Category Archives: anthropology

Friday, February 23rd: Jack Martin (College of William and Mary)

This week the Language Variation & Change workshop is pleased to host Jack Martin from the College of William and Mary. He specializes in the documentation of numerous native languages of the American south. You can learn more about his work here.

His talk will take place on Friday, February 23rd at 3:30 pm in RO 301. (See below for details.)

I hope you can make it, especially if you have any interest in fieldwork or documentation!

“Oral History as a Tool in Studying Language Change: The Muskogee (Creek)/Seminole Project”

Jack B. Martin (College of William and Mary)

Collaboration between linguists and endangered language communities often requires a delicate balance between projects that the community wants and research that linguists want to conduct. Dictionaries are one promising area where linguistic research is seen as having a beneficial impact on the community. This paper reports on another type of project: an oral history project requested by the Seminole Nation that informs us of ongoing variation and change in language (see

The first part of this paper discusses the mechanics of our oral history project: working with the Seminole Nation and listening to their needs, obtaining funding, scheduling interviews, transcribing and translating files, and file management. The second part of the paper discusses some of the discoveries we are finding about modern spoken Muskogee (and language obsolescence): a) the emergence of a new conjunction ton; b) the surprisingly widespread use of what Haas called “women’s speech”; c) apparent decline in control of numbers; d) use of English hesitation words; and, e) previously undescribed contractions. We will also discuss the ways that oral history projects can be used in linguistics and other fields.

Friday, February 2nd: Britta Ingebretson (UChicago)

There will be a meeting of the Language Variation & Change workshop this Friday, February 2nd at 3:30 pm in Rosenwald 301. Our speaker will be Britta Ingebretson. See below for details. We hope you can make it!

“Rhotic coda usage as stance-taking in Southern China”

Britta Ingebretson (UChicago)

Mandarin Chinese has two standard variations, Northern Mandarin, centered around Beijing, and Southern Mandarin, centered around Taiwan. Among other features, Northern Mandarin is known for widespread rhotacization of codas and rhotic suffixes on certain terms, a process known as erhuayin. Rhotacized codas and suffixes are completely lacking in Southern Mandarin. In this presentation, I will examine the strategic deployment of rhotacization in Huangshan, Anhui Province. Huangshanese speak Southern Mandarin and do not use rhotic codas or suffixes in daily speech, so such usage is rare and highly marked. In this presentation, I will show that speakers use rhotic codas to index particular stances towards national official discourses and policies or to index certain types of social personae.

Monday, November 20 at 3:30 PM: Tatiana Nikitina (CNRS, Paris)

LVC will host Tatiana Nikitina of CNRS – Paris at an unconventional time: this Monday, November 20th at 3:30 PM in Cobb 202.  Information about her talk is below. As usual, there will be a reception after the talk and an opportunity to talk more with the speaker.

Discourse reporting in narrative performance: A case study from West Africa

Tatiana Nikitina
CNRS, Paris

Current approaches to language endangerment are firmly grounded in the Western ideology of language (Foley 2003). Language loss is commonly viewed as a result of speakers shifting to a new language, and criteria for vitality assessment are concerned with the way a particular language, in the sense of Saussurean langue, is being transmitted to next generations of speakers (Fishman 1991; UNESCO 2003; Krauss 2007, inter alia). This approach sometimes results in striking discrepancies between a professional linguist’s assessment and the views expressed by language users.

In this talk I discuss a case study of Wan, a Southeastern Mande language spoken in central Côte d’Ivoire. Wan is doing well by all established vitality measures, yet its speakers consistently claim to be “losing” their language. This apparent paradox is rooted in the special attitude to language displayed by the local community: language is understood as traditional ways of speaking, and those can only be fully realized in specific communicative practices which are currently at the point of extinction. The case of Wan presents a curious combination of an objectively “healthy” sociolinguistic situation and exceedingly pessimistic perceptions voiced by speakers.

