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Palatalization: Variation and Social Meaning

Dennis R. Preston


Although early work on /t/~/d/ and /r/ deletion was in the vanguard of variation studies, work on consonantal variation has been lacking. This paper reports on a study of palatalization of /t/, /d/, /s/, and /z/ before the palatal glide /j/. Respondents read a phrase list and a reading passage with such items embedded and were recorded in free conversation. The following conditions were coded: Item identity - /t/ /d/ /s/ /z/, Morpheme status - monomorpheme (e.g. miss)/preterit (e.g. mashed)/3rd singular (e.g. wants), Preceding vowel - high/nonhigh, Style - phrase list/reading passage/conversation, Sex - male/female, Age - young/middle/old, and Status - working/lower middle/middle. Logistic regression revealed significant influences for several of the above, and palatalization occurred at a rate of about 33% for all possible occurrences. /d/ is dispreferred, /t/ and /s/ had a middle position, and /z/ was considerably preferred. Stylistic variation showed preference for palatalization in the informal style (i.e. conversational) and least in the phrase list. Male, older, and working class respondents palatalized most frequently. If this is a “normal” nonstandard feature, one would expect the age-grading associated with such usage (preference by younger and older respondents), but instead there is a clearly age-related pattern that suggests but perhaps does not really involve change. Most puzzling is the wide variation discovered for style and the much less robust variation for status, and contradiction of the relationship found in most work.

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