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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
TBA Cobb 104
2 June 3:00 PM Claire Halpert
U Minnesota
TBA Cobb 104
9 June 3:00 PM Rachel Leher
TBA Cobb 104

Posted in schedules.

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.

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.

Posted in Experimental, Phonetics, social variation, sound change, student talks.

10 February: William Cotter (University of Essex) and Uri Horesh (Northwestern University)

Monday, February 10th @ 4:30 PM, Harper 150

Language variation and change in two Palestinian Arabic varieties: Gaza and Jaffa

While research in Arabic sociolinguistics has been on the rise in recent years, a number of regions are still under-investigated. Most varieties of Palestinian Arabic, though described by dialectologists in the traditional sense over the years, have not received much attention from a variationist perspective. This presentation will shed light on two urban varieties of Palestinian Arabic and discuss future directions in the research of the region as a whole, concentrating on the shared history between Gaza and Jaffa, the two cities in which we have done our fieldwork.

Our presentation will focus on two variables, one from each of these Palestinian cities:

1. The phonological variable (ʕ) in Jaffa
2. The morphophonological variable (ah) in Gaza

Each of these speech communities has its unique characteristics: Jaffa speakers tend to be bilingual—their L2 being Modern Hebrew—and the variation observed is assumed to be contact-induced. This hypothesis is tested, and for the most part confirmed, through quantitative analysis. The community in Gaza has been living under military occupation an physical siege, which has isolated them from the rest of the Palestinian population for quite some time, rendering their dialect quite distinct from most other varieties of Arabic in the region, in addition to its predisposition as a sort of bridge dialect between the Levant and Egypt, given its geographical location. Many speakers in Gaza are in fact refugees from Jaffa, and we will discuss the significance of this fact both in the context of work already carried out and for work in progress for future publication.

Posted in fieldwork, historical, invited talks, language contact, morphology, Phonology.

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.

Posted in anthropology, fieldwork, language contact, social variation, student talks.