Linguistics Seminar Series
Catalysts for change: A view from 20th century North American English
For this talk, we examine a few sound changes in contemporary North American English via analyses of production, perception, and attitudinal data. I find that a number of regional features are undergoing reversal or change towards a standardized variety. These shifts are discussed against the backdrop of 20th century North American social changes which are were driven by patterns of migration, economic and other cultural changes. These findings echo Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog (1968) who argue that “the forces active in qualitatively new changes include social factors, and any effort to account for the initiation of change by purely internal arguments will fail to a significant degree”.
Title: Some limits on social speech perception and what they might mean -or- I’ve had a lot of null results and I think I finally learned something
Every time we open our mouths to speak or raise our hands to sign we inevitably reveal not only what we are trying to communicate but who we are, where we come from, and myriad other social cues. Sometimes, correctly expecting these cues can enhance our ability to understand one another (McGowan 2015). Sometimes, these expectations can alter our high-level, social judgments of a talker without always shifting our low-level phonetic perceptions of their voice (McGowan & Babel 2020). I will present a number of results this research area, including a pair of my own null results that are jaw-dropping for how incredibly null they are, as framing for a replication and extention of Strand & Johnson (1996) I have recently completed in collaboration with MALTT alumnus, Kyler Laycock. Strand & Johnson found that showing listeners a prototypical male or female face can shift listeners' perceptual boundary along a [ʃ]-[s] fricative continuum. This is often described (although, importantly, not by Strand or Johnson) as visual social information ‘overriding’ the acoustic information. We have replicated this result but, by manipulating the belief conditions and congruence of social information in the voice and face, unravelled, we believe, some mysteries about the limits of visually-presented social speech perception. When social information from the face and voice are incongruous, for example, the voice wins. Not only does this make most of my null results make sense, but also makes available a number of new, interesting, questions about social speech perception, grammar, and the extent to which it matters whether listener expectations are at, or below, the level of conscious awareness.
Researcher choice and overlooked variables: A "bottom-up" reanalysis of Villarreal (2018)
Dan Villarreal (Pitt Linguistics)
An immense body of sociolinguistic research has demonstrated how social processes (from macrosocial structures to momentary identity performance) are reflected and reproduced in speakers' production and perception of individual linguistic variables. The approach of isolating individual variables for investigation, despite being clearly fruitful, misses two critical facts about language variation in actual use. First is variable co-occurrence: variables do not exist in isolation. In between tokens of the individual variable under investigation are numerous socially meaningful variables (some in structurally related changes) that may mediate or change the social meanings of the studied variable. Second is researcher choice: the process by which we choose what to investigate may lead us to miss meaningful variation. The present study attempts to address these shortcomings using "bottom-up" methods to investigate Californian listeners' attitudes toward a multiplicity of co-occurring vowel variables, comparing these variables' influence on social meanings to previous research on California vowels.
To investigate this question, my co-author, James Grama, and I re-analyzed the results of my earlier matched-guise research on California English perceptions (Villarreal 2018). In that study, 97 Californian listeners rated excerpts from a cartoon-retell task (produced by 12 Californian speakers) on 12 attribute scales. Because stimuli were spontaneously produced (albeit all on the same topic), they all contained slightly different content and thus different vowel variables. Aside from the two vowels acoustically manipulated into guises (TRAP and GOOSE), all other vowel phonemes were left to vary naturally. The original analysis found that, despite substantial variance in attribute ratings overall, guise significantly affected three scales—suggesting stimuli contained additional socially meaningful variation that guise failed to capture.
To model this variation, we treated each stimulus as a "bag of features", mirroring "bag-ofwords" approaches to text corpora (Jurafsky & Martin 2022). These comprised vowel changes that are well-attested in California English (TRAP, DRESS, KIT, GOOSE, GOAT, LOT/THOUGHT), marginally attested (FOOT, STRUT), and largely unattested (FLEECE, FACE, PRICE). Vowels' F1 and F2 measurements were normalized and translated to discrete features using Atlas of North American English benchmarks (Labov, Ash & Boberg 2006). For each attribute, we used the Boruta algorithm (Kursa, Jankowski & Rudnicki 2010), via the Boruta package in R (Kursa & Rudnicki 2010), to determine which features influenced scale ratings.
This reanalysis revealed that vowels that are changing (or have changed) in California English did not necessarily impact social meanings more than those with marginal or no evidence of change. The most impactful variable, FOOT, is rarely investigated in California despite being structurally related to well-attested GOOSE and GOAT fronting; FLEECE, which is almost completely unattested as undergoing change, outranked several well-attested California English variables. In addition, despite the historical ordering of Low-Back-Merger Shift (Becker 2019) sound changes (TRAP then DRESS then KIT), TRAP and KIT impacted social meanings more than DRESS.
I argue that these findings reveal a need for greater attention to variable co-occurrence in modeling language variation. While variable co-occurrence is a known problem in sociolinguistics, actually accounting for it in practice is challenging. I suggest that bottom-up approaches like that described here can account for variable co-occurrence while mitigating the potential bias introduced by researcher choice.
