Solving the actuation problem: the role of perception in sound change
10 / 2011 - 09 / 2015
Synchronic language variation is a prerequisite for diachronic language change, but only a limited amount of synchronic variation patterns actually turns into language change. We know already a lot about the mechanisms underlying the origin and spread of phonological variation and change. However, the question why a particular sound change takes place in a particular language variety at a particular moment - the so-called actuation problem (Weinreich, Labov & Herzog 1968) - has largely remained unsolved. We argue that the key to the actuation problem has to be found in the relationship between speech perception and speech production. In this research project, we address this core question about language change by means of a series of experiments on (i) the perception of contemporary patterns of phonetic variation and change in Dutch and (ii) the speakers' capacity to imitate specific phonetic variants. The experimental design of this project will be based, on the one hand, on a range of variables that currently show regional and social patterns of variation in speech production; and on the other hand, on a hypothetical exemplar-theory based model of the role of speech perception in sound change. This model is designed to provide the missing link between the origin of the new variant and its spread, since it shows - at the individual level - how sociolinguistic variation is transmitted. It consists of different stages that are prerequisites for sound change and of which the necessity will be demonstrated experimentally. This project will allow us to gain crucial insights in phonological variation in Dutch, in the role of perception in the process of sound change and in the relationship between speech perception and speech production. Hence, it will improve theories of language variation and change.