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NSF Grant Assists Hall In Study On Importance Of Arabic Vowels

Published: May 15, 2013

Linguistics’ Nancy Hall continues her three-year, $200,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant-supported research with a new $50,853 grant this fall to fund research into “Phonetic Characteristics of Epenthetic Vowels in Palestinian Arabic.”

Hall specializes in phonology, the study of the sound rules of different languages, and phonetics, the study of the physical nature of speech sounds. Her study analyzes how vowels are added to everyday words in Arabic.

“For instance,” she explained, “the word ‘bint’ means ‘girl.’ But an equally valid pronunciation would be ‘binit.’ There are hundreds of words like that in Arabic. And these added vowels act special in many ways; for example, you can’t put stress on them. I’m interested in questions like: Why do these vowels get added? Do they make words easier to say, easier to hear, or is there some other reason? How do children learn the alternate pronunciations and where to put in the extra vowels? One thing we’ve discovered is that these added vowels often have different acoustic properties than regular vowels and that may help us understand how they are learned and perceptually processed.”

Hall uses software to measure a vowel’s exact acoustic properties. “We use Praat, a free software package for the acoustic analysis of speech,” she explained. “We use this software to compare vowel pronunciations in different words and by different speakers. Typically in Arabic, every village seems to have its own pronunciation. Different demographic groups in that village will have different pronunciations. There is a lot of variation which is very interesting to linguists.”

Much of the grant supports Hall’s fieldwork both in the U.S. and Israel as well as her graduate student assistants.

“The NSF is especially interested in providing overseas experiences to students,” she said, “and five CSULB graduate students have been employed by the project so far. It’s giving students experience with research.”

Part of the reason Arabic interests Hall phonologically is the complexity of its sound system. “The same word will have many different pronunciations,” she said. “The same speaker may pronounce a word different ways at different times. Word structures are complex. There are many different endings that can be put to any word. There’s a lot for phonologists to get their teeth into.”

Hall is grateful to the Linguistics Department for its support. “Also, the College of Liberal Arts has given me a course release each year,” she said. “That is what gives me the time to do my research.”

Vowel intrusion doesn’t play as big a role in English as it does in Arabic, according to Hall.

“There are English speakers who pronounce ‘athlete’ as ‘ath-a-lete’ and ‘paraplegic’ as ‘parap-a-legic.’ But this only happens in a few random words. It’s not a regular, predictable process affecting hundreds of words, the way it is in Arabic.”

Hall’s NSF grant supported a field trip to Israel last summer where she worked with a research team consisting of a CSULB graduate student and two local research assistants from Israeli universities.

“We worked together at Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa,” she said. “A couple of Israeli linguistics professors—Outi Bat-El from Tel Aviv, and Wendy Sandler from Haifa—were very generous in lending us facilities to record in. We recorded around 120 speakers, mostly university students.”

Nancy Hall in the Jerusalem hills
Nancy Hall in the Jerusalem hills.

It was a very interesting experience to Hall. “We wanted to record some speakers from the West Bank to get data on those dialects, but we couldn’t go there for security reasons,” she said, “but one of the local research assistants knew someone who knew someone who owned a water park in the Galilee, and the Communist Party (of all things) was sponsoring a summer camp for kids from the West Bank at this park. We were able to record some of the adult camp counselors. I was lucky to have such resourceful research assistants.”

She is pleased with the grant’s progress. “The data analysis takes a long time but I have three graduate assistants working with me right now,” she said. “Two are Arabic speakers who have the tedious task of listening to the recordings made over the summer to figure out what parts are usable and what are not. We are just now reaching the stage where we can begin acoustic analysis. Hopefully, we will know soon what the data contain.”

Hall received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1997 from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, majoring in Near Eastern Studies, and her Ph.D. in 2003 from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Prior to coming to CSULB, she served as a visiting lecturer at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the University of Haifa (Israel), Ben Gurion University of the Negev (Israel) and Roehampton University (London).

What Hall hopes CSULB students get from their participation in the project is a skill set in linguistic analysis.

“They will have the chance to see how scholarly research is performed,” she said. “Sometimes the process surprises the students, such as when we put together a trial version of an experiment, test it on one person, and then make radical changes in the design. When students read about research, they don’t realize how much trial and error it can take to find a good methodology. Now they have a glimpse behind the scenes and the work that goes into a successful experiment. The students not only learn about linguistic analysis but about scholarship.”