MI Diaries project

Life in Michigan has changed very quickly for many people over the past few months. The MI Diaries project aims to document what life is like in Michigan during the Covid-19 pandemic 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 go to our project website: mi-diaries.org.

Diarists earn a $5 Amazon gift card if they record 15+ minutes of audio in a two week period. Or, you can opt to pay it forward and donate your card to another participant.

You can also visit for more information, or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Please share this information widely!

The Principal Investigator for the MI Diaries project is Dr. Betsy Sneller, in collaboration with Dr. Suzanne Evans Wagner and students in the MSU Sociolinguistics Lab.

Lab meetings in Spring 2021

Once again our lab meetings will be on Monday afternoons, at the later and longer time of 4:30-6:00pm. General lab meetings, for student presentations, idea workshopping, guest speakers etc will alternate bi-weekly with a new reading group. The group’s topic will be language and age. We’ll read about the acquisition, calibration and incrementation of ongoing language changes from childhood to adolescence. We’ll also tackle post-adolescent lifespan change and age grading.

Meetings will be held on Zoom and/or Microsoft Teams. To hear further announcements, join the Socio Lab’s mailing list here. If for any reason you think you’re not getting messages, contact Dr. Suzanne Wagner, wagnersu@msu.edu.

Lab meetings in Fall 2020

Welcome ‘back’ to the Socio Lab! Our lab meetings this semester will be on Zoom, 2-3pm Mondays, every other week. Check the calendar to see what’s coming up when. Everyone is welcome to our lab meetings. We invite you to come and try them out. There is no expectation that you’ll commit to coming regularly, although we hope you will.

At lab meetings, you’ll hear people give practice talks for conferences and academic defenses, update on their research projects, share skills they’ve learned, and workshop ideas for new projects (e.g. senior thesis/Honors Option, MA thesis, doctoral qualifying papers etc). Sometimes we read a study together and discuss it. Contact Dr. Suzanne Wagner if you’d like the Zoom link and password.

Members of the MI-COVID Diaries team at a meeting this summer.

This semester we’re also running weekly meetings for the MI-COVID Diaries project team. This group meets Thursdays 5-6pm on Microsoft Teams. The project launched just after Michigan went into coronavirus lockdown. It’s collecting audio diaries from Michigan residents about their pandemic experiences. Contact Dr. Betsy Sneller to join a meeting and see if you’d like to get involved.

Finally, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, members of the lab came together to discuss a seminal paper by John R. Rickford and Sharese King. We’re now running a bi-weekly Anti-Racism Accountability Group for anyone who would like to learn more about anti-racism, and most importantly, who is looking for a community to nudge them to do anti-racist work in academia. The group meets bi-weekly on Mondays, 2-3pm on Microsoft Teams. Contact Jared Kaczor to find out more.

In the news: Researchers study how COVID pandemic is affecting language change

Check out this August 5, 2020 story from the College of Arts and Letters on the MI COVID Diaries project, run by MSU’s Sociolinguistics Lab. We’ve been collecting recorded speech from Michigan residents since the beginning of April to track changes to language during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Social distancing and distance learning are affecting how people behave in the world. Part of this project is to document how people’s lives are changing. But from the linguistics side, what we are interested in is how these social changes impact language use, both on a short-term scale and potentially on the long-term scale as well.”

Dr. Betsy Sneller

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!

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.