Why not call it “Pizz-AH”? [SURE Stories]

11 Apr

—This post is written by UHPer and SURE Award winner Katherine Winters.—

Makin' Science

Katherine Winters, with her research assistant.

Most people know that a noun is a person, place, or thing. Not everyone knows that most of a child’s first 50 words are nouns: foods, animals, body parts, names, toys, and vehicles. As children begin to build their vocabularies they constantly receive linguistic input from their family, teachers, and neighbors. Each of these speech examples is characterized by different phonological patterns with various accents, pronunciation or stress patterns, and speech styles. Somehow, children determine a standard phonological form that they apply to their own speech production and reject all competing forms. 

My research stems from this question: how do children choose their phonological forms? I’ve acquired my mom’s pronunciation of bagel, “beg-l,” versus the common “bey-guhl”, but I’ve also rejected “warsh” and “wuder”, my family’s pronunciations of “wash” and “water.” A few hypotheses attempt to explain what determines whether a child will imitate and ultimately acquire a particular form. Some are based on the frequency of the example; others propose that the type of noun, common or proper, may bias a child toward imitation. The UHP SURE award funds my independent study that looks at overimitation of familiar and novel common and proper two-syllable nouns in three- and four-year-olds.

The procedure is fairly simple – pick a child out of the National Zoo’s crowded Think Tank, convince the parents to sign some consent forms, entice the child with race car stickers, and prop them in front of a computer screen where we take turns naming pictures of cookies, people, and the occasional nonsense word paired with an obscure farming tool. In English, two-syllable words primarily emphasize the first syllable. My study looks at a child’s imitation or rejection of emphasizing the second syllable, which will ultimately shed some light on which nouns, if any, have a bias for imitation. Although I’m still analyzing the data for trends, I’m confident in saying that all but one of the kids thought I had three heads when I tried to call pizza “pizz-AH”.

As a Speech and Hearing Science major, I’m often presented with theories of language acquisition, but I’ve never had the opportunity to test what I’ve learned. I’m really excited to see how the rest of my trials pan out as well as to keep playing with stickers ten hours a weekend. In addition to fulfilling my independent study for this semester, the analysis of this data will evolve into my senior thesis.

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2 Responses to “Why not call it “Pizz-AH”? [SURE Stories]”

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  1. Study Your Passion, Get $500 To Do It [SURE Award] « theUHP Blog - September 24, 2012

    […] it to buy high tech equipment to learn about Climate Change for their class project, figure out childhood speech patterns, or study Christianity and homelessness.  Others — like Jonathan Robinson – combined the […]

  2. Study Your Passion, Get $500 To Do It [Spring 2013 SURE Award] « theUHP Blog - December 5, 2012

    […] it to buy high tech equipment to learn about Climate Change for their class project, figure out childhood speech patterns, or study Christianity and homelessness.  Others — like Jonathan Robinson – combined the […]

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