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Brain processing of speech sounds is different in some southern English speakers

When Rice University alumna Brianna Conrey was in third grade in Stillwater, Okla., she misspelled "pen" on a test because her teacher unknowingly pronounced it "pin." At the time, Conrey never would have guessed that she would write a senior thesis in college about the brain activity that takes place in people who don't distinguish between similar-sounding words like "pin" and "pen." Nor would she have guessed that her thesis would get published several years later in the journal Brain and Language.

While working on a B.A. in linguistics at Rice, Conrey wanted to study the variation in spoken American English in certain regions of the U.S. "I lived in a lot of different areas of the country as a kid and was exposed to many different ways of talking, so this topic was really fascinating," Conrey said. "We know from sociolinguistics the study of language variation and change that a great deal of phonetic variation occurs even within a single language."

She cited as an example a language variation known as a "vowel merger," in which two vowels with different pronunciation in one dialect of a language are merged, or not distinguished in pronunciation, in another dialect. The pin/pen merger, in which "i" and "e" are both pronounced like "i" before nasal sounds like "n" and "m" but not in other contexts, is often heard in Southern states and Texas, where a merged-dialect speaker might sound like they're pronouncing both "pin" and "pen" as "pin" to an unmerged-dialect speaker. The merged-dialect speaker is unlikely to be aware of the lack of distinction between the two sounds.

"Our study was interested in figuring out what happens in the brain when people who speak these different dialects hear similar sounds pronounced," said Conrey, who received funding from the Rice University Undergraduate Scholars Program. She consulted with Rice's Nancy Niedzielski and Geoffrey Potts on how to do the research for her honors thesis. Niedzielski is an assistant pro
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Contact: B.J. Almond
balmond@rice.edu
713-348-6770
Rice University
24-Feb-2006


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