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!
A couple of summers ago, members of the Socio Lab got into a heated side-discussion about the pragmatics of adverbial lowkey, as in:
- I lowkey like pineapple on pizza.
- 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.
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!
Socio Lab member Yongqing Ye was the winner of yesterday’s lightning talk competition at CALMS (Careers, Alumni & Linguistics at Michigan State). Competing against students and professors, Yongqing’s talk Pointing to the past in Mandarin Chinese was a funny and easy-to-follow explanation of deictic de. Giving a five minute talk is hard enough, but giving a short talk on an abstract topic is even harder! Not only that, but Yongqing stepped in at the 11th hour when another student was unable to present as planned. The judge, Dr. Ai Taniguchi (PhD Linguistics 2017) praised Yongqing’s accessible approach. Ai herself won the 2019 Linguistic Society of America’s 5-Minute Linguist competition, and we were glad to have her expert eye on the proceedings.
Another Socio Lab member, Dr. Irina Zaykovskaya, explained How I learned to stop worrying and love the word like. Her talk got an honorable mention from Ai. Irina used an array of colorful images and lots of humor to show how people bring social judgments about e.g. “party girls” and “nerd girls” to their judgments of discourse particle like.
Current and former Michigan State sociolinguists were recently at the NWAV 48 (New Ways of Analyzing Variation) conference, October 10-12. The Eugene, Oregon location meant that not everyone could make the long trip, but presenters included:
- Xiaoshi Li.
- Mohammed Ruthan.
- Irina Zaykovskaya.
- Xiaomei Wang and Suzanne Evans Wagner.
Former MSU Sociolinguistics students Monica Nesbitt (now a post-doc at Dartmouth College) and James Stanford were also there, along with former faculty Dennis Preston and Marisa Brook. We enjoyed a great MSU+affiliates dinner on the Friday night.
Thanks to the members of the lab who gave us valuable feedback on our practice presentations!
Irina Zaykovskaya (PhD 2019) and Suzanne Evans Wagner are co-convening a colloquium at this week’s Second Language Research Forum (SLRF) conference, hosted by Michigan State University’s Second Language Studies program. The colloquium, held on Friday, September 20th, is titled: Catching interlanguage in action: When SLA meets language variation and change. The goal is to bring together researchers who study second language acquisition of sociolinguistic variation, using quantitative (and often also qualitative) methods.
Irina’s PhD studies were in the Second Language Studies program, but she took a graduate course in sociolinguistics with Suzanne in 2014, and subsequently decided to take a variationist sociolinguistic approach to her work. Suzanne became her co-advisor, and Irina defended her dissertation (on L2 acquisition of US English vernacular like) in 2019. Researchers like Irina, who work at the interface of SLA and LVC, are still quite rare. SLRF seemed to be a good opportunity to inform other SLA scholars about the insights afforded by LVC approaches. To further support this initiative, Irina has created an online resource hub for people interested in SLA+LVC.
We’re running a workshop to introduce people to the basics of using ELAN transcription and annotation software. It’s a free, flexible and widely-used tool for creating time-aligned transcriptions of audio and video recordings. You can also add multiple tiers of annotation, which is very helpful for various kinds of linguistic coding. It’s become a standard tool in sociolinguistics.
If you are affiliated with MSU and you’d like to join us, please use this link to indicate your interest. The workshop will be held on Wednesday, September 11th, 2:15 – 3:45pm in B-125 Wells Hall. The room has Windows computers for your use, or you can bring your own laptop.
Thanks to everyone who came to our organizational meeting this morning! We’ve tentatively settled on Wednesdays, 2:10pm – 3:45pm as our regular fall semester 2019 weekly meeting time. Friday afternoons will be our backup time in weeks when we need an additional meeting, or can’t meet on Wednesday.
Interested in what we do in the Sociolinguistics Lab?
Come along to our first meeting of the 2019-2020 year on Wednesday, August 28th, 9am – 10am in B-411 Wells Hall. We’re open to faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students with an interest in language and society, language variation and language change. If you can’t come this time, make sure you’re on our Socio Lab mailing list so that you get announcements about future meetings.
Congratulations to Monica Nesbitt, who successfully defended her doctoral dissertation Changing their minds: The impact of internal social change on local phonology on August 24th.
Monica has been a wonderful contributor to the Sociolinguistics Lab, as a student, lab manager, mentor and collaborator. We’ll all miss her very much. Monica is starting a prestigious three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Dartmouth College, where she’ll be working with Dr. Jim Stanford, who is also a 2007 alumnus of the MSU Linguistics PhD program!