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Sound change or community change? The speech community in sound change studies: A case study of Scottish Gaelic

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<mark>Journal publication date</mark>30/09/2022
<mark>Journal</mark>Linguistics Vanguard
Issue numbers5
Number of pages13
Pages (from-to)677-689
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date28/04/21
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This paper considers the typical focus of analysis in a sound change study across generations: the speech community. I argue that changes in social practices across generations may mean that generational comparisons can be problematic, and these issues are particularly pertinent in small and endangered language communities. Using data from Scottish Gaelic (Celtic, ISO = gla), a minority endangered language of Scotland, I exemplify the challenges posed by the speech community construct via an examination of lateral production across generations of speakers. Gaelic traditionally contrasts three phonemic laterals, but analysis shows that this might be changing. There are two possible directions for sound change in the Gaelic lateral system: results show that younger speakers produce some palatalised laterals as palatal glides without laterality. Meanwhile, the remaining laterals are less acoustically distinct among younger generations, suggesting the possibility of future merger. The construct upon which any apparent- or real-time study of sound change relies is the speech community as a unit of analysis for change. While there are differences among the groups of speakers analysed here, I argue it is potentially problematic to consider this to be a form of sound change due to differences in social practices among generations surrounding Gaelic usage and socialisation. Ultimately, I advocate for a socially-informed approach to sound change study which sympathetically takes local social structure into account.