Friday, March 30: Savithry Namboodiripad (UMich)

This week we will be hosting Savithry Namboodiripad of the University of Michigan. Her work focuses on how language contact affects linguistic variation, in particular constituent order in the world’s languages. Her dissertation examined this question in Malayalam via psycholinguistic experimental methodology (you can read more here:

Please see below for information about her talk this Friday, March 30th at 3:30 pm. We will meet in RO 301.

“Contact, variation, and change in constituent order: integrating social and cognitive approaches”

Savithry Namboodiripad (University of Michigan)

Languages vary as to how flexible the order of the major sentential constituents are, and both basic (canonical) constituent order and flexibility are empirical domains which have been described as being particularly susceptible to contact-induced change (e.g., Heine 2008, Friedman 2003, Bickel et al. 2017). However, less is known about the processes by which language contact leads to change in constituent order, and what the role of flexibility might be, if any. Here, I address these topics using an approach to contact-induced change which integrates social and cognitive explanations, and I argue that systematicity in the outcomes of contact-induced change can be at least partially explained by the dynamics of language learning and use in multilingual contexts.
The talk has two main parts: first, I propose and motivate a cross-linguistically valid operational measure of flexibility in constituent order using formal acceptability judgment experiments. I present experiments in English, Malayalam, and Korean which show that this measure yields gradient results that align with what is known about the structure of each language. In addition, I show that speakers of Malayalam and Korean who have more experience with English differ quantitatively but not qualitatively from those who have less experience with English: more experience with English corresponds to a greater preference for canonical SOV order in both Korean and Malayalam.
In the second part of the talk, I discuss the details of the contact situation for both groups of speakers. The high-contact Malayalam speakers are young people who grew up in post-colonial India where English is an inextricable part of daily life, and English has led to change in Malayalam as spoken in India at all levels of linguistic analysis. The high-contact Korean speakers are English-dominant individuals who grew up in the United States, were schooled in English, and, in some cases, have limited fluency in speaking Korean. Based on the properties of these acceptability judgment experiments, I argue that the similarities between these two contact situations could explain the similar outcomes of contact. On analogy with “frontier conditions” (Nichols 2017), I discuss the potential for common contact outcomes under “post-colonial conditions” and “immigrant conditions” more broadly speaking, and posit that future investigation of these types of speech communities can shed light on other cases of contact-induced phenomena like creoles and mixed languages.
Under this approach, factors like literacy, language attitudes, and language policy are treated as causal variables which shape the contexts in which the languages and varieties in an individual’s repertoire are used and processed. Individuals inherit the social contexts in which they learn and use language (cf. ontogenetic niche). Thus, links between social structure and language structure are derivable from systematic investigation into how languages are differentially processed in multilingual contexts across the lifespan.

Friday, December 2 @ 3:30 PM: Jacob Phillips (UChicago)

Please join LVC this Friday, December 2 at 3:30 PM in Rosenwald 301. It will be our last meeting of the quarter and our speaker is our own Jacob Phillips. Hope you can make it!

Retraction in Action: Examining phonological and prosodic effects on /s/-retraction in the laboratory”
Jacob Phillips
University of Chicago

An ongoing sound change in American English is /s/-retraction, the process by which /s/ is articulated approaching /ʃ/ in the context of /r/. Speakers vary significantly in the degree of retraction observed, with all individuals exhibiting coarticulatory effects of /r/ in /sCr/ clusters and some individuals displaying an apparent sound change, with /s/ reanalyzed as /ʃ/ in /str/ clusters (Mielke et al., 2010; Baker et al., 2011). The present study uses experimental methods seeks to better understand the actuation of this sound change through a phonological and prosodic lens. College-aged students from across the United States read a series of sentences manipulating the phonological and prosodic environments of these sibilant. The results of this study demonstrate a retracted /s/ in the context of /r/ and phrase-intitially. While there was not a significant group-level effect for the interaction of prosodic position and phonological environment, the inclusion of by-subject random slopes for that interaction, which significantly improves model likelihood, suggests that individuals vary with respect to the effects of prosodic conditioning of /s/-retraction in different phonological contexts. These findings suggest a possible role of prosodic position in the actuation of sound change, both in production and possible effects in perception.