“A world beyond this one”: Sustaining afro-brasilidade through language, ritual, and culture teaching in northeastern Brazil
Adrienne Ronee Washington (she/her/hers)
Theories on the intersections of language and race (raciolinguistics, Alim et al., 2016; Flores & Rosa, 2015) and on the semiotics of race (raciosemiotics, Smalls, 2015, 2020) are positioned well to understand how multiple identities co-craft personhood, that is, how language informs race, ethnoracial formations, and racism, and also how they recursively shape language. Yet such theories have not been regularly applied in exploring the place of religion (along with language and race) in identity co-construction, including intersectional hierarchies and the contestations of such hegemonic power formations by members of multiply marginalized groups.
Building upon language and religion scholarship and raciolinguistics (including principally raciosemiotics), this research advances racioreligious linguistic ideologies as a concept to examine the discursive processes through which language, race, and spirituality become entangled within cultural lenses. I begin by exploring racialization of Yoruba-inspired (Nagô in Bahia) spiritualities and linguistic/semiotic practices under colonialism and racial slavery and then continue into the modern context, where Nagô/Yoruba has come to epitomize Blackness. I present an extended example of racioreligious linguistic ideologies in the Brazilian city of Salvador within a school where educators teach Nagô/Yoruba as part of an effort to inform students about African-matrix histories and cultures and develop positive identities.
Qualitative analyses of interview, participant observation, and photographic data highlight how interlocutors in this community, working within affirmative racioreligious linguistic ideologies and the values they assign to personhood, ritual knowledge, and language practices, engage in education as racioreligious identity work to resist systemic racial, religious, and linguistic prejudices, sustain traditional knowledge, and affirm Blackness. This work is instructive for other contexts where religious thinking has inspired ideas of essentialized differences, and it opens space for an explicit interrogation of how religious supremacy, in cooperation with systemic racial and linguistic privileges, has participated in subordination and has necessitated counterdiscursive strategies.
Where: Zoom https://uky.zoom.us/j/89119143772
When: Friday April 14, 2023 @ 1pm
Title: The Phonomaton: A new browser-based tool for implementing linguistic analyses
In this talk we present the Phonomaton, a freely available browser-based program that allows users to implement derivational analysis of phonological and morphological phenomena using standard notation. The program serves to ensure that complex analyses yield the expected results and provides a valuable method of exploring alternatives in real time. The Phonomaton handles all aspects of SPE style notation (with a modified SPE feature system) as well as autosegmental representations and can even make the full trip from underlying representation to sound wave. It is designed for both experts and as a teaching tool for students, and thus facilitates problem solving. Finally, it contains a library of phonological phenomena that serves as an interactive reference and theoretical sandbox. We hope to offer a hands-on presentation where everyone can explore the program's features as we present them
Studying grammatical variables in Spanish: New approaches and insights for sociolinguistics
Investigating grammatical (i.e., morphological, syntactic, discourse-pragmatic) variables poses some well-known challenges. To begin with, the approach pioneered for phonic variables (Labov 1963) must be modified in order to successfully apply variationist methods to the study of grammatical variables. As well, there is a long-standing assumption (see Schwenter 2011) that the social or stylistic significance of grammatical variables is harder to capture than it is for phonic variables, particularly because grammatical variants are typically less frequent in discourse. In this talk, I will draw on my research with Spanish speakers in distinct settings to show how the study of grammatical variables can lead to fruitful areas of discovery for sociolinguistics, similar to what has been shown for phonic variables. The range of phenomena to be covered include variation of the simple present and present progressive among classroom learners of Spanish, subject pronoun expression by bilingual Latino children in the U.S. South, and double possession in Peruvian Amazonian Spanish.
Title: What’s in a name?: Research questions and Researcher questions about Creole New Orleanians
As part of a broader project examining language variation and change in post-Katrina Greater New Orleans, I report on preliminary results of linguistic analysis with a focus on the methodological conundrum of how to study ethnic identity in New Orleans. Ethnicity in New Orleans has always been fluid and complex, tracing back to colonial times when a tripartite social division of major ethnic groups existed – Free Europeans, Enslaved Africans, and Free People of Color (Campanella 2006). And indeed, New Orleans historically had a large population of Free People of Color compared to elsewhere in the American South. Over time, this population acquired intergenerational wealth and privilege that set them aside as an elite—and sometimes insular—ethno-cultural group which came to be known as Creoles (Brasseaux 2005). In current times, the term ‘Creole’ is contested. Some locals define Creoleness based on phenotypical features such as skin tone or hair texture, while others consider it a linguistic or cultural label, and still others refuse the legitimacy of this label entirely. Via quantitative and qualitative analysis, I shed light on a situation in which language change and social change appear to be progressing in tandem, posing questions about how to encode varied definitions – as well as varying individual stances towards those definitions – of ethnic identities in variationist research. In doing so, I build upon prior research on the linguistic expression of complex and multiracial identities (cf Holliday 2019; Bissell & Wolfram 2022) as well as work centered on methodological considerations in coding ethnicity (cf. Hall-Lew & Wong 2014; Nagy, Chociej, & Hoffman 2014).