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INTERSECTIONS • October 22-25, 2015

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Plenary Talks

Welcome: Ways of Analyzing Variation (NWAV) in Canada
J. K. Chambers (University of Toronto)

Almost a century ago, Edward Sapir, chief anthropologist at the Canadian National Museum in Ottawa, taught us that "no language is tyrannically consistent. All grammars leak" (1921). We have now spent several decades giving substance to his insight, enlightened by the Labovian refinement that the heterogeneity of language is orderly, systematic and measurable. We are proud to host this annual conclave, and we welcome our partners from all over the world.

Pursuing symmetry by eradicating variability
Shana Poplack (University of Ottawa)

Because the doctrine of form-function symmetry is so firmly entrenched in linguistic thought, contemporary sociolinguistic analyses of variability beyond the phonological are often dismissed. In this talk, I present the results of a large-scale project that examines the response to morphosyntactic variability over time by tracking its treatment in a massive corpus of prescriptive grammars dating from the 16th century through the present, and relating it to current formal approaches. Analysis shows that although variant forms have been recognized since the earliest times, only rarely have they been acknowledged as variant expressions of the same meaning or grammatical function. Instead, three major strategies are marshaled to factor variability out, when it isn't ignored altogether: assigning each variant a specific linguistic context, matching each variant with a dedicated meaning, and when all else fails, associating each variant with a different type of speaker or register. Remarkably, however, results reveal little consensus, whether over time or across authors, over which elements to associate with which variant. This suggests that the aim is of these strategies is not so much to describe or prescribe, but to imbue each form with a privative context of occurrence, whatever it may be, so long as it is distinct from that of its counterpart(s). Attributing distinct roles to each variant restores the desired isomorphic relation between function and form, while implicitly rejecting the possibility of bona fide grammatical variation. In contrast, systematic confrontation with the data of spontaneous speech fails to validate virtually all of these treatments, revealing robust variability subject to regular conditioning instead. I explore how the enduring legacy of this position, encapsulated in the doctrine of form-function symmetry, continues to mold prescriptive - and many formal linguistic - treatments of variability, contributing to the growing gulf between usage, prescription and much linguistic description.

Variation at the Crossroads: Advancing Theory by Integrating Methods

NWAV44 will be augmented by a special Variation at the Crossroads workshop with a focus on advancing linguistic theory by integrating diverse methods of data collection and analysis. Five invited speakers from diverse fields will each present a keynote talk, distributed across the four days of the conference (please refer to the full program (PDF) for details). These will be followed by related panels of papers, to be selected from the regular NWAV submissions, that will offer corresponding or opposing views. These invited speakers will be asked to comment on other papers in the session. William Labov will act as a discussant, presenting his response on Sunday.

The 5 Crossroads Plenary lectures, Q&A and Discussion sesssions will be livestreamed to the Youtube channel Linguistics on Air. These livecasts will be available for later viewing and classroom use through Google+ and Youtube.com. We thank Paul De Decker for producing this.


Language Acquisition Endangered Language Documentation Corpus Linguistics Historical Linguistics Formal Theory

After 40 years of building on strong empirical foundations, the time has come for a re-engagement with linguistics more broadly and integration across related disciplines. Understanding how humans deploy variation to facilitate communication while the language itself continues to change is a fundamental element in understanding human language, society and interaction. Recent progress in the field can be linked to researchers' ability to leverage new methods and tap novel and increasingly 'big' and 'broad' datasets. These advances have expanded the available testable hypotheses as well as the diversity and representativity of language data that can be brought to bear on compelling questions of language as a complex system and its intersection with human populations.

An edited volume comprising a selection of papers from the Variation at the Crossroads special sessions will be prepared. The Canadian Journal of Linguistics has indicated interest in publishing this collection of plenary talks and selected peer-reviewed submissions.

The Variation at the Crossroads workshop brings into focus major threads of research in language variation and change over the past half-century, critically and pointedly encouraging fresh insights of 'intersection' with linguistic theory, language acquisition, historical linguistics, language documentation and other disciplines. To support and encourage this cross-disciplinary climate, five speakers have been selected as scholars who have made significant forays into embracing variation in their research.

Endangered Language Documentation

Keeping your foot in the door: Variation research and language documentation
Miriam Meyerhoff (Victoria University of Wellington)

Typically, a study of variation starts from the known and works its way into the unknown; the general structure of the language/dialect is pretty well-established and the analysis of variation embellishes the structural description. But what happens when you are analysing variation at the same time as you are grappling with the fundamental structure of the language? How realistic is it to situate your work at the intersection of language description and language variation? In principle, this is what a child does when learning a language so it should be possible, but in practice, combining documentation and variationist goals can be challenging. This talk looks at how documentation of Nkep (a Central Eastern Oceanic language spoken in northern Vanuatu) has progressed when guided by a focus on internal and social variation. I will use three variables (subject agreement, complementiser reduction and lexical borrowing) to highlight the rewards and challenges associated with propping open the door between two disciplines that have not traditionally had much to say to each other.

Miriam Meyerhoff is a Professor of Linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. She has spent two decades studying the sociolinguistics of lesser-studied languages, especially the creoles of the Caribbean and the southwestern Pacific Ocean. She is keenly interested in sociolinguistically constrained variation and how it informs our understanding of both linguistic structure and the construction of social - particularly gendered - identities.

