingual and synonym lexical selection (Melinger, 2018; 2020; Rose et al, 2019). In this early research, Melinger demonstrated that selecting dialect or register words engages unique processes not observed in bilingual or synonym processing. Melinger has also demonstrated that listeners find it easier to integrate dialect-consistent vocabulary items when listening to spoken language (Martin, et al, 2015). These findings are likely modulated by a number of factors such as socio-economic status, age, or educational level of the participant, ethnolinguistic identity of the experimenter, testing setting, task difficulty, frequency or dominance of the respective dialects, amongst other.

The scope of this project is open and broad, allowing ample opportunity for applicants to bring their own research ideas and to build on their own expertise. Applicants interested in related topics such as language and emotion, language acquisition, and ethnolinguistics are encouraged to get in contact to discuss their ideas. The Mindyourlangauge laboratory is set up for language production research, primarily using picture naming methodologies, and spoken language comprehension studies, using eyetracking and behavioural measures. Surveys, interviews, and questionnaires can also be used to investigate the sociolinguistic aspects of dialect, register, and accent usage.

As well as being of theoretical importance to our understanding of how sociolinguistic information impacts on language processing, the project also has socio-political ramifications. We aim to involve local dialect groups in the development of this project, both for the co-production of our experimental materials and participant recruitment but also to help shape the research questions around the needs of the community and address issues of discrimination and prejudice.

References

Eisner, F., Melinger, A., & Weber, A. (2013). Constraints on the transfer of perceptual learning in accented speech. Frontiers in Cognition. 4:148.

Martin, C.D., Garcia, X., Potter, D., Melinger, A., & Costa, A. (2016). Holiday or vacation? The processing of variation in vocabulary across dialects. Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience, 31(3), 375-390.

Melinger, A. (2018). Distinguishing languages from dialects: a litmus test using the picture-word interference task. Cognition, 172, 73-88.

Melinger, A. (2020). Do elevators compete with lifts?: Selecting Dialect Alternatives. Cognition, 206.

Rose, S. B., Aristei, S., Melinger, A., & Abdel Rahman, R. (2019). The closer they are, the more they interfere: Semantic similarity of word distractors increases competition in language production. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 45(4), 753.

Smith, J., Durham, M., & Fortune, L. (2007). " Mam, ma troosers is fa'in doon!" Community, caregiver and child in the acquisition of variation in Scottish dialect. Language Variation and Change, 19(1), 63-99.

How to apply

Deadline

31 October 2022

  1. Email Dr Alissa Melinger (a.melinger@dundee.ac.uk) to:
    • send a copy of your CV
    • discuss your potential application and any practicalities (e.g. suitable start date)
  2. After discussion with Dr Melinger, you can apply via our direct application system. Apply for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Psychology
Learn about applying for a research degree

Supervisors

Principal supervisor