Reversing ‘drift’: Innovation and diffusion in the London diphthong system

Paul Kerswill, Eivind Torgersen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This article contributes to innovation and diffusion models by examining phonetic changes in London English. It evaluates Sapir’s notion of ‘drift’, which involves ‘natural’, unconscious change, in relation to these changes. Investigating parallel developments in two related varieties of English enables drift to be tested in terms of the effect of extralinguistic factors. The diphthongs of PRICE, MOUTH, FACE and GOAT in both London and New Zealand English are characterised by ‘Diphthong Shift’, a process which continued unabated in New Zealand. A new, large dataset of London speech shows Diphthong Shift reversal, providing counterevidence for drift. We discuss Diphthong Shift and its ‘reversal’ in relation to innovation, diffusion, levelling and supralocalisation, arguing that sociolinguistic factors and dialect contact override ‘natural’ Diphthong Shift. Studying dialect change in a metropolis, with its large and linguistically innovative minority ethnic population, is of the utmost importance in understanding the dynamics of change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)451–491
Number of pages40
JournalLanguage Variation and Change
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2008

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