New Approaches to Describing Phonological Change

Tobias Streck Christian Schwarz

University of Freiburg, Germany


As in almost all European speech communities, the constellation of dialect and standard in the repertoires has changed immensely within the German speaking area (Auer 2005: 22 ff.). The old diglossic constellations have almost disappeared (with the exception of the German speaking part of Switzerland) and turned into diaglossic (i.e., continuous) repertoires. Crucial in this sense is the gradual disappearance of rural dialects, which are substituted by regional varieties of the standard language. Although this development is well known, hardly any systematic and geographically wide ranging analysis of phonological dialect change has been undertaken so far in Germany (see Ruoff 1992).

The research project which we will report from (funded by the German Research Foundation since June 2006) investigates geographically distributed phonological data covering a time span of approximately 100 years in real time in the Southwest of Germany, mainly data from the 1880s (Sprachatlas des Deutschen Reichs initiated by Georg Wenker) and 1970/80s (Südwestdeutscher Sprachatlas (Steger 1989 ff.)). The latter include not only knowledge based data (questionnaires, dialect translations) but also tape recordings of spontaneously produced speech. A comparison in two steps is carried out:

1) a real-time-comparison of Wenker’s questionnaire data with those of the Südwestdeutscher Sprachatlas

2) an apparent-time-comparison of questionnaire data of the Südwestdeutscher Sprachatlas with spontaneous speech of mostly the same informants

Due to an extraordinarily rich data base and innovative computer technologies we are able to describe phonological change on a large quantitative and geographical scale. Thus we are able to separate relic areas (little dialect change) from dynamic areas (intensive dialect change). For certain phonological variables one such relic area could e.g. be identified in the very southwestern part of the area under investigation. Within dynamic areas the effects of neighbouring dialects (horizontal change) vs. regiolects / Standard German (vertical change) on dialect change is investigated in detail. Our results show that in some cases especially the Swabian dialects exert a stronger influence on the neighbouring Middle Alemannic dialect than Standard German does.

The analysis also includes language-internal factors that have an impact on phonological change, such as morphological contexts: It will be shown that phonological substitution of dialect by standard features occurs more frequently within morphologically complex constructions like compounds and derived words and only to a relatively low extent within simplicia. Beyond morphological contexts the role of token frequency and phonological persistence is taken into account (Szmrecsanyi 2005) – an effect that might lead to variation and thus to phonological change.


Auer, Peter (2005): “Europe’s sociolinguistic unity, or: A typology of European dialect/standard constellations.” – In: Nicole Delbecque et al. (eds.): Perspectives on Variation. – Mouton: de Gruyter, 7-42.

Ruoff, Arno (ed.) (1992): Die fränkisch-alemannische Sprachgrenze. Statik und Dynamik eines Übergangsgebiets. – Tübingen: Niemeyer (= Idiomatica; 17).

Steger, Hugo (ed.) (1989 ff.): Südwestdeutscher Sprachatlas. – Marburg: Elwert.

Szmrecsanyi, Benedikt (2005): “Language users as creatures of habit: a corpus-linguistic analysis of persistence in spoken English”. – In: Corpus Linguistics and Linguistic Theory 1 (1), 113-150.

Session: Paper session
Change (Phonological)
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 09:00-10:30
room: 12