UBC Undergraduate Research

Mergers-in-Progress in Hong Kong and Vancouver Cantonese-English Bilinguals Cheng, Lauretta


The phenomenon referred to as 懶 音 laan5 jam1, or “lazy pronunciation”, in Hong Kong Cantonese (HKC) is a set of consonant mergers-in-progress that have been studied for many decades; these involve consonants in syllable-initial, syllable-final and syllabic positions (eg. Wong, 1941; Zee, 1999). A recent apparent time production study in Hong Kong reported that several of the syllable-initial mergers were nearing completion in the youngest generation (To, Mcleod & Cheung, 2015). While this sound change has been well-documented within Hong Kong, only a limited number of studies have examined Cantonese phonology in immigrant communities (e.g. Tse, 2016), and none appear to have targeted the consonant mergers. As such, the current study investigates both perception and production of a subset of the HKC mergers ([n-]→[l-], [ŋ-]↔Ø-, [ŋ̩]→[m̩]) in Vancouver’s immigrant Cantonese-speaking population, comparing across older and younger generations as well as to speakers in Hong Kong. The perception experiment used a two-alternative forced-choice lexical identification task. Participants heard Cantonese words from 13-step minimal word-pair continua ranging from the innovative to conservative variant for each merger, and their task was to indicate which lexical item they heard. The production experiment was an isolated-word production task. Participants were prompted with both Chinese characters and the English translation to produce 22 Cantonese words containing the target contrasts. Finally, speaker awareness of the mergers was probed in a post-task interview, and bilingual dominance scores were calculated using the Bilingual Language Profile (Birdsong, Gertken & Amengual, 2012). The results of this study add a new perspective to scholarship on the HKC mergers and on the course of sound change in immigrant communities more generally, while also contributing to research on the phonetics and phonology of Cantonese heritage speakers using an experimental production and perception approach.

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