Linguists seek to understand both the properties that characterize individual languages and those that are distinctive of human language more generally. In this talk, I will focus on one subﬁeld of linguistics, syntax, and show how comparing linguistic varieties, both very different and very similar to one another, leads researchers to the discovery of patterns, and to the development and testing of hypotheses about linguistic structure.
I will do so by discussing the work we do within the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, where we study morphosyntactic
differences across varieties of English spoken in North America. We find that the presence of minimally
different syntactic patterns in some cases correlates with extra-linguistic factors (like geographical region, ethnicity or
age). For example, speakers who accept sentences with double modals, as in (1), tend to be from the South; speakers
who accept sentences with like immediately followed by a passive participle, as in (2), tend to be from the Midlands;
speakers who accept sentences with so followed by a negative auxiliary, as in (3), tend to be from New England; and
speakers who are likely to say a sentence like (4) are those who belong to the younger generation, regardless of their
geographical area. However, we also find syntactic variation that doesn’t obviously correlate with any such factors. For
example, the use of rather as a verb (5) reflects the grammatical system of a diverse set of North American speakers:
(1) I might could go to the store for you. (Hasty 2014)
(2) Most babies like cuddled. (Murray and Simon 2002)
(3) Sure it’s trendy, but so aren’t most NY clubs. (Wood 2014)
(4) Jamie has SO dated that type of guy before. (Irwin 2014)
(5) I would have rathered go to a small school. (Wood 2013)
I will show that the study of syntactic variation across varieties of American English, in addition to having social and
educational implications, also furthers our understanding of the syntax of human language.
Hasty, J. Daniel. 2014. We might should be thinking this way: Theory and practice in the study of syntactic variation.
In Micro-syntactic variation in North American English, ed. Raffaella Zanuttini and Laurence R. Horn, 269–293.
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Irwin, Patricia. 2014. SO [TOTALLY] Speaker-oriented: An analysis of “Drama SO”. In Micro-syntactic variation
in North American English, ed. Raffaella Zanuttini and Laurence R. Horn, 29–70. Oxford and New York: Oxford
Murray, Thomas E., and Beth Lee Simon. 2002. At the intersection of regional and social dialects: The case of like +
past participle in American English. American Speech 77:32–69.
Wood, Jim. 2013. Parasitic participles in the syntax of verbal rather. Lingua 137:59–87.
Wood, Jim. 2014. Affirmative semantics with negative morphosyntax: Negative exclamatives and the New England
So AUXn’t NP/DP construction. In Micro-syntactic variation in North American English, ed. Raffaella Zanuttini
and Laurence R. Horn, 71–114. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
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