Who got that cash?

November 25, 2005

Most of us can hear the difference between a Geordie and a Glaswegian when they speak, but is it possible to quantify the difference between people's accents?

At the moment, there is no objective measure of the differences and similarities between accents, but a grant to an Edinburgh University team could change that.

April McMahon, Forbes professor of English language at Edinburgh, has been awarded £146,195 by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The funds will allow her to work with Paul Heggarty and Warren McGuire to try to quantify how much we use different parts of our vocal system when we pronounce different words.

"In the past, links between dialects have been based on vocabulary," she said. "But two people can say the same thing, and there's huge audible difference between them."

For the first part of the project, the team will track the quantitative differences and similarities between dialects in a variety of languages that will include English, old and new Icelandic and Quechua, which is spoken by South American Indian peoples.

In the second part, the data will be compiled using computer programs to generate tree and network diagrams so the links can be interpreted.

"Words and sounds get borrowed from other languages and dialects, so the links form a network," Professor McMahon explained. "The point of the project is that linguists are brilliant at saying that languages are different, but they are not so good at saying how different (languages) are.

"People say that variations between different English dialects are being lost and that we all now speak a homogenous English. This method would allow us to plot quantitatively whether the differences really are decreasing."

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