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  Dialects, registers, and accents: investigating the use of sociolinguistic variants

   School of Social Sciences

   Sunday, June 30, 2024  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

Language is rich with expressive options, including words that tailor speech to the specific situation, e.g., varying by register (potato vs. spud) or dialect (potato vs. tattie). Mastering ‘sociolinguistic competence’ is vital to communicative success, yet little is known about how speakers control the selection of one linguistic variant over another or how variants are represented and related in the mind. From the perspective of the listener, research has investigated how listeners adapt to unfamiliar accents (e.g., Eisner et al., 2013; Sumner & Samuel, 2009), but less is known about how we adapt to dialectal alternatives that extend beyond accents.

Importantly, speakers of non-standard dialects experience discrimination and prejudice in schools and the workplace, which can significantly impact on educational and employment outcomes. Many speakers level their accent to avoid the stigma associated with some dialects. However, accent and dialect are also major indicators of group membership and can be highly valued by ingroup members (e.g., Smith et al, 2009). This places pressure on speakers trying to balance the benefits of group membership against the costs arising from dialect discrimination.

This aim of this project is to marry the psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic sides of this problem, by combining cognitive and social psychological methods to investigate both the cognitive mechanisms behind sociolinguistic variant use and the social experiences of speakers of non-standard dialects. This project will be housed within the ‘Mind your Language’ laboratory of Dr. Alissa Melinger ( and supported by social psychologist colleagues at the University of Dundee.

The project will build on Dr. Melinger’s past research which has compared lexical selection processes in different variants of English to bilingual and synonym lexical selection (Melinger, 2018; 2020; Rose et al, 2019). In this early research, Melinger demonstrated that selecting dialect or register words engages unique processes not observed in bilingual or synonym processing. Melinger has also demonstrated that listeners find it easier to integrate dialect-consistent vocabulary items when listening to spoken language (Martin, et al, 2015). These findings are likely modulated by a number of factors such as socio-economic status, age, or educational level of the participant, ethnolinguistic identity of the experimenter, testing setting, task difficulty, frequency or dominance of the respective dialects, amongst other.

The scope of this project is open and broad, allowing ample opportunity for applicants to bring their own research ideas and to build on their own expertise. Applicants interested in related topics such as language and emotion, language acquisition, and ethnolinguistics are encouraged to get in contact to discuss their ideas. The Mindyourlangauge laboratory is set up for language production research, primarily using picture naming methodologies, and spoken language comprehension studies, using eyetracking and behavioural measures. Surveys, interviews, and questionnaires can also be used to investigate the sociolinguistic aspects of dialect, register, and accent usage.

As well as being of theoretical importance to our understanding of how sociolinguistic information impacts on language processing, the project also has socio-political ramifications. We aim to involve local dialect groups in the development of this project, both for the co-production of our experimental materials and participant recruitment but also to help shape the research questions around the needs of the community and address issues of discrimination and prejudice.

For informal enquiries about the project, contact Dr Alissa Melinger ()

For general enquiries about the University of Dundee, contact

Our research community thrives on the diversity of students and staff which helps to make the University of Dundee a UK university of choice for postgraduate research. We welcome applications from all talented individuals and are committed to widening access to those who have the ability and potential to benefit from higher education.


Applicants must have obtained, or expect to obtain, a UK honours degree at 2.1 or above (or equivalent for non-UK qualifications). For international qualifications, please see equivalent entry requirements here:

In certain circumstances we may ask you to spend a year completing our Master's degree in Psychological Research Methods before you commence your doctoral research. The decision about the suitability of your qualifications is made by the potential supervisor and the School’s postgraduate advisor.

English language requirement: IELTS (Academic) overall score must be at least 6.5 (with not less than 6.0 in writing and not less than 5.5 in reading, listening and speaking). The University of Dundee accepts a variety of equivalent qualifications; please see full details of the University’s English language requirements here:


Step 1: Email Dr Alissa Melinger () to (1) send a copy of your CV and (2) discuss your potential application and any practicalities (e.g. suitable start date).

Step 2: After discussion with Dr Melinger, formal applications can be made via our direct application system. When applying, please follow the instructions below:

Candidates must apply for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in Psychology using our direct application system: Psychology.

This project is suitable for either the three-year or four-year PhD route. Please select the study mode (full-time/part-time) and start date agreed with the lead supervisor.

In the Research Proposal section, please:

-       Enter the lead supervisor’s name in the ‘proposed supervisor’ box

-       Enter the project title listed at the top of this page in the ‘proposed project title’ box

In the ‘personal statement’ section, please outline your suitability for the project selected.

Education (11) Geography (17) History & Archaeology (19) Languages, Literature & Culture (21) Linguistics & Classics (23) Psychology (31)

Funding Notes

There is no funding attached to this project. The successful applicant will be expected to provide the funding for tuition fees and living expenses, via external sponsorship or self-funding. However, the lead supervisor can offer advice and assistance on funding applications.


Eisner, F., Melinger, A., & Weber, A. (2013). Constraints on the transfer of perceptual learning in accented speech. Frontiers in Cognition. 4:148.
Martin, C.D., Garcia, X., Potter, D., Melinger, A., & Costa, A. (2016). Holiday or vacation? The processing of variation in vocabulary across dialects. Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience, 31(3), 375-390.
Melinger, A. (2018). Distinguishing languages from dialects: a litmus test using the picture-word interference task. Cognition, 172, 73-88.
Melinger, A. (2020). Do elevators compete with lifts?: Selecting Dialect Alternatives. Cognition, 206.
Rose, S. B., Aristei, S., Melinger, A., & Abdel Rahman, R. (2019). The closer they are, the more they interfere: Semantic similarity of word distractors increases competition in language production. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 45(4), 753.
Smith, J., Durham, M., & Fortune, L. (2007). " Mam, ma troosers is fa'in doon!" Community, caregiver and child in the acquisition of variation in Scottish dialect. Language Variation and Change, 19(1), 63-99.

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