Social Category Association

The study in a sentence

We can measure which linguistic features carry most social meaning by measuring:

  • the level of community agreement on the association of an accent feature to a social category
  • how rapidly listeners form this association

This study investigates the 'social work' done by accent features typically associated with sounding like you are from Scotland or England e.g. whether or not you pronounce <r> in "car".

  • The results show that association of features to categories reflects changing patterns in how much people use the features in everyday speech.

The question(s)

When someone speaks we are all able to make rapid social judgements about the speaker:

  • which features of an accent do listeners rely on to 'jump' to these conclusions?
  • can we establish a hierarchy of sociolinguistic salience among these features?
    • that is, can we rank the accent features in order of which carries most social meaning?
  • does the ranking of accent features reflect usage of those features in everyday life?

Key concept

Sociolinguistic salience is the property of a spoken form which causes listeners to respond to the form in such a way as to indicate that it encodes information about the (presumed) social characteristics and/or geographical origins of the speaker. Relative sociolinguistic salience can be estimated using a Social Category Association Test

How is it that we can so quickly judge where a person is from?

How can we measure which features of an accent listeners rely on to 'jump' to these conclusions?


The Social Category Association Test (or 'SCAT') is an adaptation of the Implicit Association Test used in psychology. The SCAT was developed by the Accent and Identity on the Scottish English Border (AISEB) project team to investigate attitudes to accents in the Scottish-English borders region.

  1. choose your variables (accent features) e.g. rhoticity (pronouncing <r> in "car")
  2. define your attributes (social categories) e.g. SCOTLAND or NOT SCOTLAND
  3. find some target words to test and record in each accent e.g. [kaːɾ]~[kaː] "car"
    • make sure each target word has only one of your test accent features in it!
  4. recruit your participants (they must all be from the same speech community!)
  5. create and run a SCAT experiment to measure community agreement and response times

The answer

The AISEB project team tested four variables with 40 listeners from the borders region:

  • rhoticity i.e. pronunciation or not of word-final <r> in "car": Scottish [kaːɾ] or English [kaː]
  • how the <r> sounds in "red": Scottish tapped [ɾ] or English approximant [ɹ]
  • vowel length in "need": Scottish short vowel [i] or English approximant [iː]
  • vowel quality in "spook": Scottish short vowel [ʊ] or English approximant [uː]

Based on previous studies, the initial prediction was that the first of these variables (rhoticity) would do the most 'social work' and thus be the feature most commonly (and rapidly) associated with being 'from Scotland'. In fact rhoticity did the least 'social work': it is the variant which showed the least agreement among listeners, and which listeners were slowest to reach a judgement about. This matches the production study findings of the AISEB project, however; younger speakers in the borders region use fewer rhotic forms than older speakers, so rhoticity is a feature that is in decline.

  • Q: Which accent features are most sociolinguistically salient then, in marking Scottish identity in the borders region?
  • A: Scottish tapped [ɾ] in "red" is the feature most commonly (and rapidly) associated with being 'from Scotland', followed closely by use of a Scottish short vowel [i] in "need".

Build and run your own Social Category Association Test

Quick guide

This leaflet gives an overview of how to design, build and run a SCAT.

Designing and running a full SCAT would be a great method to use in a longer investigation e.g. for an Extended Project Qualification

Step-by-step instructions

This manual gives step-by-step instructions for how to build a SCAT test using free PsychoPy software.

Classroom activities

Lead in task

Attributes, associations and attitudes

Extension task

What attributes, associations and attitudes matter for the accents you are interested in?

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Slides from Carmen Llamas' talk at the 2019 workshop

Also featured in an article on 'Outstanding Sounds' in English Media Centre emagazine 87, Feb 2020

Meet the authors

Carmen Llamas, Dom Watt and Andrew MacFarlane

Carmen and Dom teach modules on sociolinguistics and phonetics, including Language & Identity and Forensic Linguistics.

Read the paper

Llamas, C., Watt, D., & MacFarlane, A. E. (2016). Estimating the relative sociolinguistic salience of segmental variables in a dialect boundary zone. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1163.