Tatiana Nikitina @ LVC on Friday, April 1st!

Friday, April 1st at 3:00PM, location TBA

Frames of reference in discourse: Spatial descriptions in Bashkir (Turkic)

Tatiana Nikitina
CNRS, Paris

Cross-linguistic and individual variation in the use of spatial reference frames has been one of the central questions in the study of semantic typology (Pederson et al. 1998; Levinson 2003, inter alia). It is well-known that languages vary in the way locative expressions refer to asymmetries defining major spatial axes: front and back, for example, can be defined with respect to the Ground’s internal asymmetry (sitting in front of a TV) or with respect to the position of an external observer (the fork is in front of the plate). It is normal for speakers to use multiple frames of reference with the same spatial expression, sometimes switching from one frame to another within the same utterance (Bohnemeyer 2011). The nature of this variation, however, is understudied, and very little is known about factors that make individual speakers prefer one frame of reference over others.

In this talk, I will present an ongoing study of the use of reference frames by speakers of Bashkir, a Turkic language spoken in Russia. I explore the inventory of devices employed for describing spatial relations in an experimental task and discuss the role of factors such as education and bilingualism in the choice of reference frames. While variation in reference frame use in linguistic descriptions has been previously suggested to reflect the use of different cognitive strategies (Levinson 1996; Majid et al. 2004), I find no correlation between speakers’ performance in verbal and non-verbal tasks (cf. Li & Gleitman 2002). In verbal interaction, speakers show high levels of flexibility in the use of different frames of reference, and work together actively to converge on a common reference frame for individual spatial expressions.

The study is part of an international collaboration aimed at exploring cross-cultural variation in spatial cognition (NSF-BCS-1053123).

Bohnemeyer, Juergen. 2011. Spatial frames of reference in Yucatec: Referential promiscuity and task-specificity. Language Sciences 33(6): 892-914.
Levinson, Stephen C. 1996. Frames of reference and Molyneux’s question: Crosslinguistic evidence. Paul Bloom (ed.) Language and Space. MIT Press, 109-169.
Levinson, Stephen C. 2003. Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in cognitive diversity. Cambridge University Press.
Li, Peggy & Lila Gleitman. 2002. Turning the tables: Language and spatial reasoning. Cognition 83(3): 265-294.
Majid, Asifa, et al. 2004. Can language restructure cognition? The case for space. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8(3): 108-114.
Pederson, Eric, et al. 1998. Semantic typology and spatial conceptualization. Language 74(3): 557-589.

Itxaso Rodríguez-Ordóñez @ LVC on Friday, December 4th

Friday, December 4th @ 3:00PM in Rosenwald 301

Understanding Basque Differential Object Marking from Typological, Contact and Attitudinal perspectives

Itxaso Rodríguez-Ordóñez
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Differential Object Marking (DOM) has enjoyed abundant scholarly interest insomuch as theoretical explanations of its key parameters (Aissen 2003; Malchukov and Swart 2008; Hoop and Swart 2007), language-specific constraints (Leonetti 2004; Seifart 2012; Sinnemaki 2014) and synchronic and diachronic accounts in various languages (Morimoto and Swart 2004; Robertson 2007). However, less attention has been paid to the role that language contact plays in the emergence of DOM or the processes that lead to its variable use in contact settings. Basque DOM has been characterized as the product of intense contact with Basque-Spanish leísmo (Austin 2006; Rodríguez-Ordóñez, 2015), but its variable use and the role that attitudes play in its use remain understudied.

Using spontaneous speech of 70 Basque-Spanish bilinguals and 19 Basque-French bilinguals in combination of experimental techniques on production and perception, I provide evidence to the argument that Basque DOM involves a process of replica grammaticalization (Heine and Kuteva 2010) in which contact features and typological constraints work interactively, particularly dependent upon the language dominance of the speaker. The low use among L2 speakers is explained through the attitudinal results; Basque DOM is considered ‘defective’ and ‘non-authentic’ in Standard Basque, the variety of L2 and early sequential bilinguals. It is proposed that these speakers do not use Basque DOM so that their ‘authentic Basque identity’ is not fully questioned.

