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!

MSU Socio people at NWAV 48

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:

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!

SLA meets LVC: Second language acquisition of sociolinguistic variation at SLRF conference

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 changeThe 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.

The other panelists include Xiaoshi Li (MSU), Kimberley Geeslin (Indiana University-Bloomington) and Matthew Kanwit (University of Pittsburgh). 

Rural fieldwork on display at MSU undergraduate conference UURAF

On April 5th, undergraduate sociolinguists Jared Kaczor and Travis Coppernoll presented their poster Football, Church and Free Breakfast: Doing Sociolinguistic Research in Rural Communities Around Lansing at the 2019 Michigan State University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF). The project, which has been running since August, focuses on two small communities in a rural part of mid-Michigan. Jared and Travis have been developing an ethnography via trips to football games, church coffee mornings and local cafés. They have just begun to record sociolinguistic interviews with residents. The goal of the project is to compare rural speech with the Sociolinguistics Lab’s existing corpus of urban speech.

Welcoming back Rebecca Roeder

The Linguistics program‘s latest Colloquium speaker was Rebecca Roeder (UNC Charlotte). Roeder graduated with a PhD in Linguistics from MSU in 2006, under the direction of Dennis Preston. Her colloquium talk was titled “The role of PALM in the low back merger: Theory and evidence”. We were lucky to also get some time with Becky in the Sociolinguistics Lab, where we talked about the phonology and sociolinguistics of the Canadian Shift/Third Dialect Shift/Elsewhere Shift/etc, which Becky has been studying in the Canadian context, while we’ve been tracking it here in Michigan.

It was great to have Becky back at Michigan State! 

Undergraduate research funding secured

Suzanne Wagner has received two awards of $1000 each from the College of Arts and Letters Undergraduate Research Initiative (CAL-URI). One of the awards will support undergraduate Linguistics majors Jared Kaczor and Travis Coppernoll, who are carrying out ethnographic and sociolinguistic fieldwork in two rural communities in the Lansing area. The other award will support Linguistics PhD student Matt Savage and his collaborators to design and implement a series of online language attitudes surveys. Matt’s team will include at least one undergraduate programmer. 

Both projects support the lab’s ongoing investigation of sound change in the English vowel system in the Lansing, Michigan area. Here are a few of our recent related publications:

Undergraduate Updates!

  • Alichia Crandall and Renaysha Goodebailey graduated from MSU last semester. For her senior thesis, Alichia analyzed a dataset from a rapid and anonymous survey of people’s responses to being thanked (you’re welcome vs no problem vs others), modeled on an activity originated by Dr. Aaron Dinkin of San Diego State University. Renaysha collected word list data from friends and family in her home city of Pittsburgh, to investigate the progress of /u/-fronting in the African American community there. Renaysha’s work follows up on research by Dr. Maeve Eberhardt of the University of Vermont
  • And congratulations to freshman Socio Lab member Jared Kaczor, who is an MSU Citizen Scholar, and who made the Dean’s List last semester! Jared is working this semester with Savannah Feeley on a project run by Irina Zaykovskaya, investigating non-native English speakers’ acquisition of vernacular ‘like’.