Welcome to VIA

Welcome to the Vowels In America (VIA) research project, a joint effort by sociolinguists from the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Oregon to better understand the relationship between speech production and speech perception in American dialects.

Mohawk Valley Oregon Image
The Mohawk Valley in western Oregon as seen on July 6, 2015. Photo by Tyler Kendall

When we listen to someone speaking, what we hear is, in part, determined by how the listener speaks – his dialect or her accent. In other words, the same sound is articulated in different ways depending on where a speaker is from and even social factors such as gender and age. These facts, as well as beliefs about things like a speaker’s social class, ethnicity or nationality can also influence how sounds are heard.

A good example of this is the way some New Yorkers pronounce a raised /æ/ vowel in words like bat or bag. To a New Yorker, this raised /æ/ still just sounds like bat or bag. To a Southerner or Westerner, though, a raised /æ/ can be misinterpreted as bet or beg. While the sound intended in both cases is /æ/, how it is produced and perceived changes based on where the speaker and listener are from.

Though this may not seem that surprising, linguists actually haven’t extensively studied this production and perception link. In other words, though we know speakers produce sounds differently across dialects, we don’t really know that much about how they perceive sounds differently across dialects.

Scientists specializing in the way people produce and perceive speech sounds are phoneticians. Researchers who study how social facts interplay with speech sounds are socio-phoneticians. Vowels In America explores connections expressed between these phonetic and social areas of linguistic research. This project also connects the lab-based experimental methods used in speech science with the field-based methods of sociolinguistics.

Based on speech production and speech perception data gathered from speakers across different regions in America, we have begun to answer the question of whether differences in how speakers produce sounds correlate with differences in how speakers perceive sounds. Dialect may not be simply about how one talks, but also about how one listens.

This website presents these results, introduces the researchers, provides supplementary resource information and offers the opportunity for public participation in the project. Please see the Findings page for a list of the published research that has resulted from this project. Thank you for visiting, and please feel welcome to contact us with comments or questions.