MSU Today features Suzanne Wagner

Sociolinguistics Lab co-director Suzanne Evans Wagner was featured in Michigan State University’s main news publication, MSU Today, at the end of May.

The story, “Understanding the language of change through linguistics” is an introductory overview of what sociolinguistics is, how Dr. Wagner came to join the field, and a little bit about some of the work we’ve done in the lab on sound change in Michigan. The short video captures only a tiny part of the bigger picture, but the main takeaway is that sociolinguists seek to understand how speakers use language to reflect and construct their identities, and that these actions contribute to language change over time.

The story is also on the College of Arts and Letters website, but this time with some great photos of members of the Sociolinguistics Lab! Below, you can see Dr. Irina Zaykovskaya with Suzanne.

Irina Zaykovskaya and Suzanne Wagner in the Sociolinguistics Lab. Photo: MSU College of Arts & Letters.

Lockdown lingo: Betsy Sneller featured in Daily Telegraph story

Source: https://lowellsfirstlook.com/top-10-things-to-do-while-on-coronacation/

Incoming co-director of the lab, Dr. Betsy Sneller, was quoted in this story published May 11, 2020 in The Daily Telegraph, a Sydney-based Australian newspaper. Titled Do you know your lockdown lingo? Test yourself, the piece explores “coronavirus slang” like coronacation, covidiot and social distancing. But why should the pandemic have introduced new words and phrases to the English language?

“Part of the reason for this is that people’s patterns of interactions change drastically and this changes language,” [Sneller] said. She pointed to previous social upheaval caused by wars, mass migrations, disasters and plagues that also made a mark on our language. “The Dutch had a history of ‘pox’-related insults thought to date back to the Black Death.”

Taylor Swift’s use of tentative speech

Credit: Pinterest user costryme

Students in LIN 471 Sociolinguistics conduct original research projects on style-shifting by a public figure. Abby Jarosziewicz, an English major with a concentration in Pop Culture, submitted her project on Taylor Swift in Fall 2019, and continued it as an Honors Option in Spring 2020.

Abby examined Swift’s use of “tentative speech”, first labeled by Robin Lakoff (1975) in the seminal book Language and Women’s Place. Lakoff identified numerous examples of hesitant or tentative speech, from which Abby chose two: hedges (e.g. “that was kind of rude”) and disclaimers (e.g. “I think that….”). The questions she asked were:

  • Does Taylor Swift’s overall use of tentative speech decrease over time as she grows in maturity, confidence and relevance?
  • Does Taylor Swift consistently use more tentative speech with male interviewers over time?

Abby found in her fall pilot project that Swift used more tentative speech with men at a single point her career. She hypothesized that this would remain the same throughout her career, because Swift’s power relationship with men has largely not changed. Abby also hypothesized, however, that overall Swift would use less and less tentative speech over time.

To test her hypotheses, Abby selected 12 video interviews conducted for 6 album release press tours (Taylor Swift, Fearless, Speak Now, Red, 1989, Lover) from 2006 to 2019. For each album, one interview was conducted with a male interviewer and one with a female interviewer. 11 of 12 interviewers were white; interviewers were aged 30-65. Abby extracted from the videos every hedge and disclaimer, and calculated their frequency per minute of Swift’s total talk time.

Abby’s hypotheses were upheld. Swift’s overall rate of tentative speech declined across the press tours, from 1.5 per minute during the Taylor Swift launch, to 0.9 during the Lover launch. And at every time point except one, Swift uses more tentative language with the male interviewer than with the female interviewer. The exception is the press tour for Red, in which tentative speech peaks with both interviewer genders, exceeding even the rate for Taylor Swift, at 1.9 tokens/minute.

This study seems to support a narrative in the media about Taylor’s Swift’s growing comfort with public feminism, legal agency and political influence. Nonetheless, more controlled research is required for the findings to be confirmed. Abby points out that there are confounds in the data, such as inconsistency in the ages, ethnicity and familiarity of the interviewers; presence vs absence of a studio audience; and inconsistencies in the amount of talk time per interview and per time point.