The present study builds upon theoretical and methodological implications: first, it argues that a multi-disciplinary study of contact-phenomena advances our theory on the interplay of language as ‘human faculty’ and ‘social competence’ in which bilinguals engage in a linguistic task that involve cognitive processing mechanisms and the ability to implement societal norms (Matras 2010). Second, it advocates for the formal study of language attitudes as an integrated part of a theory of contact-linguistics.

Kathryn Franich @ LVC on Friday, November 6th!

Friday, November 6th @ 3:00PM in Rosenwald 301

Intrinsic and Contextual Cues to Tone Perception In Medʉmba
(or: A How-To Guide for Doing Phonetics Experiments in the Field)

Kathryn Franich
University of Chicago

In this talk, I discuss results of experimental work on tone perception in Medʉmba, a Grassfields Bantu language spoken in Cameroon. The following research questions were investigated:

1) What kinds of acoustic cues are relevant to the perception of tones in this language?
2) Is tone perception sensitive to pitch information from the surrounding context? And if so, is perception sensitive to contextual information from non-speech sounds as well as speech sounds?

Results indicate that both F0 and duration are important cues to tone perception, but that the influence of duration was strongest where target F0 values were low. This finding is in-line with previous cross-linguistic work showing interactions between duration perception and tone and is thought to arise through a compensatory mechanism on the part of speakers to normalize for F0-related perceptual or articulatory biases (Yu 2011, Gussenhoven & Zhou 2013).

Results also indicate that perception of tones on target syllables was influenced by the tone of the syllable in the previous trial within the experimental block. Interestingly, preceding non-speech tones did not influence perception, suggesting that the observed contextual effect was specific to linguistic stimuli, rather than attributable to domain-general auditory processing effects, as has been suggested by Huang & Holt (2009; 2011).

In describing the experiment, I provide a play-by-play of its design and execution to highlight ways in which typical laboratory setups can be adapted for a fieldwork setting. In particular, I focus on subject recruitment, stimuli creation and presentation, pilot-testing, and the use of computers for data collection in contexts where subjects are not accustomed to them.

28 April: Laura Staum Casasanto (UChicago)

Monday, April 28th @ 3:00 PM, Cobb 104

Processing Difficulty and the Envelope of Variation

A longstanding problem in the study of syntactic variation is determining the envelope of variation. That is, what are the variants that speakers choose among when they speak? This problem is usually thought of in terms of semantic equivalency: are the variants in question really “different ways of saying the same thing,” or is their selection at least partly based on semantic or pragmatic differences among the variants? But there is another problem facing an analyst of syntactic variation before the work of determining the constraints on variation can begin. To the extent that we consider the statistical tendencies of speakers to use one variant or another part of grammar, we have to ask: Which utterances are things that should be explained via a competence grammar, and which are things that should be explained away via performance factors?
This problem is brought into focus when we study the effect of processing difficulty on variant selection. If one variant is more likely under difficult processing conditions, and another more likely under easy processing conditions, this could be a sign that one variant is an error, more likely to be made under pressure. For example, Staum Casasanto & Sag (2009) found that extra complementizers are more likely to be inserted when the distance between the complement-taking verb and the subject of the complement clause is long. It’s possible to describe this type of pattern in the same terms that we describe other effects on syntactic variant selection, such as style, register, social, semantic, or lexical effects. But to do so misses a critical point: there may be a non-arbitrary, functional relationship between the conditioning factor and the measured outcome. Not only that, but the variant that occurs in the difficult conditions may not be part of any speaker’s idiolect, in terms of grammaticality. If a variant is produced only under conditions of processing difficulty, what aspect of a speaker’s knowledge are we describing when we describe its distribution?
In this talk, I’ll present data from experiments investigating putatively processing-based syntactic variation, propose some ways of distinguishing between grammar and processing, and discuss the limitations of these methods. I’ll argue that although there are strategies we can use to classify variables as inside or outside the purview of grammar, we can only use these once we acknowledge that we need to have different notions of the envelope of variation for different types of analysis of variation.

