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American Norwegian Sound Systems and Language Contact

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - AmNorSSC (American Norwegian Sound Systems and Language Contact)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-08-31

Between the 1820s and 1930s over 800,000 Norwegians immigrated to the United States, often creating or settling in Norwegian-speaking communities particularly in the American Upper Midwest. Many of these communities were considerably resistant to adopting English and up until the early 20th century, Norwegian was often learned in the home and spoken within the local community, what we refer to as a heritage language. Heritage languages often develop into distinct varieties of their own and American Norwegian is no exception: it survives as American dialects of Norwegian, with a clearly English-influenced vocabulary and various grammatical differences.

By focusing on American Norwegian this project aims to advance the fields of language contact and language variation and change with a comprehensive study of bilingual sound patterns. In particular, this project investigates the extent to which American Norwegian speakers adopt speech sounds from English, and, if so, how those patterns change over time as these communities became more English-dominant. The results inform debates on the composition of bilingual grammar and the extent to which structures in one language, in this case sound systems, may or may not remain intact under intense contact with another. It thus contributes to the understanding of the human capacity for language in a broader sense.

American Norwegian speakers are typically elderly individuals who adopted English as a primary mode of communication during childhood or early adolescence. Accordingly, their speech patterns in both Norwegian and English provide critical evidence that enriches our understanding of the ways in which the language can and does change over the course of an individual’s lifespan. By building on theoretical approaches that unify phonological and language contact theories, this project constitutes a significant contribution to the field and facilitates future research on language acquisition and bilingualism, language processing, and language maintenance/attrition over the lifespan.

The overarching objectives of this project are to investigate the effects of Norwegian-English bilingualism on the American Norwegian sound patterns, and to what extent those effects are constrained by each language system.
This project consisted of an acoustic analysis of sound recordings of American Norwegian speech between 1942 and 2010. Results show that over the course of approximately 80 years based on speaker birth year (1879–1957) more English-like r’s occur over time at the expense of the Norwegian ‘rolled’ or ‘tapped’ r. An analysis of where these changes occur (i.e. before or after vowels, in combination with other consonants, etc.), however, shows that this increase only occurs with r before the consonants t, d, s, n, l. This suggests that although there is an English effect on Norwegian, it is constrained and, in fact, limited to an environment where there is a Norwegian sound alternation: t, d, s, n, l are often produced with the tongue bent up and back (or ‘retroflex’) after r, creating a type of sound similar to English r. It is like using an English tool to complete a Norwegian job.

In addition to an analysis of language variables, this project undertook an investigation into whether potential changes in social patterns contributed to increased English use in traditionally Norwegian-speaking communities in the American Upper Midwest. This research is in the framework of the Verticalization model of language shift, that posits that minoritized language communities undergo shift to the majority language when they become more dependent upon community-external social and economic structures. By drawing on US Federal Census records, rates of reported language use can be correlated with various verticalization metrics (e.g. who was monolingual in which language, what kind of work did they do, what institutions used which language(s), etc.) to examine trajectories social and linguistic changes over time. This work is still in progress, but as continued investigations on the social histories of these communities develops it will enrich not only our understanding of the social forces that contribute to community-wide patterns of language maintenance and shift, but also the social context for linguistic changes in the American Norwegian speech corpus.
The results of this project contribute to debates on the stability and vulnerability of various linguistic systems in (heritage language) bilingual contact scenarios. In heritage language studies, sound systems are viewed as stable structures, although speakers are viewed as speaking with an ‘accent’ of some kind, meaning that some part of their speech sounds may be noticeably different from those of other speakers of the same language. The data collected and analyzed in the AmNorSSC project support phonological frameworks that consider abstract representations (phonology) as distinct from their pronunciations (phonetics). Phonetics is a robust domain for socially conditioned variation generally, so the fact that heritage language speakers may differ phonetically from other groups owes at least partially to the unique sociolinguistic profiles of these speakers. The results of this project contribute to continued progress in integrating heritage language sound systems into both formal phonological models and theories of sociolinguistic variation and language change.
Old American Midwestern Schoolhouse