An analysis of /r/ variation in Singapore English

Change log
Kwek, Geraldine Su Ching 

In modern urban Singapore, the variety of English spoken evolves through a continual negotiation of adhering to traditionally standard models and creating local norms in the environment of myriad social and substratum language influences. Singapore English (SgE) speakers constantly navigate a multilingual situation which requires them to simultaneously handle the language systems of the society’s main working language, English, and at least one other language while being immersed in a linguistic environment where interactions in countless other languages and varieties take place. Variation, thus, inevitably exists within SgE as depicted in models of variation developed throughout the years. While this variation manifests itself in many forms, this study focuses particularly on the sociophonetic variation of /r/ realisations, an area of SgE in which the little research done previously provides only impressionistic or preliminary descriptions.

Here, /r/ variation is studied through an auditory and acoustic investigation of both read and conversational speech data collected from male and female SgE speakers of Singapore’s major ethnic groups (i.e. Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian). Through the use of an auditory perceptual strength index and a combination of fixed- and mixed- effects statistical modelling methods, this study reveals /r/ variation in SgE on several levels. Results show that SgE speakers produce a range of /r/ variants, both within and between speakers, and also highlight the intertwined roles of language-internal factors (e.g. phonological contexts, word class) and language-external factors (e.g. speech style, ethnicity, speaker sex) in determining variation in both the realisation and distribution of /r/ in SgE. Finer auditory and acoustic distinctions are found in approximant /r/, reflecting both the phonetic complexity of /r/ and the multifaceted nature of SgE. Additionally, supportive evidence for the presence of innovative trends in SgE /r/ realisation (i.e. labiodental /r/) and of fading ones (i.e. taps/trills) is also found.

Taken together, these results provide the basis for discussions of a potential situation of natural /r/-weakening and the impacts of speech styles, cross-linguistic influences, and language dominance on /r/ variation. They also postulate trends of change in /r/ realisations in SgE affected by age, ethnicity and speaker sex. Besides contributing to the general on-going discussions of synchronic variation and diachronic change in the story of /r/, this study shares insights into the intricacies of studying linguistic patterns in multilingual urban communities and provides empirical evidence for the need of a multidimensional approach in researching multicultural varieties and/or ‘New Englishes’ like SgE.

Nolan, Francis J.
/r/ variation, Singapore English, sociophonetics, multicultural English, rhotics, sociophonetic variation
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Overseas Graduate Scholarship from the National Institute of Education (NIE/NTU), Singapore