The Locus of Linguistic Variation

LSA 2014 Symposium
January 3rd 2014, 9:00-10:30AM, Grand Ballroom F


Constantine Lignos (Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania)
Laurel MacKenzie (University of Manchester)
Meredith Tamminga (University of Pennsylvania)


9:00-9:30 Meredith Tamminga (University of Pennsylvania), Laurel MacKenzie (University of Manchester): Elaborating extragrammatical effects on variation (slides) (abstract)
9:30-10:00 Jennifer Nycz (Georgetown University): Variable rules or variable inputs? Process-based and representational approaches to variability (slides)
10:00-10:30 Andries W. Coetzee (University of Michigan): A grammar-delimited variable space (slides)


Early accounts of generative grammar (e.g., Chomsky 1965) postulated a firm separation between the variability present in language production and the grammar itself. Performance was regarded as extraneous, simply a frosted window obscuring the view of the key object of study, competence. Around the same time, early researchers in sociolinguistics moved to explicitly integrate variation into the grammar, developing such concepts as inherent variability (Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog 1968) and variable rules (Cedergren and Sankoff 1974). Decades of study and three major “waves” of sociolinguistic scholarship later, the study of variation has grown from a marginalized topic to a substantial linguistic discipline. This symposium revisits these two perspectives and examines whether a middle ground between them can and should be reached, addressing the relationship between variation and the grammar and discussing the extent to which the two may be dissociated.

The symposium consists of three presentations that provide novel quantitative data on a total of four linguistic variables. In each case, the authors argue for an addition to the typology outlined above: an approach under which grammar and variation are linked but still show some amount of modular separation. Specifically, the session participants argue that while variation is not exclusively the purview of grammar, variation and grammar are not completely separate, either. Instead, some effects on variation support the inherent variability of Weinreich et al., while others are best localized outside of the grammar. Between the three presentations, a catalog emerges of these grammar-external effects, which are shown to comprise particular conditioning factors as well as amplification in magnitude of factors that have a grammar-internal source. Each presentation also provides a different perspective on how the linguistic system may be structured in order to account for the demonstrated extragrammatical effects.

The general consensus emerging from these three presentations is that a well-developed understanding of how extragrammatical factors impinge on variation is necessary in order to accurately recognize the grammar-internal origins and conditioning of variation. Researchers who seek to construct grammatical models that capture the appropriate amount of grammar-internal variability must first factor out the extragrammatical effects that this session documents. In addition to the theoretical issues explored, this symposium also provides a demonstration of how modern advances in quantitative methods can enable the exploration of previously intractable theoretical questions. Through careful use of a combination of theoretical and quantitative approaches, the speakers in this symposium demonstrate the unity of linguistic methods and the importance of using all available empirical techniques to reach an understanding of the structure of language in the mind.

Elaborating extragrammatical effects on variation (slides) (abstract)

Meredith Tamminga (University of Pennsylvania)
Laurel MacKenzie (University of Manchester)

This paper takes as a starting point the concept of inherent variability. While we agree with previous researchers that some instances of linguistic variation motivate a unified treatment of variable and categorical phenomena within the grammar, we argue that some cases of variation are better localized to a distinct component of use. As evidence, we cite the effects of persistence on ING and subject length on auxiliary contraction. These effects differ from other factors that condition these variables (e.g., phonological context, subject type), in that they are not found to condition invariant alternations. This supports a model that differentiates grammar and use, with both being probabilistic, and the persistence and subject length effects localized to the use component. We then elaborate this basic model, suggesting that extragrammatical factors are of two types: style and processing. We identify predictions for the relationship and interactions between grammar and each extragrammatical component.

Variable rules or variable inputs? Process-based and representational approaches to variability (slides)

Jennifer Nycz (Georgetown University)

Variationists argue that variable phenomena reflect aspects of linguistic competence and should be accounted for within linguistic theory. Many attempts to do so have located variation in the process side of theory, first via the the variable rule and later via the variable ranking of OT constraints, yet there has been some shift towards representational accounts of variation based in Exemplar Theory. So, is variation in the grammar, in representations, or somewhere else? Are different phenomena more easily accounted for in one component or another, or can some be located in multiple places? I address these questions through the examination of variable Canadian Raising in the speech of Canadians who have moved to the U.S. I argue that the socioindexical aspects of this variation require reference to changing and variable representations while linguistic conditioning factors are best located in the grammatical component, and outline a complementary-systems model of this variation.

A grammar-delimited variable space (slides)

Andries W. Coetzee (University of Michigan)

Existing approaches to phonological variation differ in the role that they ascribe to grammar. Some assume no role for grammar, considering variation as the result of non-grammatical factors impacting the categorical output of phonological grammar. Others assume that grammar and non-grammatical factors contribute equally to variation. Yet others attempt to account for all aspects of variation with grammar alone, allowing no room for non-grammatical factors. In this talk, I will develop a fourth possible model with the following features: (i) Grammar itself is variable and hence contributes to variation. (ii) Non-grammatical factors also contribute. (iii) But the model is grammar dominant–grammar defines the space of possible variation and non-grammatical factors can only influence how variation is realized within this grammar-delimited variable space. The model will be implemented in Harmonic Grammar, and will be applied to variable t/d-deletion and variable cross-word nasal place assimilation in English.