Author Archive

Cognition & Language Workshop Thursday April 9: Syrett

Kristen Syrett (Rutgers University) will be speaking at the Cognition & Language Workshop this Thursday, Apr 9, at 4pm in the Greenberg Room (Building 460, Room 126).


Young children the world over appear to expect that a verb presented in a transitive frame surrounded by nouns maps onto a causative meaning and is best associated with an event involving an agent and a patient. At the same time, however, they struggle when a verb appears in an intransitive frame in which two conjoined nouns occupying the subject position. This contrast in performance between the two syntactic environments has been replicated time and again across labs, and has led some researchers to conclude that the fault lies in children’s underdeveloped syntactic representations or in the heuristics they deploy to assign semantic roles to a verb’s arguments. However, I will present the results of a set of word learning studies demonstrating that not only do adults also flounder when presented with a novel verb in an intransitive frame, but when children are provided with semantic support for the form-meaning mapping in the form of an additional informative lexical item or distributional evidence concerning the intended interpretation of the syntactic frame in the discourse, they fare much better with the intransitive frame. These findings suggest that the problem may not be an immature grammar, but rather lack of sufficient information to narrow down the hypothesis space. Verb learning calls upon children’s syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic knowledge. When these aspects of the linguistic system work in concert, mapping form to meaning is facilitated.

Phil Crone at SMircle Wednesday 4/8 at 4:15PM

This Wednesday at 4:15 in the Greenberg Room, Phil Crone will be talking about Arabic first conjunct agreement. This is a version of his upcoming talk at the 29th Annual Symposium on Arabic Linguistics.

Arabic First Conjunct Agreement: Against Late Operations

Several recent analyses of Arabic first conjunct agreement (FCA) employ novel syntactic operations that may occur late in a syntactic derivation (Soltan 2007, Larson 2013). I show that these “late operations” analyses are empirically insufficient by failing to capture cases in which FCA and agreement with the full, conjoined subject DP (full agreement) occur on distinct elements within the same clause (mixed agreement). These cases are straightforwardly captured through an interaction between constraints on Agree and movement. I apply this analysis to non-standard dialects of Arabic, for which I use Lebanese Arabic (LA) as a representative example. I then show how this analysis can be extended to cover Standard Arabic (SA) data on the assumption that FCA and partial agreement with non-conjoined plural subjects have separate explanations in SA. The independence of FCA and partial agreement in SA is supported by corpus data from the Penn Arabic Treebank (Maamouri et al. 2010).

Colloquium next Friday (2/13): Eisenstein

We’re pleased to announce a colloquium talk next Friday by Jacob Eisenstein (Georgia Tech). As always, the talk will be in the Greenberg Room at 3:30.

Variation and Change in Online Writing
Online writing is an increasingly ubiquitous mode for informal, phatic communication, but the implications of this shift for the relationship between writing and speech are still contested. While some point to the rise of a new “netspeak” dialect, quantitative analysis suggests a picture that is more complex: online writing reproduces lexical and phonetic variation from spoken language, while simultaneously hosting an impressive array of apparently novel orthographic variables. I will present computational statistical techniques for identifying variation in online writing, and will discuss the geographical, social, and linguistic properties of several types of variables. Next, I will consider the diachronic perspective, where large-scale longitudinal data enable robust inferences about patterns of linguistic influence across thousands of lexical variables. I conclude with ongoing work on whether and how orthographic variables can maintain their social and geographical distinctiveness in the face of pressure towards leveling in an ever more densely-connected online world.

Socio talk Thursday, 5/15: Andrew Wong

Stanford linguistics alum Andrew Wong (California State University East Bay) will be visiting on Thursday, May 15  to speak to us about Perceptions of Unconventional Spelling in Brand Names.’ The talk will be in the Greenberg Room from 3:30-5:00.

Perceptions of Unconventional Spelling in Brand Names

<Starz>, <Netflix>, and <La-Z-Boy>.  These are just a few household brand names that consist of unconventional spellings of English words.  Third-wave variationists (e.g., Campbell-Kibler 2010, Eckert 2012, Podesva 2011) have recently called for a new approach to sociolinguistic variation that takes social meaning rather than linguistic change as its point of departure.  This approach has led researchers to use perceptual methodologies to study the full spectrum of linguistic resources that have the potential to take on social meaning.  The present study furthers these efforts by using perception data to examine the social meaning of unconventional spelling in brand names.

An online survey was used to collect data from 395 respondents (207 men, 185 women) on their perceptions of four spellings of poetic: <POETIC>, <POETICK>, <POETIK>, and <POETIQ>.  In this presentation, I will focus on the potential of the three unconventional spellings to convey newness and distinctiveness to people of different backgrounds.  I will argue that it is limiting to look at spelling practices through a normative lens.  Unconventional spellings do not all produce the same effects, and the standard/non-standard binary is not useful for understanding the meaning of orthographic variation.  This study also demonstrates the indeterminacy and uneven distribution of the social meanings of orthographic variation.  The <c>~<ck>~<k>~<q> alternation evokes a field of potential meanings.  Depending on various contextual factors, any of these meanings may be evoked in the situated use or interpretation of the variable, and certain meanings may be activated for some people but not others.


