Variation, Prescription and Praxis: Contact and Evolution of Grammatical Systems

Principal Investigator: Shana Poplack
Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada
Research Grant #410-99-0378 [1999-2002]

This research takes a variationist approach to questions about grammatical relationships among varieties of the same language, differing by historical period and along other dimensions, and among different languages spoken in the same speech community. It investigates the relationship between oral and written varieties, especially of earlier periods, and the effect of normative prescription on spoken vernaculars, as well as of distinctions based on prestige, education, or geographical provenance. How can we determine the likely precursor of a modern language variety, given this multiplicity of possible origins? And how productive are various processes of dialect and language mixture? Is there a pool of community linguistic resources transcending the individual, which is the carrier of the language evolution process? As communities diverge historically, geographically and sociologically, how and why are these common resources selected differentially by each group, the differences between them gradually amplified to the point of becoming diagnostic of membership in only one?

The first focal point of this program concerns the origins, development, and current grammatical structure of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), based on the analysis of several varieties geographically and historically isolated from each other, all descended from an earlier stage of the language, including African Nova Scotian English, Samaná English in the Dominican Republic, and recordings of former slaves made in the 1930s in the southern U.S. We trace grammatical features such as nonstandard negation, was/were variation, non-inversion in questions, zero plural, and verbal -s absence through the history of the English language, and extend traditional analyses of single variables to the comprehensive treatment of entire grammatical sectors. We link our results to the resources accessible to earlier communities, and to subsequent processes of selection and community differentiation. New historical linguistic data and function-based reanalyses of existing materials test our thesis that the precursors of AAVE were varieties of Early Modern English rather than stemming from an erstwhile widespread plantation creole.

A second project examines the conflicting roles of vernacular evolution and normative prescription in Canadian French. This work includes extensive location, collection, and computerization of texts representative of older vernaculars, and again involves detailed historical analysis, confronting contemporaneous usage with normative injunctions. The linguistic focus is on the irrealis sector, an area of the grammar in which a number of forms compete in fulfilling a given function, and which is particularly prone to prescriptive attention. We trace the trajectory by which the indicative and the conditional have come to be the preferred options in most French “subjunctive-selecting” contexts, the periphrastic future (aller + infinitive) has virtually replaced its synthetic counterpart (infinitive + -ai, -as,...), and the nonstandard conditional is currently ousting the imperfect in hypothetical si-clauses.

The third project, on language mixing, deals with the way varieties combine with and influence each other in a negative normative environment, both synchronically in discourse and historically. First we turn our attention to the linguistic consequences of sustained code-mixing on the grammatical resources of the individual and the community. We test the hypothesis that codes converge grammatically in the immediate vicinity of code-switching, both for individuals who switch frequently, and with respect to the types of structure directly involved in switching. We also attempt to explain the wide diversity of code-mixing strategies preferred in different communities, and why only a few of the inventory of conceptually and operationally distinctive mechanisms are utilized in each. Preferences may depend on the language typology of the source varieties, the historical origin of the community and the sociopolitical relations among monolingual subgroups within it, factors we will assess using multivariate analysis. On the microsociolinguistic level, analysis of the differential use of mixing strategies as a function of social factors allows inferences about the direction of ongoing change.

All this work builds in part on our extensive databases on numerous language varieties constructed over many years, now efficiently accessible and analyzable through extraction and statistical protocols, and other electronic database tools developed in the course of analyzing dozens of linguistic variables in our previous research.

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