Variable production and indexical social meaning: On the potential physiological origin of intervocalic /s/ voicing in Costa Rican Spanish

Whitney Chappell, Christina García
  • Studies in Hispanic and Lusophone Linguistics, January 2017, De Gruyter
  • DOI: 10.1515/shll-2017-0001

Gendered approaches to /s/ pronunciation in Costa Rican Spanish

What is it about?

In many dialects of Spanish, /s/ between vowels (e.g. oso ‘bear’) can be produced with partial or full vocal fold vibration, making it more like the final sound in the English word 'buzz'. Men tend to exhibit more /s/ voicing than women, and this difference may have a physiological basis. Previous studies have contended that speakers with larger vocal tracts or thicker vocal folds may have greater difficulty stopping their vocal folds from vibrating between vowels, and the present work analyzes 18 sociolinguistic interviews to determine (i) what factors are most predictive of intervocalic /s/ voicing in Costa Rica and (ii) whether physiology can potentially explain its origin. The results show that both speaker sex and physiological measures like vocal tract size and vocal fold thickness significantly condition /s/ voicing, with more voicing in men’s speech, with larger vocal tracts, and with thicker vocal folds. However, if the body is responsible for men's higher rates of voicing, one would expect more partial voicing in their speech as they attempt to stop vocal fold vibration between vowels, but women actually voice more gradiently while men produce higher rates of 0% and 100% voicing. We conclude that while physiological factors may have been its original source, non-physiological factors currently condition /s/-voicing in Costa Rica, with male speakers aiming for categorical targets due to social motivations.

Why is it important?

We quantitatively test the theoretical claim that intervocalic voicing is the result of physiology, namely larger vocal tracts and thicker vocal folds. While it is possible that certain linguistic changes can originate in the body itself, indexical social meaning (e.g. how masculine or how kind a speaker sounds) may become associated with a phonetic variant, which obscures the origin of the phenomenon. We conclude that if social meaning is indexed by a phonetic variant, its production becomes socially motivated rather than indicative of a physiological response.

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr. Whitney Chappell and Christina Garcia

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