Category Archives: social variation

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.


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

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.

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.

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.

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.

4 November: Jeff Good (University at Buffalo)

Monday, November 4th @ 3 PM, Harper 140

Magical ideologies of language change: Connecting micro-level variation to macro-areal diversification

In many respects, historical investigation of the Bantu language family serves as a model application of the Comparative Method to a genealogical unit outside of Indo-European. The close relationship of hundreds of languages occupying the greater part of southern sub-Saharan Africa is beyond question, and there is  consensus on many important features of the proto-language. At the same time, despite more than a century and a half of scholarship, significant issues regarding the development of the family remain unresolved almost to the point of seeming intractable. No shared innovation has been found that uniquely delineates Bantu from its closest relatives, no family-wide subgrouping has become accepted, and no fully convincing explanation has been offered for Bantu’s incredibly successful spread throughout southern Africa.

This talk reconsiders these issues through the examination of the comparative linguistics of a small, linguistically diverse region of Cameroon known as Lower Fungom, which is located within the putative Proto-Bantu homeland. By treating Lower Fungom as a microcosm for Bantu, it becomes possible to explore how a local ideology that links languages to relatively ephemeral political entities results in patterns of language change which are neither tree-like nor wave-like but, rather, “magnetic”, with varieties in contact constantly converging and diverging from each other to reflect shifting patterns of solidarity and antagonism. This ideological stance is further associated with a system of beliefs wherein code choice is perceived as a means to access the magical protection associated with a given community. This fosters multilingualism and frequent language shift as strategies through which individuals can attempt to increase their spiritual security.

Through the examination of specific structural features of the languages of Lower Fungom, it will be argued that the presence of these ideological patterns can take us far in understanding why there was never a clean linguistic “break” between Bantu and its closest relatives, why clear-cut subgroups never formed, and why the family spread so successfully. More generally, it will be suggested that detailed investigation of the ways that local language ideologies relate codes to communities has a significant role to play in addressing the actuation problem in language change.

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.

15 October: Erik Levin (UChicago)

Monday, October 15th @ 3 PM, Harper 140

Amawaka Speakers’ Creative Uses of Morphosyntactic Variation in Cultural Context


The 250 to 300 remaining speakers of Amawaka reside in the Western Amazonian lowlands along either side of the border that divides Peru and Brazil. Residents of most Amawaka villages serendipitously juxtapose (1) a reified system of culturally licensed knowledge practices, and (2) the Amawaka language, whose mandatory evidential morphemes and split ergative case marking system arbitrarily require speakers to express their judgments about both the quality and the sources of referential information that they present through speech acts. Thus, by happenstance, whether speakers of Amawaka engage in epistemological or linguistic practices, they often manifest either practice of the pair in performing the other.

Since the advent of Labov’s series of pioneering studies, sociolinguists have continued to demonstrate that language forms parallel social identities in macro-level structures. While these contributions are undeniably important for the larger field of linguistics, this dominant approach in the sub-discipline eschews questions of why and through which processes such correlations arise. Moreover, few sociolinguistics studies address micro-level issues about how speakers might creatively employ language variation to achieve their own goals. In order to account for these unaddressed issues, then, it is necessary to expand the focus of contemporary sociolinguistics by incorporating theoretical advancements from both formal linguistics and anthropology.

Linguists and anthropologists (e.g., Duranti 1993) have established that speakers of a given language can employ its contingent morphosyntactic elements not only to reflect, but also to entail the very states of affairs that their uses more generally signify in cultural context. In this talk, I present multiply and overtly connected preliminary evidence of Amawaka speakers’ uses of evidentiality and split ergativity. With it, I aim toward explaining how Amawaka speakers, in the very process of discursively disseminating knowledge in cultural contexts, creatively employ their language’s grammatically mandatory epistemological forms to entail that publicly circulated knowledge is construed to be relatively more, or relatively less factual within a small-scale society. This study will potentially expose implicit assumptions that limit linguists’ analyses of evidentiality. It will also potentially illuminate the dynamic interrelationships between individual speakers’ uses of language, and socially-situated fields of knowledge practices.