Main Content

Project A2 - Dynamics and Stability in Regional-language Variation Spectra of German

PI: J. Herrgen, A. Lameli, M. Scharinger, R. P. Kehrein
Ph.D.-student: Dominik Thiele

Research context

The object of study are the difference and identity structures determining the regional variation-spectra of German. Building on the fact that the German variation space is characterized by spatially distinct spectra of varieties and speech levels (Kehrein, 2012a), this project investigates how these spectra are structured. Special attention is paid to the extent to which different speaker/hearer-based phoneme representations correspond to these different variation spectra, and which communicative features result from it. Furthermore, questions may pertain to whether the previously ascertained dynamics of variation structures are driven by synchronization processes on the micro-level, that is, between individual speakers. To this end, the differing brain processing signatures can be systematically recorded and compared to one another. Thus, in the laboratory situation, different types of speaker-hearer interactions, representing different types of variation constellations, will be recreated and thereby measured methodically.

State of research

Research on the realization (i.e. pronunciation) of speech sound representations has shown that the regional variation-spectra in German, on the one hand, differ strongly areally and, on the other hand, exhibit high dynamics. This is shown, for example, by the work of Lenz (2004), Kehrein (2012a), and Rocholl (2015) on all major dialect spaces of German, which can be used for the present project. In addition, the work of Lameli (2004) is a study that determined the boundary between regional languages and standard language cognitively-perceptually. The studies mentioned above show that speakers of individual regional languages have different system- and register competencies and that these competencies are used differently depending on the task at hand (situation, interlocutor, etc.). Fundamentally, a general distinction must be made between regional language areas in which speakers have only a monovarietal competence, i.e. vary their language within a single full variety, and those in which speakers have a bivarietal competence and are thus able to target different full varieties in order to fulfill communicative requirements. In addition to performance-based methods (dialectality measurement, variable analysis), evidence of variety boundaries could thereby also be provided by means of perceptual data based on listener judgments (Lenz, 2004; Purschke, 2011), so that it can be assumed that variety boundaries also have a cognitive basis (Schmidt & Herrgen, 2011). Lanwermeyer et al. (2016) show empirically by means of EEG studies that base dialectal phoneme collisions based on dialectal structural differences do indeed lead to misunderstanding and nonunderstanding in interdialectal communication.

 Current dissertation project

Working title: On the neurolinguistics of coronalization. Dynamics and stability in regional variation-spectra of German.

The aim of this project is to investigate how different speaker types with different regional language competencies mentally process the voiceless coronal and dorsal fricatives in German. We distinguish between (1) native German speakers who do not realize a phonological distinction between [ç] and [ʃ] due to their Middle German regional language primary language acquisition. (2) Speakers who also do not realize a phonological distinction between [ç] and [ʃ], but due to their primary language acquisition in migrant societies [see 'Kiezdeutsch' (Wiese et al., 2009) or also 'Migrantendeutsch']. In contrast, there are (3) speakers who 'coronalize' regionally, but who are generally aware that this distinction exists in Std. German. (4) As a control group, speakers who have acquired a pure standard competence of German and thus realize a phonological distinction between [ç] and [ʃ]. To explore this, electrophysiological data, as well as detailed questionnaires on language biography and production data, will be collected and analyzed for the different speaker types.


The overall aim is to examine which different perceptual and production competencies are present in the different speaker types. These different competencies are especially characterized by different representations of the relevant phonemes or allophones.


In this project, two EEG studies are planned, which will provide insights into the processing of the different speaker types with regard to the above-mentioned fricatives. Furthermore, the competence and performance of the speaker types will be determined by detailed questionnaires (dialectality measurement, language biography) and production data. These will then be correlated with the electrophysiological data.

Preliminary work

Works dealing with the vertical structure of German regional languages are frequently found in research (see also Schmidt & Herrgen, 2011). Own studies by J. Herrgen (PI) have shown that especially hyperforms can be regarded as suitable indicators for the detection of variety boundaries, in that they can be regarded as failed attempts to overcome them (Herrgen, 1986). In this regard, previous studies on the processing of phoneme differences at variety boundaries within the LOEWE focus "Foundations of basic linguistic categories" were able to show for the first time that language participants process phonetic/phonological deviations from their own language system very differently (Lanwermeyer et al., 2016; Werth et al., 2018). Thus, for sustained vertical phoneme collisions with the standard language, asymmetric brain responses can be demonstrated depending on phoneme status in the dominant variety. In contrast, phoneme collisions between areal contact varieties lead to strong brain physiological effects especially in those cases where the phonemes of the contact variety collide with the phonemes of the own variety. In contrast, brain responses are significantly reduced when the phoneme of the contact variety can be processed allophonically to one's own phoneme.

Relation to other projects

Within the RTG, the project will benefit from the fundamental theoretical and methodological clarifications aimed at within subproject A1. A content-related proximity with complementarity of the object area is also given with regard to the subprojects A3 and C1.