24 February: Carissa Abrego-Collier (UChicago)

Monday, February 24th @ 3:00 PM, Kent 107

Investigating phonetic variation over time in the U.S. Supreme Court

Phonetic research over the past two decades has shown that individual speakers vary their phonetic realizations of words, phonemes, and subphonemic features. What we have found is that speakers show remarkable stability over time, while a small minority exhibit time-dependent variation—what we term change. Prior research has shown that individual-level phonetic change can occur at scales ranging from minutes (as induced in laboratory experiments (Nielsen 2007, Babel 2009, Yu et al. 2013) to years (as observed in speech corpora, e.g., Sankoff 2004, Harrington 2006). Significantly, this research suggests that individual change in both the short and long term may ultimately be a crucial component of sound change in a population.

The SCOTUS speech corpus project is concerned with this kind of individual variation and change. How do different phonetic variables vary over time? How do different speakers vary their pronunciations over time? That is, what time dependence, if any, do different phonetic variables show within individual speakers, and how might individuals’ variation patterns converge with one another?  These are the questions which I seek to address. My research will yield three types of contributions: an extensive speech corpus for studying the link between social interaction and language change; a study of change within individuals and within a group of speakers over time; and an exploration of the relationship between different individuals’ patterns of variation (which may be time-dependent), as mediated by linguistic, social, and environmental factors.  In this talk, I introduce the SCOTUS speech corpus, a digital audio archive of U.S. Supreme Court oral argument recordings transcribed to phoneme level via forced alignment.  I then describe an ongoing longitudinal study of phonetic variation and convergence using the corpus, which will analyze the speech of the justices of the Supreme Court over a period of 7 years. Using data from one term year as a case study, I present preliminary findings on one phonetic variable, vowel formants, and situate the current project within past research on phonetic variation and change over time.

21 October: Jonathan Keane (UChicago)

Monday, October 21st @ 3 PM, Harper 140

Variation in fingerspelling: time, pinky extension, and what it means to be active

This talk will look at two sources of variation in fingerspelling of American Sign Language: overall timing, and one aspect of hand shape.
Reported fingerspelling rates have considerable variation (a lower bound of ~125msec per letter; an upper bound of ~400msec) (Quinto-Pozos, 2010; Bornstein, 196; Hanson, 1981; Wilcox, 1992; Geer, 2010}. Most of these did not analyze individual letter-segments, but rather, the length of the word and divided by the number of letters expected. Some used a segment based analysis which showed word medial letters are fingerspelled quicker than initials or finals  (Reich, 1977). Emmorey (2011) showed breaking at a phonological-syllable-boundary aided fingerspelling perception. Building on these studies, we have collected and analyzed timing data from 4 ASL signers. We replicated many of the previous findings, and additionally found that there are large differences between different letter types, large individual differences, as well as differences in rate based on the type of word being fingerspelled.
We show that not only position, but also type of letter and signer have a large influence on the timing properties of ASL fingerspelling. Also, it is important to look at fingerspelling segment by segment because there are large differences based on the kind of segment being fingerspelled. Finally, there are large individual differences that are obscured by looking at rate simplistically (just holds, just transitions, or letters per minute).
It is widely assumed in the articulatory phonology literature that when an articulator is not active (unspecified in the gestural score) it assumes a neutral state. One example of this is that the velum, when not active, assumes a closed position; only when it is actively opened does it deviate from that position. This assumption makes predictions about speech that seem to be fairly robust: nasal sounds are more marked than non-nasal, and nasalization spreads from nasal sounds, etc. This neutral position, however, is at odds with the position that the velum assumes naturally when people are at rest (eg not speaking), which is open, allowing for air to be drawn into the respiratory system from the nose or mouth. This being the case, there must be some muscular activity on the velum during periods that have previously been described as inactivity in order to keep it closed. One solution to this apparent problem is to specify gestures for periods previously assumed to have no activity, although these gestures would necessarily be weaker than active articulator gestures.
There are two major predictions that come from the fact that the targets associated with nonactive gestures are not a physiologically neutral state, but rather a state that is default for speech. First, it is possible that the targets for nonactive gestures will differ cross linguistically with different languages having different default states. This is supported in work on spoken languages looking at default targets of nonactive articulators, or what are described as articulatory settings which vary from language to language (Wilson, 2006; Wilson, 2006; Gick, 2004). Second, it’s possible that the targets for nonactive gestures will vary depending on the targets of the active gestures. This will be used in the development of the articulatory phonology model of handshape proposed here for the configuration of the nonactive (nonselected) fingers.
Since the earliest theories of sign language phonology, handshapes have divided the fingers into selected and non-selected groups (Mandel (1981), ff). Mandel describes the selected fingers as the foreground and the nonselected fingers as the background. This talk presents an articulatory model of handshape which explicitly links this distinction to the distinction of active and inactive articulators used widely in speech (Browman, 1992). This link makes critical, testable predictions about the nature of handshape variation due to coarticulatory pressure: The hand configurations of a letter vary predictably based on surrounding context, constrained by the following tendencies: 1. The nonselected fingers are targets of coarticulatory pressure. 2. The selected fingers are the likeliest sources of coarticulatory pressure. The articulatory model of handshape is based on articulatory phonology (following Browman (1992)) and can explain the phonetic implementation of handshape from phonological specifications. It explains variation due to articulatory effects (eg coarticulation) because it uses dynamic articulator gestures. That is, the articulators that make up the hand are not static, sequential configurations (ie discrete units), but rather individual articulator gestures overlapping across segments. This ability to model gradient phonetic implementation and contextual variation represents a critical improvement over previous phonological models.
An analysis of coarticulation of pinky extension revealed a puzzling fact: There is less pinky extension coarticulation in handshapes where the pinky is selected and flexed (-A-, -S-, -E-, and -O-) compared to other handshapes where the pinky is nonselected and flexed. Despite having the same phonetic realization in both (flexed), the pinky behaves differently with respect to coarticulation depending on its membership in the selected fingers group. This follows directly from the articulatory model of handshape: in handshapes where the pinky is selected and flexed, there is less pinky extension as a result of coarticulation because the pinky is an active articulator, which suppresses coarticulatory pressure from surrounding articulator gestures because the flexion is associated with an (active) articulatory gesture.
The articulatory model of handshape provides a concrete and principled way to convert the phonological specifications of handshape into phonetic configurations using a model of articulator targets and gestures developed for speech. Additionally, the articulatory model of handshape correctly predicts how the active or inactive status of particular articulators will affect variation in natural production.