Among the morphosyntactic strategies that are central to culturally valued language use are strategies of discourse reporting. Across West Africa, traditional narratives are performed interactively by a speaker who constantly switches between the role of narrator and those of the story’s characters (Nikitina 2012). A skillful performer employs a variety of linguistic means that facilitate such switching, including the use of invented language that serves to signal historical or ontological distance between the story’s characters and the current audience. I focus on one particular aspect of discourse reporting that is characteristic of West African story performance: the strategic use of logophoric reporting style.

Logophoric reporting attested in West African languages differs in important ways from the syntactic phenomenon that has been described as logophoricity in such languages as Japanese, Italian or Latin. I discuss different types of logophoric reporting and show how they function in traditional West African narrative performance. I also discuss the ways in which logophoric reporting is endangered by European discourse reporting strategies.

Thursday, November 3 at 4:30 PM: Semiotics Workshop (Perry Wong, UChicago)

LVC is cosponsoring a meeting of the Semiotics Workshop, on November 3 at 4:30 PM in Haskell 101, which will touch upon language contact in Mesoamerica.

“Notes on Mesoamerican ‘fashions of speaking’”
Perry Wong

with a brief addendum by Chris Bloechl


For a copy of the paper, please email Perry Wong at or Briel Kobak at
For the full schedule and other information, visit our website at: with disabilities who believe they may need assistance, please contact Perry Wong at or Briel Kobak at

Barbra Meek (University of Michigan) @ LVC on Wednesday, May 4th!

“Linguistic Manifestations in Encounters of Loss”

Barbra Meek
University of Michigan

The prediction for most aboriginal languages has been extinction and a scholarly orientation toward “loss.” However, many of these languages are still with us today, including those presumed lost. This means that someone somewhere has imagined a future for these languages, for current language users, and in relation to some potential audience. But, as with ideas of “success” (Hinton 2016), not all aboriginal language futures are unfolding in identical ways and not all paths lead to the same end or even to their own intended end. This talk is a reflection on “loss” in relation to the various efforts that have been imagined and implemented in order to project a future for one aboriginal case, the Kaska (Dene/Athabaskan) language, and some of the unexpected possible futures that have emerged along the way.

Wednesday, May 4th at 4:30 PM in Rosenwald 015

Daniel Chen (Toulouse School of Economics) @ LVC on Friday, April 29th!

“Covering: Mutable Characteristics and Perceptions of (Masculine) Voice in the U.S. Supreme Court”

Daniel Chen
Institute for Advanced Study, Toulouse School of Economics

Using data on all 1,901 U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments between 1999 and 2013, we document that voice-based snap judgments based solely on the introductory sentences of lawyers predict Justices votes. The connection between vocal characteristics and court outcomes is specific to perceived masculinity even when judgment of masculinity is based only on less than three seconds of exposure to a lawyer’s speech sample. Although previous studies suggest a significant role for vocal characteristics on real world behavior, prior to our work none has identified a definitive connection using identical phrases. Roughly 30% of the association between voice-based masculinity and court outcomes comes from within-male lawyer variation, whereas 70% comes from between-male lawyer variation. Moreover, voice-based first impressions predict both male and female lawyers’ court outcomes: less masculine males and more feminine females are more likely to win. A de-biasing experiment separately identifies statistical discrimination and prejudice by showing that information reduces 40% of the correlation between perceived masculinity and perceived win and incentives reduces another 20% of the correlation. The negative correlations between perceived masculinity and win rates were stronger in private firms and in petitioner classes with more masculine voices. Perceived masculinity explains an additional 10% of variance relative to best existing prediction models of Supreme Court justice votes. Sincere and strategic voting considerations may explain why liberal justices were more likely to vote against male lawyers perceived as more masculine and conservative justices were more likely to vote for female lawyers perceived as more feminine.

Friday, April 29th at 3:00 PM in Rosenwald 015

Britta Ingebretson @ LVC on Friday, March 11th!

