The sociophonetic effects of religious affiliation in Utah County, Utah, USA

Mariana Chao;1, David Bowie;1, Wendy Baker;2, Catie Fry;1, Matthew Armand;1

1: University of Central Florida, USA 2: Brigham Young University, USA


Utah is located in the western United States, and is demographically notable for being one of only two US states where more than half the population claims the same religious affiliation—over 60% of Utah’s population is made up of self-identified members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (better known as the Mormon church), and the figure is much higher in some jurisdictions within Utah.

Local conventional wisdom holds that Mormons and non-Mormons in Utah tend to inhabit largely non-overlapping social networks. If this is the case, then these separate social networks would likely lead to linguistic differences that can be defined in terms of religious affiliation, similar to the linguistic effects of religious affiliation found in Northern Ireland (for example, McCafferty, 2001; Todd, 1984).

We conducted an initial exploratory investigation of this question by conducting short, focused sociolinguistic interviews with twenty-eight individuals from Utah County, Utah (evenly divided between people who self-identified as Mormon and non-Mormon). We obtained words containing 15 vowels that have been shown to be of interest in previous studies of Utah English (Bowie, 2003; Di Paolo and Faber, 1990; Di Paolo, 1992; Lillie, 1998). The speakers produced 959 tokens of the vowels studied (for an average of about 42 tokens of each vowel).

These words were then presented to a panel made up of three individuals who had not had any previous experience with Utah English. The rating panel rated each utterance along a 4-point scale with clearly defined endpoints that differed for each vowel under analysis. The rating panel was not told what the sounds that they were rating were, to eliminate any bias from expectations about what something “should” sound like.

Based on the panel’s ratings, there are several clear differences between Mormons’ and non-Mormons’ vowels in Utah County, Utah. Significant differences were found in the production of pre-lateral /e/, /u/, and /?/; pre-nasal /?/; and pre-obstruent /ć/, /?/, and /?/. Further, testing for effect size found that none of these significant religiously-correlated differences was a small effect, and some of them were exceptionally large. This linguistic effect lends credence to the conventional wisdom that social networks in that region are based at least in part on religious lines.

Bowie, David. 2003. Early development of the CARD-CORD merger in Utah. American speech 78:31-51.

Di Paolo, Marianna, and Faber, Alice. 1990. Phonation differences and the phonetic content of the tense-lax contrast in Utah English. Language variation and change 2:155-204.

Di Paolo, Marianna. 1992. Hypercorrection in response to the apparent merger of (?) and (?) in Utah English. Language and communication 12:267-292.

Lillie, Diane DeFord. 1998. The Utah dialect survey, English, Brigham Young University: Master's thesis.

McCafferty, Kevin. 2001. Ethnicity and language change: English in (London)Derry, Northern Ireland. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Todd, Loreto. 1984. By their tongue divided: Towards an analysis of speech communities in Northern Ireland. English world-wide 5:159-180.

Session: Paper session
Religion / Language Rights
Friday, April 4, 2008, 15:45-17:15
room: 16