Two students - one L of an achievement!

Claire Slight

Stephanie SheehanTwo students who studied changes in the South East English accent for their undergraduate degrees were given the rare honour of presenting their research to the country's leading language experts.

English language graduate Stephanie Sheehan, 22, and linguistics graduate Claire Slight, 21, produced original research on a little-explored subject - a rare achievement for undergraduate students.

Stephanie, 22, and Claire, 21, graduate with First-Class degrees in English and in Linguistics today ( Friday 23 July at 3.30pm).

Both Claire and Stephanie decided to investigate changes in the accent of South East England involving the L-sound. Their work was so good it was accepted for presentation by the highly respected Manchester Phonology meeting. Their findings challenge current thinking in linguistics and offer an interesting new perspective at how the South-East accent is changing in younger people.

Stephanie, who comes from Totnes in Devon, says: "Both Claire and I chose to write about phonology [the study of speech sounds in language] in our final projects and by coincidence more than anything, we each chose a topic that involved the pronunciation of /l/ in different environments."

The students' research suggests that the representations of speech sounds in the brain are fairly abstract. Stephanie argued in her dissertation that the L-sound, although often realised as a vowel in the South-East (so that MIDDLE may be pronounced MIDDOW), is still processed as a consonant. The brain is therefore able to unscramble the difference between a true vowel and a 'fake' one.

Claire, from Carshalton, Surrey, uncovered the workings behind a recent change, in which the  'aw' and 'oo' sounds before 'l' are merging, so that FALL and FOOL (and potentially FULL) sound identical. She found out how this change originated in London but changed its nature when it started spreading to the Home Counties; the exact workings of this change again suggest a fairly abstract level of sound processing in the brain.

Stephanie says: "My results counteract traditional theories of phonology and phonetics and question established ideas about speech."

Claire says: "The London way of speaking has recently become a prestigious form to which young Home Counties/Southern English speakers socially aspire. But in adopting the London accent over-generalise and use pronunciations that Londoners wouldn't."

Claire went on to present their findings at the conference, with help from tutor Dr Christian Uffmann, who says: "The South-Eastern accent is currently undergoing significant changes but there is fairly little research on that, which means that students are able to  produce original research. Claire and Stephanie's dissertations are outstanding examples of that, showing that it is possible to make  genuine discoveries in research at undergraduate level."


Last updated: Wednesday, 21 July 2010