Archive for Variation

Jihadi Jim

There's been a certain amount of discussion in the media about the accent of the ISIS spokesman on the video showing the mass beheading of Egyptian christians on a beach in Libya, e.g. on ABC News here. But the video itself has been kept off of the internet, for obvious reasons, which limits the opportunity for crowdsourcing perceptions of the audio. So here is his opening statement:

And the shorter statement that he makes after the gruesome beheadings:

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SOCAL is getting fleeked out

[Guest post by Taylor Jones]

For anyone who's been living under a rock for the past few months, there is a term, "on fleek," that has been around since at least 2003, but which caught like wildfire on social media after June 21, 2014, when Vine user Peaches Monroe made a video declaring her eyebrows "on fleek."

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Comparative diglossia

In the comments on "From Bushisms to la langue François", there was some discussion of whether French is more diglossic than English — that is, whether the differences between (formal) writing and (informal) speech are greater in French than in English. As I mentioned, it's not clear how and what to count — informal words and expressions, informal morphological and syntactic variants, sentence complexity and discourse structure? Is the issue relative frequency, or categorically different options? And there's the question of whose version of French or English,  as used in what contexts, to look at.

But however we answer these questions, I remain unconvinced that French is more diglossic than English. Here are a few of the routine features of more-or-less mainstream spoken English that are not found in formal writing:

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This never occurred to me…

Email from CGY.:

I recently read a BBC article detailing some of your work into the uses of 'uh' and 'um' in germanic languages: Ari Daniel Shapiro, "Why we are saying "uh" less and 'um' more", PRI's The World, BBC News 2/7/2014.

I am not a linguist of any sort however I thought you may find some interest in my personal experience. I am a 20 year old English speaking women and I use 'um' almost exclusively as predicted by your research. I am aware that I use 'um' in almost all social situations as I find using 'uh' sounds too sexual. Likewise if I am flirting with someone I find myself using 'uh' almost exclusively.

I thought that this might be the case for others and possibly help provide some explanation for the pattern. Possibly the rise in usage is proportional to the increase in exposure to pornographic material?

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Language diversity

Yesterday, Walt Wolfram gave a talk here under the title "On the Sociolinguistic Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: Implications for Linguistic Equality". I was especially interested to learn what they're doing to educate students, faculty, and staff about Language Diversity at NC State:

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Sarah Koenig

Following up on our recent Vocal Fry discussion ("Freedom Fries"; "You want fries with that?"), Brett Reynolds wrote to suggest that "Sarah Koenig's vocal fry seems to be something new". As evidence, he suggested a contrast between a piece she did in 2000 ("Deal Of A Lifetime", This American Life #162, 6/23/2000) and one from 2014 ("The Alibi: Prologue", This American Life #537, 10/3/2014). Here are the opening passages from those two segments, along with another one from 2000 ("The Mask Behind The Mask", This American Life #151, 1/28/2000), her first for This American Life:

TAL #151
1/28/2000
TAL #162
6/23/2000
TAL #537
10/3/2014

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Meredith Tamminga on NPR

Dave Heller, "Why an actor from Brooklyn can't talk like a Philadelphian", Newsworks Tonight (WHYY), 2/2/2015:

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You may have trouble describing it, but you sure know it when you hear it — the unmistakable Philly accent.

Meredith Tamminga, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania makes it her work to make sense of variations in language. She visited WHYY to tout the tones and words that make Phillyspeak unique.

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Why definiteness is decreasing, part 2

In an earlier post on this topic ("Why definiteness is decreasing, part 1"), I suggested that the decrease in definite-article frequency in published English text, over the course of the past century, might be connected with a decrease in formality.  Roughly, this means that writing has been becoming more like speech (though speech has also been changing, and writing and speech remain very different).

In this post, I want to discuss two other socio-stylistic dimensions — age and sex. If the language is changing, then we expect to see "age grading", where younger people tend to exhibit the innovative pattern, while older people's usage is more old-fashioned. And because women are generally the leaders in language change, we expect to see women at every age being more linguistically innovative and men being more conservative. In other words, "young men talk like old women".  And as the plot on the right illustrates, differences by age and sex in the frequency of the seem to confirm this hypothesis. (Click on the graph for a larger version.)

