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.
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 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.
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!
Congratulations to the following students, who graduated this weekend:
- Irina Zaykovskaya, PhD. Technically a PhD student in the MSU Second Language Studies program, Irina took LIN 871 Advanced Sociolinguistics in her first year, and didn’t look back. She spent the next four years attending the Sociolinguistics Lab and mentoring undergraduate students Scott Nelson, Savannah Feeley and Jared Kaczor on transcription and experimental projects. Irina’s dissertation looks at the acquisition of “remarkable LIKE” (i.e. vernacular functions of like including approximatives, quotatives, discourse markers/particles) by graduate student non-native speakers of English. She finds that despite high levels of interspeaker variation with respect to overall frequency of use, they have largely acquired the complex syntactic constraints on the discourse particle, and many of remarkable LIKE’s social meanings. Committed to maintaining a foot in the SLA and LVC worlds, Irina is co-organizing a panel at SLRF in September that will showcase research on second language acquisition of language variation and change.
- Sayako Uehara, PhD. Like Irina, Saya has also maintained dual interests, in this case in phonology and sociolinguistics. Her PhD Linguistics dissertation explores the tension between language-universal and language-specific cues that speakers of Japanese and English use when segmenting novel words. However, Saya plans to also expand her work on vocalic outliers and sound change, which she presented at NWAV in 2017.
- Emily Skupin, BA. As a freshman, Emily joined the Sociolinguistics Lab as a volunteer, transcribing sociolinguistic interviews. By her second year, she was working with Mingzhe Zheng (PhD Linguistics 2018) on his doctoral project, and was supported by a College of Arts and Letters Undergraduate Research Initiative (CAL-URI) grant. Emily conducted sociolinguistic interviews with fellow students from the Troy, MI area, transcribed them, and learned how to carry out acoustic analysis. She presented a subset of the results at the Michigan State University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF) in 2017. Emily’s senior thesis provided a critical review of the literature on standardized testing and the ways in which speakers of African American Vernacular English are linguistically disadvantaged in those tests. Emily focused in particular on consonant cluster reduction (e.g. test > tes’) and the specific ways in which high rates of reduction in AAVE can lead to misunderstandings in oral tests. This fall, Emily begins an MSc in Communication Disorders at Columbia University.
- Danielle Brown, BA. For two years, Danielle has been attending Sociolinguistics Lab meetings, where occasional light-hearted arguments broke out about the meaning of adverbial low-key (e.g. Who else is low-key hating ioS?). Intrigued, Danielle focused her senior thesis on utterance-initial low-key (e.g. Low-key hope that Megan’s baby is a girl). She designed and ran an online survey that gathered participant judgments about low-keyin sentences in two conditions: ‘secret’, where the utterer expresses an unpopular opinion, and ‘other’, where the utterer expresses a widely-accepted fact. Danielle found that in the ‘other’ condition, respondents were more likely to say that low-key was meaningless, or could be replaced by e.g. ‘hey’, suggesting that in initial position in non-secret contexts, low-key is becoming a semantically-bleached discourse marker.
- Lucy Angers, BA. Lucy’s senior thesis examined the history and pragmatics of emojis and other pragmatic phenomena in computer-mediated communication (CMC). She looked especially at the ways in which politeness is expressed in CMC, and its intersection with user gender. Lucy’s thesis included many examples of emoji use from her own CMC, demonstrating how emoji pragmatics are richer and more complex than those of their predecessors: emoticons like ;-).
PhD Linguistics student Monica Nesbitt was one of five MSU graduate students nominated for a 2019 Emerging Leader award by the University’s chapter of the Black Faculty, Staff and Administrators Association (BFSAA). At an event on April 8, Monica was recognized for her peer mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students in the Linguistics program. Monica has been a manager of the Sociolinguistics Lab, has supervised many undergraduate transcribers and researcherse, and is currently a Graduate School Writing Fellow who convenes weekly writing/accountability meetings in the lab. It was a moving ceremony that also recognized the decades-long contributions of five Black faculty, staff and adminstrators, some of whom had first joined the University as students at time when there were very few Black faces on campus.
In time for NWAV 47, the selected papers from NWAV 46 have just been released. Edited by Jordan Kodner and Lacey Wade, University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 24.2: Selected Papers from NWAV 46 includes articles by MSU researchers Monica Nesbitt, Suzanne Evans Wagner and Sayako Uehara:
- Nesbitt, Monica. Economic change and the decline of raised TRAP in Lansing, MI.
- Uehara, Sayako and Suzanne Evans Wagner. Progressive outliers in listener perception of sound change.
Both papers explore the sound change in progress we’re observing in Michigan from the Northern Cities Shift to a new vowel system that has various names in the literature, including the Elsewhere Shift, the Low Back Merger Shift and the Third Dialect.
The Sociolinguistics lab will be sending many projects to the 47th Annual NWAV Conference at New York University in New York City from October 18-21, 2018, including several talks! Congratulations to Silvina Bongiovanni, Monica Nesbitt, Matt Savage, and Alex Mason for getting accepted!
There will be practice talks in the weeks leading up to the conference, and all are invited to attend lab meetings to learn more and/or provide feedback!
Please see the Sociolinguistics lab calendar for specific dates of each practice talk!
- TRAP: The loss of tensing in Michigan (Monica Nesbitt)
- Style & attitude: The social evaluation of the BET vowel (Matt Savage & Alex Mason)
- On the relationship between vowel nasalization and nasal weakening: Evidence from a Caribbean and non-Caribbean dialect of Spanish (Silvina Bongiovanni)
- It’s a TRAP!: The trigger for the Elsewhere Shift in Lansing, Michigan (Alex Mason)
- Attitudes toward TRAP in Michigan (Monica Nesbitt)
- “It’s an American Symbol!”: Non-native speakers’ take on remarkable LIKE (Irina Zaykovskaya) – Practice Talk: October 5, 2018; Wells Hall B243; 12:30pm-3:00pm via Skype