Corpus Linguistics

About corpus linguistics, variation, and the variationist method
Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven)

Corpus linguistics is often defined as a methodology that bases claims about language usage on collections of naturalistic, authentic speech or texts. Because this is precisely what is done in most LVC work, it may be claimed that LVC analysts are by definition corpus linguists, though of course the reverse is not true: the variationist method entails more than merely analyzing usage data, and not all corpus linguists are interested in variation. But that being said, a considerable and arguably increasing number of corpus-based researchers are explicitly concerned with variation and use the variationist method without necessarily identifying as LVC practitioners. The complication is that there seem to be certain styles and practices that set apart corpus-based variationist work from LVC work. The talk will discuss such differences, and identify research fields where LVC researchers may draw inspiration from work in corpus-based variationist linguistics.

Benedikt Szmrecsanyi holds a research professorship in the Department of Linguistics at the KU Leuven. His research interests fall within the remit of variationist sociolinguistics, with a particular focus on grammatical variation. However, he employs corpus linguistic methods. His large-scales studies of morphosyntactic persistence and variation in British dialects have employed advanced techniques for establishing underlying patterns of variation and similarities and differences across varieties.

Historical Linguistics/Information Structure

The interaction of information structure and syntactic change
Susan Pintzuk (University of York)

In this talk I demonstrate that for at least one syntactic change in the history of English, information structure plays a synchronic role in influencing word order but does not at all affect the progress of the change over time. For the case of OV vs. VO word order, I show that the Given Before New Principle of Gundel 1988 influenced the position of objects, pre-verbal vs. post-verbal, but that this cross-linguistic generalization did not interact with the gradual change from OV to VO that occurred during the Old and Middle English periods.

Susan Pintzuk is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of York, England. Her research combines formal syntactic analysis, statistical methodology, and techniques of corpus linguistics: she applies quantitative techniques to the structural analysis of historical data. Her studies using data from morphosyntactically annotated corpora have produced groundbreaking new insights into syntactic variation and change in the history of English and into the role played by information structure during periods of change.

Formal Theory

Structure versus use in morphosyntactic variation
David Adger (Queen Mary University of London)

Classical accounts of morphosyntactic variation appeal to rules that embed probabilities into the realization of morphemes combining aspects of structure with aspects of use. More recently, this same basic intuition has been developed within construction grammar approaches to syntax where constructions are learned linkages between form and meaning, but the notion of attached probabilities is replaced by the interaction of various use-related properties, such as entrenchment, preemption, processing ease etc (Goldberg 2006; Hudson 2007). An alternative is to take morphosyntactic variation to be a side effect of the availability of multiple morphosyntactic ways of achieving the same syntactic/semantic goal (Kroch 94; Yang 2002; Adger 2006), and to separate distinctly the systems that generate structure from those that make use of structure. This talk evaluates these two ways of understanding morphosyntactic variability, bringing to bear evidence from acquisition of variation, the emergence of new dialect forms, language change across generations and language death. I argue that in each case the evidence supports the second approach, and that that approach can actually provide ways of constraining how morphosyntactic variation can be affected by the systems of use. The conclusion is that the usage-based construction grammar approach has it exactly backwards: routinization of structures are indeed important in use, but the acquisition of the structures, and the linguistic representation of the structures, is severely constrained by the speaker's linguistic system.

Adger, David (2006). Combinatorial variability. Journal of Linguistics, 42, 503-530.

Goldberg, A. (2006). Constructions at work: The nature of generalization in language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hudson, R. (2007). Inherent variability and modularity: A comment on Adger's 'combinatorial variability'. Journal of Linguistics, 43, 683-694.

Kroch, A. (1994). Morphosyntactic variation. In Beals, K., J. Denton, R. Knippen, L. Melnar, H . Suzuki and E. Zeinfeld (eds.), Papers from the 30th regional meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society, volume 2: The parasession on variation in linguistic theory, 180-201. Chicago: Chicago Linguistics Society.

Yang, C. (2002). Knowledge and learning in natural language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

David Adger is a Professor of Linguistics in the Department of Linguistics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is primarily interested in syntax, the cognitive system that underlies the patterns found in the grammar of human languages. However, one of his central interests is how theories of syntax can be used to describe and predict the variable use of different syntactic patterns by a single individual, and whether these theories have anything to contribute to explaining probabilistic patterns we see in the use of different syntactic forms.

Child Language Acquisition

The intersection of child language acquisition and sociolinguistics
Elizabeth Johnson (University of Toronto)

Traditionally, developmental speech perception research has paid little attention to the role of linguistic variation in the development of language abilities. However, in the past 10 years, developmental speech perception researchers have become increasingly interested in variation in the linguistic input. One could even argue that, as a field, we have realized that understanding how children deal with variation is just about the most interesting question we can address. This has resulted in an explosion of research in this domain. My own work addresses this question by studying how monolingual children exposed to only one or to multiple accents/dialects/variants of English on a daily basis perceive the speech signal. This work involves the acquisition of both Dutch and English, and examines both monolinguals and bilinguals. The results I will discuss point to the importance of considering variation in the input when examining the development of early speech processing abilities. Although developmental speech perception researchers are now very interested in the sort of variation that sociolinguists have been studies for ages, there has been little interaction between the two fields. Increasing interaction between these two fields has great promise for moving both fields forward and unlocking some of the mysteries of early language development.

Elizabeth Johnson is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto (Mississauga). Her research on infant language acquisition is innovative in its inclusion of the study of toddlers' comprehension of unfamiliar regional accents, cross-gender word recognition, and perception of other types of non-contrastive variation. It explores the issue of stochastic processing in infants, paralleling much work on adult speakers in the field of sociolinguistics. Her lab's research contributes to our understanding of early word recognition and the development of comprehension in infants and toddlers.

Workshop Discussant

William Labov (University of Pennsylvania)

William Labov is a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. He is widely regarded as the founder of the discipline of variationist sociolinguistics. No one is more suited to offer an overview of the Variation at the Crossroads workshop and its implications for the future of our subfield.


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