Scientists in Scotland have recently created a database of accents after exposing tongues to one ultrasound after the other—1,500 tongues in all from 16 countries—as part of the “Dynamic Dialects” project (which was done in coordination between the University of Glasgow, the University of Strathclyde, and Queen Margaret University in London.) To give you an idea: here’s a woman from Georgia, a man from Bhopal and a woman from Orkney saying “goose.”
The study was “more about resource creation than research,” Eleanor Lawson, a professor at the University of Glasgow and expert in English-language dialectology, told Quartz. “But the idea to make these resources came about after many years of research using ultrasound tongue imaging.”
“We have been focusing on the postvocalic R,” as in car, farm, sort, share etc., “in Scottish English, which seems to be weakening and might be in the process of disappearing for some Scottish speakers,” she noted. “We also found that speakers from different social groups were using fundamentally different tongue shapes to produce R.”
It’s all a bit My Fair Lady. “We know that the way R is pronounced is one of the most salient ways that Scottish speakers indicate their socioeconomic status,” Lawson explained. “The two different ways of producing R might come from Scots and Anglo-English respectively. There are some early elocution manuals and phonetics handbooks that give some interesting advice to Scottish speakers about R production; what to avoid, what to aim for. They can maybe give some clues about why R production diverges among the social classes.”
“A linguistic change could only be described as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ insofar as it promoted or discouraged breathing,” Paul Whitehouse of the Chartered Institute of Linguists told Quartz. “The loss of rhoticity [ability to produce a hard R sound] in Scottish English would only be repeating what occurred in much of England—and parts of New England—and as the resulting varieties of English are no better and no worse than their rhotic counterparts … I don’t see that there are any ‘health’ issues here at all, medical or otherwise.”
“The elision of the R is something which is obviously well advanced among speakers of English in England, where ‘order’ and ‘year’ are commonly sounded as ‘o-dah’ and ‘yee-ah,’” Daucit Horsbroch of the Scottish Language Centre told Quartz. “You might consider that when one country is in a political union with another, and the mass media is largely controlled and disseminated by one particular language group, with little or no corresponding provision for language groups or sound systems on the receiving end, then it comes as little surprise that the receivers are going to change in the direction of the dominating tongue.”
“My work on impressions was relevant to this,” Carolyn McGettitan of the Royal Holloway University of London told Quartz. In an ongoing study, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), McGettitan and her colleagues are asking participants to imitate native and non-native vowels. They then track the changes in their acoustic accuracy, while also acquiring functional MRI of the brain and anatomical MRI of the vocal tract during vowel production.
“This is the first time work of this nature has been carried out on human speech, and will produce very exciting and novel opportunities to tease apart acoustic and auditory and sensorimotor aspects of vocal imitation and learning,” McGettitan said. “Later in the project, we will also be investigating expertise in vocal flexibility, through the study of human beatboxers performing similar imitation tasks.”
The voice shifts from one register to another—sometimes for socio-economic reasons, sometimes for physiognomic ones—and often in the most evident and apparent of places. In the world of academia and research, this is the tongue’s present, and unless technology—suddenly, somehow—renders tongues useless, it is the future as well.