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How salient is the nurse~square merger?1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2013

School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8140, New,
School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8140, New,


This article reports the results of an experimental investigation into listeners' evaluative reactions towards the nurse~square merger in the north-west of England, in an attempt to shed light on its salience. Although speakers across England's north-west have a nurse~square merger, its realisation differs: in Liverpool, speakers typically merge to a mid front [ɛː], while speakers from St Helens, just 20km further east, merge to a mid central [ɜː]. To test listeners' responses to each variant, we presented two groups of listeners from each of these localities with read sentence data from a single speaker. The speaker was from the north-west of England and had a centralised nurse~square vowel in his native accent (representing the St Helens model). To achieve a matched-guise, the original nurse~square vowels were acoustically manipulated to give the impression of fronting (representing the Liverpool model). Listeners from Liverpool and St Helens were asked to react to guises along the status dimension, and their reaction was measured in real-time using bespoke audience response software administered via the web. The novelty in this approach is that it can be used not only to show that listeners do indeed react to the guises, but also to examine precisely when this reaction takes place. Our results show that (a) overall, speakers with a nurse~square merger are not rated highly on the status dimension, regardless of whether they have a merger to a front or central vowel; (b) listeners' real-time reactions can be correlated with instances of nurse and square; and (c) listeners' responses to nurse can be different from responses to square. We discuss these results in relation to the salience of this merger in particular and to salience in general. We suggest that the salience of nurse and square is related to the local social context and the micro-linguistic context in which they appear.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Economic and Social Research Council, grant number RES-061-25-0458. We would also like to thank the audiences at the conference of the International Society for the Linguistics of English (ISLE), held in Boston, USA in June 2011, and the 13th New Zealand Language and Society conference, held in Auckland in November 2012. Finally we thank Rob Drummond, Nicolai Pharao, Margaret Maclagan and Paul Kerswill for providing detailed and helpful feedback on this article.


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