Frequency effects over the lifespan: A case study of Attenborough's r's


This paper uses a small-scale case study of the speech of a single speaker at two points in time to investigate the question of whether and how speakers’ mental representations change over their lives. Specifically, I test two predictions of usage-based models of phonological representation: that individuals surrounded by a changing community will show the community change in their own production, and that this individual-level change will show an effect of item frequency. The community change under study is the loss in English Received Pronunciation of [ɾ] as a realization of /ɹ/; the speaker studied is Sir David Attenborough, a well-known British nature documentary narrator. I find that Attenborough’s narrations do not show evidence of him participating in the community change away from [ɾ] over time; however, he does show a different sort of change, by which he increases his rate of [ɾ] in high-frequency collocations in later life. I propose that this result may be attributable to Attenborough’s mental representation of high-frequency collocations becoming more word-like over time. The results speak to questions about the malleability of mental representations and the role of the individual language user in cases of community change.

Linguistics Vanguard 3(1):1–12