Nonetheless, this was a great example of a student taking a class project a step further and asking new questions. Thanks for allowing us to share your results, Abby!

MI-COVID Diaries project

The MSU Sociolinguistics Lab is launching a new project! The project leader is our incoming co-director of the lab, Dr. Betsy Sneller, in collaboration with Dr. Suzanne Evans Wagner and students in the lab.

Life in Michigan has changed very quickly for many people over the past few weeks. The MI-COVID Diaries project aims to document what life is like in Michigan during the Coronavirus lockdown and afterwards, as we move back into normal life. We are interested in all aspects of how life is changing for Michiganders, from their daily routines to their language. We are looking for Michigan residents interested in submitting periodic oral history recordings during this time – if you are interested in learning more or in participating, please fill out a participation form.

You can also visit our website (mi-covid-diaries.com) for more information, or find us on Facebook and Twitter, @micoviddiaries. Please share this information widely! More updates will follow as we pilot the project and expand it.

NEW! We’ve added compensation for our diarists. Upload 15+ minutes of audio diary every two weeks, and we’ll send you a $5 Amazon gift card. Or, you can opt to pay it forward and donate your card to another participant.

Welcome to Betsy Sneller!

The Linguistics program at Michigan State University has hired a new Assistant Professor of sociolinguistics, Dr. Betsy Sneller. Welcome, Betsy!

Betsy’s research seeks to understand the mechanisms of language variation and language change. She’s especially interested in children’s acquisition of phonological variation, including its sociolinguistic patterns, and more generally in how individuals mentally represent and reproduce phonological changes occurring in their speech communities. Her work has employed an unusually broad range of methods, from ethnography to experiments to computational modeling. She has published multiple times in Language Variation and Change, as well as in Language Dynamics and Change and Cognition.

Betsy Sneller

Betsy received her PhD in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania in 2018. Her primary advisor was William Labov, and her committee members included Meredith Tamminga and Josef Fruehwald. During her time at Penn, Betsy also collaborated and co-published with Gareth Roberts and Charles Yang, among others. For the last two years, Betsy has been a post-doctoral scholar in Elissa Newport‘s Learning and Development Lab at Georgetown University. She will join Michigan State University in August 2020.

A native of Holland, MI, Betsy is looking forward to collecting and analyzing speech data in her home state. Her MA thesis (2012, University of Essex), was titled “Aw man! The effect of hometown affiliation on NCS shifting in Holland, Michigan”. Betsy then carried out ethnographic, corpus and experimental research in Philadelphia. Some of the publications resulting from this effort include “Phonological rule spreading across hostile lines” (just published in Language Variation and Change) and “Competing systems in Philadelphia phonology” (also in LVC, with William Labov and other co-authors). With Gareth Roberts, Betsy has conducted artificial language learning experiments to test sociolinguistic predictions (“Why some behaviors spread while others don’t“), and she has continued to use this paradigm with children in her Georgetown-based research.

We look forward to welcoming Betsy to the Sociolinguistics Lab later this year!

Mohammed Ruthan defends dissertation on Saudi Arabic

Top left: Yen-Hwei Lin. Top right: Karthik Durvasula, Suzanne Wagner, Mohammed Ruthan, Modi Ruthan, Kaylin Smith. Bottom left: Brahim Chakrani. Bottom right: Yongqing Ye.

Mohammed Ruthan became the Linguistics program’s first PhD student to defend his doctoral dissertation in the new age of social distancing. His defense took place on Friday, March 13th, with just his wife, two friends and two committee members present in person, plus two committee members and various others via Zoom. It might not have been how Mohammed imagined his defense would be, but he handled it all (including various technical issues) with tremendous grace and patience. His dissertation, Aspects of Jazani Arabic, examines the phonology and phonetics of his own southwestern dialect of Saudi Arabic, as well as attitudes to the dialect. It was co-advised by Yen-Hwei Lin and Suzanne Evans Wagner, with much support from Karthik Durvasula and Brahim Chakrani. Once travel restrictions are lifted, Mohammed will return to Saudi Arabia to take up a university teaching position. Congratulations!