Friday, March 1st @ 3:00PM in Rosenwald 015

Shepu or Mandarin? Attention and second order indexicality in a Chinese yoga studio

Britta Ingebretson
University of Chicago

In this talk, I will examine how the phonetic qualities of language become mobilized in processes of second-order indexicality in a yoga studio in Huangshan, China. Shepu, a portmanteau of Shexianhua (She county dialect) and Mandarin, is the local term for the dialect of Mandarin spoken in She county, a nonstandard dialect which incorporates many phonetic, prosodic, and tonal qualities from Shexianhua. Second-order indexicality is the process through which indexical relationship between ways of speaking and certain types of speakers becomes naturalized, such that ways of speaking become seen as iconic of, rather than indexing, certain types of speakers, and thus linking linguistic traits to other socially meaningful non-linguistic traits. While much literature has been devoted to showing how listener judgments allow the listener to classify speakers as belonging to certain social categories, in this talk I will show how the process also works in reverse. If listeners have already classified individuals as a certain social type, they are more likely to be attentive to and pick out the qualities of speech which conform to their preconceived perceptions than they are with other speakers, regardless of actual speaker variation. I show how this process works with three speakers of Shepu

9th June: Andrea Beltrama (UChicago)

Monday, June 9th @ 3:00 PM, Cobb 104

From semantic to social meaning. The case study of intensifiers.

The phenomenon of intensification is pervasive in natural language. Examples of such expressions, in English, include very, really, so, extremely. Linguists have addressed intensification with respect to two specific areas: intensifiers’ semantics, and intensifiers’ usage in the social landscape. Yet, an actual integration between these two approaches is currently missing. Exploring this relationship
represents the main goal of this talk.

The presence of a principled connection between semantic and sociolinguistic facts stems from the following observation. While the use of an intensifier with a gradable predicate comes across as fairly neutral (in (1)), the occurrences in (2) normally index a richer constellation of indexical information. First, these expressions are intuitively labeled as informal, colloquial, fit for spoken registers. Moreover, they normally suggest an association with readily identifiable and specific social and psychological traits, or even full-fledged social types (“Valley girl”, “Generation X”, and others)

(1a) The tank is totally full (Gradable. Source of the scale: scale of fullness)
(1b) The house is very big (Gradable. Source of the scale: scale of size)
(1c) The building is so tall that planes almost touch it (Gradable. Source: scale of height)

(2a) Your attitude is very UChicago. (Non-gradable. Source: stereotypical traits of Uchicago)
(2b) I totally left this at home (Non-gradable. Source: certainty about the proposition)
(2c) I’m so next in line! (Non-gradable. Source: eagerness/enthusiasm about being next)

My leading hypothesis is that speakers, when making use of intensifiers, are exploiting the semantic notion of gradability as a stylistic resource to construct social meaning and social evaluations. In particular, I suggest that intensifiers that semantically target non-lexical scales create a marked linguistic environment, which emerges as a suitable attachment site for social meaning and the related social evaluations.

31 January: Britta Ingebretson (UChicago)

Friday, January 31st @ 3 PM, Harper 150 (NOTE FRIDAY MEETING)

Notes from the field: language and Gender in Huangshan China

This Semiotics/LVC paper provides an ethnographic account on the current use of the Tunxi dialect in Huangshan City, Anhui, China. Tunxi dialect (Tunxi hua) is a member of the Xiuyi (Xiuning-Yi) subbranch of China’s smallest language family, the Huizhou language family. Huizhou is the smallest language family in China, and the group of mutually unintelligible languages characterized by their complex tonal systems. This paper examines on the impact of Mandarin promulgation on local dialect usage. The paper looks, broadly speaking, at language use in three sites: a yoga studio, a newsstand, and a nearby village. It presents less an sustained argument, systematic analysis of a data corpus so much as it provides a series of ethnographic vignettes, anecdotes and reports o on language and gender in this small city in contemporary China.