Campbell-Kibler, Kathryn 2010.  The sociolinguistic variant as a carrier of social meaning.  Language Variation and Change 22: 423-441.
Eckert, Penelope 2012.  Three waves of variation study: The emergence of meaning in the study of sociolinguistic variation.  Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 87-100.
Podesva, Robert 2011.  Salience and the social meaning of declarative contours: Three case studies of gay professionals.  Journal of English Linguistics 39: 233-264.

Colloquium Friday May 16: Alicia Wassink

Join us for a Colloquium given by Alicia Wassink (University of Washington) on Friday May 16 at 3:30PM in the Greenberg Room, followed by a social.

Vowel raising in Washington English: What’s the bag deal?

This paper considers the implications for sociolinguistic theory of vowel raising before velar stops in three word classes in Washington state English. (æg) bag, (ɛg) beg, and (eyg) vague are in close proximity for speakers in a three-generation sample. First, using group-level data, we ask whether by-generational differences point to a type of progression through vowel space. The patterns are investigated in terms of three theoretical types of merger. In “merger by approximation” (Labov, 1994:321) one affected vowel, e.g., (æg) gradually approaches another, e.g. (ɛg), or, both move to a spectral “middle ground”. In “merger by transfer,” affected vowels shift to a new phonemic class, word-by-word, without leaving behind intermediate forms. In “merger by expansion,” the ranges of the affected vowels are enlarged, the resulting distribution equivalent to the union of the two ranges. Group-level patterns rule out at least one of the options, allowing us to consider the mechanism of this change. Second, using individual data within generations, we ask whether speakers vary in the type of pattern they show. Can speakers in the same community appear to participate in the change in different ways (e.g., some by approximation, others by transfer, etc.?). If so, is this a problem for characterizing the change?

To test the theories of merger, we use acoustic data reflecting the locations of stable point vowels paired with vowels involved in the change, as well as data for the changing vowels relative to each other. Speakers were partitioned into groups depending on their generation and patterns of raising.  Measures included F1, F2, and duration at three temporal locations, allowing modeling of vowel trajectory. However, comparisons primarily utilize an overlap metric (Wassink 2006) that allows detection of differences between the volumes of vowel ellipsoids, providing an objective heuristic for approximation of vowel distributions. We find evidence supporting the conclusion that (eyg)-class forms are reanalyzed in a process of merger by transfer, while the phonological story for (æg) is much more complex. Here, we will see that the data force us to consider the import of vowel trajectory information for the maintenance of phonetic distinction.

Labov, W. (1994). Principles of linguistic change:  Internal factors (Blackwell, Oxford).
Wassink, A. B., (2006) “A geometric representation of spectral and temporal vowel features: Quantification of vowel overlap in three varieties,” J. Acoust. Soc. Am., 119(4), pp 2334-2350

Colloquium Friday Feb. 7 at 3:30PM: Boris Harizanov

Boris Harizanov (UC Santa Cruz) will give a colloquium on Friday February 7 at 3:30PM in the Greenberg Room. A departmental social will follow.

On the mapping from syntax to morphophonology

What are the atoms of syntax and how do they correspond to words? In this talk I address this question by documenting a certain kind of mismatch between the set of objects that syntax manipulates and morphophonological words. In particular, I provide novel empirical evidence from Bulgarian denominal adjectives that certain parts of words can behave syntactically as (non-branching) phrases. The nominal component of these denominal adjectives is syntactically active in ways expected of typical nominal phrases with respect to their thematic interpretation, anaphoric properties, and interaction with syntactic movement dependencies.

However, these denominal adjectives exhibit a number of adjectival characteristics as well. I attribute this kind of mismatch to the application of Morphological Merger (cf. Marantz 1981), an operation that is part of the mapping procedure from syntax to morphophonology. Consequently, I treat denominal adjectives as underlying nominal phrases that are converted into adjectives by Morphological Merger in the course of the derivation, as part of the word formation process which combines a nominal phrase with adjectivizing derivational morphology.

This approach results in the syntactic decomposition of morphophonological words, which leads to a syntactic treatment of at least some aspects of word formation: syntactic objects realized as parts of words and those realized as autonomous words do not necessarily differ for the purposes of syntax. The present investigation contributes to a long line of research on what have traditionally been viewed as mechanisms of syntactic word formation, such as head-to-head movement (Baker 1985, 1988) and merger under adjacency (Marantz 1981, 1988).

Look who’s talking!, NWAV addendum

We inadvertently missed an important item in last week’s Look Who’s Talking! segment:

  • At NWAV43 this weekend, John R. Rickford and Sharese King will present “Rachel Jeantel’s Testimony in the Zimmerman case:  Descriptive, Theoretical and Applied Linguistics Perspectives”.