Annual Freeman Lecture Reveals Distinctly American Linguistic Patterns
By Aria Bracci | Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
It’s not often that one hears “standing room only” in a classroom, but in Room 211 in the Integrative Learning Center on the afternoon of April 1, every seat was filled while more than 20 people stood along the walls. Nearly one hundred people were gathered for the UMass Linguistics Department’s annual Freeman Lecture, titled “Discovering Grammatical Diversity in American English.” Some groups were revealed to be entire classes attending with their professors, evidenced by the clip-boarded attendance sheets circulating the room. Not as obvious was the ethnic diversity in the audience, but snippets of French and Mandarin arose to the wandering ear.
Featured speaker Raffaella Zanuttini reflected a similar multilingualism in Italian and English, the former of which has served as the basis of her research on linguistic variations. She only recently turned to analyzing English, but through collaboration with Jim Wood and Larry Horn came the content of this year’s Freeman Lecture and its virtually untouched focus. As Zanuttini explained, there has been extensive research on phonetics and sound change, as well as on lexical variation (different words that describe the same thing) in American English, but the differences in syntax across speakers are relatively unhandled.
Their research on this topic has been presented under the umbrella title of the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project; however, Zanuttini explained, the bulk of their research doesn’t actually address grammar (such as the placement of punctuation) but instead addresses differences in syntax, or morpho-syntactic variation. “Grammatical” is simply more recognizable.. The project’s goals and presentations—including its website, which Zanuttini described as “not full of jargon” and accessible to a “an educated reader interested in language”—are similarly digestible to the average person.
As it turns out, “recognizable” is a central concept to tracking syntactic patterns in American English. Within the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, Zanuttini and her colleagues administer syntax surveys through Amazon Mechanical Turk (which gives access to variety in participant age, gender, and socio-economic and educational backgrounds). Participants are presented with 45 sentences and are asked to rate them on a scale of 1 (unacceptable) to 5 (totally acceptable). These ratings serve to display what a participant finds recognizable, sensible, and acceptable in speech.
In addition to these surveys, the team also analyzes previous studies, reads relevant blogs, and interacts with native speakers to gather more data. One example of a “previous study” was a section of Michael Montgomery and Joseph Hall’s 2004 Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English that features an analysis of Appalachian English, but comparison continues to be a crucial tool for the researchers to check—and, more often than not, confirm—their results.
These results, which are transcribed into digital distribution maps, display that some syntactic trends (such as saying “So don’t I” to mean “I do, too” in response to a statement like “I wish I had an orange”) correlate with ethnicity, age, or geographic region; others do not. The latter concept is seen in the idea of “copy raising”—where the subject (“John”) and a pronoun describing that subject (“him”) are both used in one sentence (“John seems like Mary offended him”)—since approval of this sentence structure is widely spread throughout the country.
In the latter half of the presentation, Zanuttini directed the audience’s focus to two specific syntactical concepts—personal dative pronouns and presentative dative pronouns—and explained the findings derived from the project’s surveys. Among other examples, she represented the personal dative with “I love me some Donald Trump” and the presentative dative with “Where are me some country boys?!” to which the audience laughed. It was particularly striking that among speakers older than 40, the first concept of personal datives is more acceptable in the South. However, among speakers younger than 40, personal datives are acceptable across geographical regions, with the youngest group (18-30) occupying the largest geographical area.
Supported by these higher rates of sentence approval in younger respondents and in more locations, Zanuttini argued that language-based restrictions are changing. And considering this breadth of research and enthusiasm funneled into the study of variation within our language, it became evident that there is not a gap in our knowledge of speech—there are gaps in our speech, and they are natural and ever-changing. Language can reflect literature, technology, and geography, and fewer things are “wrong” than we might think.