Danielle Brown wins fellowship to TESOL MA

Socio Lab member Danielle Brown (BA Linguistics 2019) has won a competitive Academic Achievement Graduate Assistantship to support her MA studies. Congratulations, Danielle! She’ll enter the Michigan State University program in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) in fall of 2020. The fellowship guarantees a graduate assistantship (e.g. as a teaching assistant or research assistant) in the second year. And in the first year, Danielle will have no responsibilities, so she’ll be able to fully focus on her coursework and her independent research! We look forward very much to having Danielle around for another couple of years.

A lowkey presentation at American Dialect Society

A couple of summers ago, members of the Socio Lab got into a heated side-discussion about the pragmatics of adverbial lowkey, as in:

  1. I lowkey like pineapple on pizza.
  2. Lowkey I’m hoping the Cavs will lose.

There was debate about whether sentences like this were grammatical for each of us (they mostly weren’t for anyone over 30), and whether the lowkey meant ‘secret’, ‘kinda’, or a whole bunch of other things (here the group split even more finely, undergrads vs grads). Danielle Brown, an undergraduate at the time, decided to investigate further for her senior thesis. She learned that there was no published research on adverbial lowkey, but that undergraduates at two other institutions had conducted some investigations of their own. By coincidence, they were the students of MSU PhD alumni Ai Taniguchi (Carleton University) and Greg Johnson (then at Louisiana State University). Danielle built on their work and fielded a judgment survey to friends and family in her social network. Respondents were presented with sentences like (1) and (2) above, and given a list of possible adverbial substitutions for lowkey such as honestly and discourse particles such as well. Danielle discovered that when lowkey is in sentence-initial position, as in (2) above, people often selected discourse particle substititons. This aligned with an intuition expressed by some students in the lab that low key in sentence-initial position is already becoming semantically bleached, becoming similar to sentence-initial like e.g. Like I’m hoping the Cavs will lose.

After her BA graduation, Danielle teamed up with MA Linguistics student Morgan Momberg to refine her survey and field it to a much larger number of respondents. This time they considered the effect of the ‘popularity’ on the interpretation of lowkey. They presented their results in a talk titled Lowkey opinion or lowkey fact: Exploring the acceptability of sentence-initial lowkey at the annual meeting of the American Dialect Society in New Orleans in January 2020. As they report in their abstract,

The emerging adverbial use of lowkey has received little attention, especially in sentence-initial position. In a judgment survey (N=52), respondents rated the felicitousness of sentence-initial lowkey in fictional scenarios across three conditions we call ‘unpopular’, ‘popular’ and ‘factual’. As hypothesized, lowkey was most felicitous with unpopular opinions, e.g. Lowkey this lasagna tastes awful in a scenario where everyone eats lasagna, followed by popular opinions e.g. Lowkey this lasagna tastes amazing, and factual statements e.g. Lowkey everyone is eating lasagna. Our survey results suggests possible pragmatic variance in the use of sentence-initial lowkey.

Chapter on Lansing sound change in Low Back Merger Shift book

Some of the lab’s ongoing research into sound change in the Lansing area has been published as a chapter in The Low Back Merger Shift: Uniting the Canadian Vowel Shift, the California Vowel Shift, and Short Front Vowel Shifts across North America, edited by Kara Becker. Our chapter is titled “A tale of two shifts: Movement toward the Low Back Merger Shift in Lansing, Michigan“, and it’s authored by Monica Nesbitt, Suzanne Evans Wagner and Alexander Mason.  We provide a preliminary sketch of the advance of the Low Back Merger Shift (what we have previously called the ‘Elsewhere Shift’ in other work) among Lansing speakers born in the 1900s through the 1990s. 

Xiaomei Wang defends Ph.D. dissertation

Xiaomei Wang successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation, titled Local Identity and Language Attitude in Standardization: Evidence from Tianjin Chinese, on December 12. Her project involved ongoing language change in Tianjin Chinese, in which she identified both loss of traditional dialect features and, surprisingly, revival of another traditional feature. She linked this to economic change in the city as well as the in-migration of thousands of people from rural areas. Congratulations Xiaomei on a successful defense!