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Spring 2014 Talks!

Date Time Speaker Title Room
14 April 3:00 PM Tony Woodbury
UT Austin

The emergence from tone of vowel register and graded nasalization in the Eastern Chatino of San Miguel Panixtlahuaca

Pick 016
28 April 3:00 PM Laura Staum Casasanto
Processing Difficulty and the Envelope of Variation Cobb 104
12 May 3:00 PM Rachel Lehr
Stony Brook
Linguistics in a Challenging Environment Cobb 104
2 June 3:00 PM Claire Halpert
U Minnesota
Nominal Licensing and vP Cobb 104
9 June 3:00 PM Andrea Beltrama
From semantic to social meaning. The case study of intensifiers. Cobb 104

Posted in schedules.

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.

Posted in anthropology, historical, linguistic anthropology, semantics, social variation, student talks.

2nd June: Claire Halpert (UMinnesota)

Monday, June 2nd @ 3:00 PM, Cobb 104

Nominal Licensing and vP

In this talk, I discuss aspects of nominal distribution patterns in several Bantu languages.  While Bantu languages have been claimed to lack case-licensing altogether (e.g. Harford 1985, Diercks 2012, a.o.), I outline a research path for investigating structural licensing of nominals in Bantu. Using Zulu as a starting point, I show that nominals lacking an augment morpheme (initial vowel) are restricted to certain structural positions within DP, PP, or vP. I argue that licensing at the vP-level is syntactic in nature, a form of case-licensing, connected to another morphosyntactic process that targets the vP domain: the conjoint/disjoint alternation.  At the same time, there are secondary semantic/interpretive properties that correlate with this type of licensing in Zulu. I show that beyond Zulu, we find similar nominal distribution patterns in other Bantu languages.  In  Kinande and Luganda (e.g. Progovac 1993, Hyman and Katamba 1993), for example, augment vowel distribution seems to operate on related, but non-identical principles, to Zulu.  In Otjiherero (Kavari et al 2012), augments do not seem to play a role in nominal distribution and licensing, but the tonal melodies with which nominals are marked follow the same syntactic patterns as augment distribution in languages like Zulu. The emerging picture, therefore, is one in which nominal case-licensing at the clause level seems to be closely tied to the vP domain in multiple Bantu languages.  I suggest that we can find some similar profiles to the type of interaction between structural licensing and interpretive properties that we see in Bantu in languages with more robust systems of morphological case, including Russian genitive of negation, Finnish partitives, and certain uses of genitive in Japanese dialects (e.g. de Hoop 1996, Kiparsky 1998, Partee and Borschev 2004, Ochi and Saruwatari 2014).

Posted in fieldwork, invited talks, morphology, syntax.

12 May: Rachel Lehr (UChicago)

Monday, May 12th @ 3:00 PM, Cobb 104

Linguistics in a Challenging Environment

Linguists choose to work on languages and in environments for a variety of reasons.   Choices may be determined by locations of interest, funding, mentors, prior experience, and urgent need. The choice to work in a conflict zone poses unique challenges. When attention is focused on a minority language community in a high conflict area, the stakes are raised for all involved.  Both linguistic and extra-linguistic factors influence the success and safety of the researcher, as well as the speech community. Because of the difficulty of working in Afghanistan over the past 30 years, little work has been done on minority regional languages.

This talk will focus on my work with Pashai speakers in Afghanistan and the diaspora.  My non-linguistic work with Pashai women led to linguistic work in their community.  I will discuss the ways in which long-term participant-observation provided access and insights into women’s language practices and how gender and geography play an increasingly significant role in language transmission and vitality. I will illustrate these practices with examples from the use of digital media and the different ways that men and women use the Pashai vigesimal counting system.

NGOs, individuals, and the Afghan government have recently undertaken efforts to provide an orthography, texts and teaching materials for Pashai. This discussion looks at how these efforts are met in the community, at the regional and national levels. Data from the pronominal system and verbal morphology illustrating the dialectal differences between three close villages will be used to show some of the challenges to native linguists developing curriculum and a standardized orthography.

Minority language promotion raises a community’s awareness of their own identity and prestige. In an attempt to sort out ‘ethno’ from ‘linguistic’ I will detail the association between language and ethnicity for Pashai speakers whose claim to ethno-linguistic identity reflects more outsider than insider influence. Afghanistan has been embroiled in a multi-ethnic identity crisis for more than thirty years. As policies evolve with each successive government Pashai speakers express a range of opinions on how Pashai they are, as the relationship between language and identity is continually contested.

Posted in fieldwork, language documentation, morphology, student talks.

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.

Posted in Experimental, invited talks, semantics, social variation, syntax.

14 April: Tony Woodbury (UT Austin)

Monday, April 18th @ 3:00 PM, Pick 016

The Emergence from Tone of Vowel Register and Graded Nasalization in the Eastern Chatino of San Miguel Panixtlahuaca

(based on joint work with John Kingston, University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

The Chatino languages (Otomanguean; Oaxaca, Mexico) generally retain the conservative Proto-Chatino vowel inventory: */a, e, i, o, u/, with nasalized counterparts */ą, ę, į, ǫ/. Pride & Pride’s 2004 dictionary of San Miguel Panixtlahuaca Eastern Chatino (PAN) indicates the same for that variety. But work by our group (Cruz et al. 2012) tells a quite different story. We find that PAN departed from the system by developing a more elaborate vowel system: /a, ɛ, e, i, ɔ, o, u/ (Cruz et al. 2012), as well as a contrast between ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ nasalized vowel sets: /ą, ę, ǫ/ vs.  /ąŋ, ęŋ, įŋ, ǫŋ/.

We argue that the main triggers for the expansion of this inventory was tonal: A mora-linked low or falling tone followed by a floating tone *L-(T) in Proto Eastern Chatino (pEC). In its (etymological) presence, the historical vowel system was rendered as /a, ɛ, e, ɔ, o/ and /ą, ę, ę, ǫ/ (merging *ę with *į); while in its absence the system was rendered as /ɔ, e, i, o u/ and /ąŋ, ęŋ, įŋ, ǫŋ/. We call the two renditions the low (and light-nasal) register vs. the high (and heavy-nasal) register, where ‘low’ and ‘high’ refer to the overall effect on Proto-EC vowel quality.


After giving general background on the Chatino languages, we describe the development from pEC of the PAN vowel system, justifying the claim that it is an innovation; we then use comparative evidence from other Eastern Chatino varieties to reconstruct the likely phonological and phonetic content of the *L-(T) tonal trigger (based on Campbell & Woodbury 2010). We then show that the tonal reflexes of the tonal trigger in the modern PAN tonal are virtually merged with non-*L-(T) tones for some speakers, and entirely merged for others, leaving a system in which the expanded vowel system has phonemic status while the tonal distinctions, if present, are residual.


This set of changes is significant as: (a) a relatively rare case of  relationship between vowel height and tone that is not mediated by voice quality (as discussed by Denning 1989; but cf. Becker & Jurgec 2008, who demonstrate a relationship between vowel height and tone in Slovenian); (b) an (unprecedented?) case of a relationship between nasal grading and tone); (c) a case involving tone where the crucial conditioning factor in a series of historical changes is synchronically barely detectable or undetectable, leaving room for alternative synchronic analyses; and (d) a demonstration of the value of comparative and historically-informed field work as a method for discovery and description, and as a source of insight for phonological and phonetic investigation.

Posted in fieldwork, historical, language documentation, Phonetics, Phonology, sound change.