7 October: Ed King (Stanford University)

Monday, October 7th @ 3 PM, Harper 140

Voice-specific lexicons: acoustic variation and semantic association

Over the past twenty years, evidence has accumulated that listeners store phonetically- rich memories of spoken words (Goldinger 1996, Johnson 1997; Schacter & Church, 1992). These memorized episodes are linked to various speaker characteristics, including gender (Strand & Johnson 1996, Strand 1999), nationality (Hay & Drager 2010), and age (Walker & Hay 2011). Generally, listeners are faster and more accurate at recognizing spoken words when the acoustic patterns match speaker characteristics indexed by acoustic variation. Research has overwhelmingly focused on the match between acoustic patterns and lexical memories, predicting that speaker characteristics are only relevant in the initial lexical access stage of spoken word recognition. We investigate the effect of speaker-specific variation on semantic activation; if acoustic variation influences semantic activation, then effects of indexical variation are more pervasive than typically thought.

We first investigated this issue with a word association task: listeners heard a male or female voice producing words (probes) one at a time. Listeners provided the first word that came to mind for each word. Of 262 probe words, 59 (22%) resulted in different strongest associates across speakers, as determined for each probe-response pair by the frequency of that response to that probe for each voice (e.g., the most frequent response to the prompt ACADEMY_male was “school”, while for ACADEMY_female the strongest associate was “Awards”).

We subsequently tested the effects of these speaker-specific semantic associations in spoken word recognition with a semantic priming experiment, using 30 words whose strongest associates differed between speakers. Listeners heard a word produced by one speaker (the “prime”; e.g., ACADEMY_male or ACADEMY_female), then saw a printed word (the “target”; e.g., ”school” or ”awards”), and indicated whether the printed word was a real word. We expect faster responses when the speaker matches the semantic association (“awards” should be recognized more quickly when preceded by ACADEMY_female than by ACADEMY_male).

Listeners responded more quickly to semantically-associated words when the semantic association strength was strong and speaker-specific (p = 0.016). These results indicate that speaker-specific acoustic cues mediate spoken word interpretation as well as recognition. We suggest that a speaker’s voice provides semantic context in spoken word recognition.