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Why definiteness is decreasing, part 1

I ended yesterday's post ("Decreasing Definiteness") with a promise to say more about why the frequency of the has decreased so much over the past century or so, and this morning's post will start to redeem that promise.

As several commenters observed, there are probably several different things going on here. But I think that one relevant factor is decreasing formality of style.

I'll leave for another day the question of what formality really is, and why a decrease in formality correlates with a decrease in the frequency of the. In this post, I'll try to establish two simpler points:

  1. In English text that's more formal, in common-sense terms, the is more common;
  2. The formality of (various genres of) English writing has been decreasing over the past century or so.

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Labiality and femininity

I recently got this note from Bill Labov, following up on a conversation about UM and UH (see "UM / UH update", 12/13/2014, for a summary),

I've been thinking about the female preference for the labial gesture in hesitation forms, and this returned me to the issues raised by Gordon and Heath in their paper on sex and sound symbolism (Matthew Gordon and Jeffrey Heath, "Sex, Sound Symbolism, and Sociolinguistics", Current Anthropology 1998). I think it's an important contribution because it brings in quite a bit of data on general patterns of sex preference and it's well reviewed by the commentators. I've always been interested in G&H's efforts to explain the general principles of chain shifting that I've extracted.

Gordon and Heath develop the notion of sex differentiation by sound symbolism on an acoustic basis. I'm more inclined to look to articulatory factors, associating the female preference for movement to more peripheral vowels with the expressive gestures of lip spreading and lip rounding. These are associated with fronting and backing somewhat more than with raising. So the preference for um might go along with the female orientation to labial gestures.

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Little Urban Anna

A note from David Donnell:

A friend in Urbana, IL informed me this afternoon that a fellow Urbana-ite, Melissa Applebee, was appearing on the game show "Jeopardy" this evening (12/23). However, she lamented, Jeopardy host Alex Trebec pronounced the name of her town as "Urbahna". (It reminded me of people from Colorado and Nevada lamenting that outsiders don't pronounce the penultimate syllables in those Latinate state-names as a short 'a' vowel. Whaddyagonnado?)

So I went in search of the origin of the seemingly-Latinate name of my friend's Illinois town. (Of course, in Italian, Spanish & Portuguese, it means “urban”.)

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UM / UH update

Nine years ago, I stumbled on an unexpected fact about the filled pauses UM and UH ("Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005). I found, as I expected, that older people tend to use UH more often than younger people do, and that males tend to use UH more than females. The surprising thing was that UM seemed to work in the opposite way, at least in the (large) American conversational-speech corpus that I looked at — younger people use UM more than older people, and females use UM more than males:

Last summer, some colleagues and I began a study of interviews with adolescents on the autism spectrum compared with neurotypical controls, and one of the features that we looked at was filled pause usage. We found a significant difference in UM vs. UH usage; and subsequently learned that some researchers from OGI had reported a similar finding in a poster at the 2014 International Meeting for Autism Research ("Fillers: Autism, gender, and age", 7/30/2014).

A couple of weeks later, this came up in coffee-break conversation at the Methods in Dialectology meeting in Groningen, and a few of the people sitting around the table in the break room immediately pulled out their laptops and started looking at other datasets. To our surprise, we found essentially the same pattern in the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus, in the (spoken part of) the British National Corpus, in the Edinburgh-Glasgow Map Task Corpus, and in collections of Dutch, German, and Norwegian conversational speech. This work has continued (for a partial progress report, see "UM / UH in Norwegian", 10/8/2014), and we hope to finish a journal paper on the topic over the holiday break. As part of the effort, I've looked a bit more closely at one of the datasets used in my 2005 post, and below I'll show you a few of the resulting pictures.

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Accent elimination class

In a better world, the speakers of the "standard" variety would take a prejudice elimination class instead.

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