Friday, 27th September, 9.30-10.30

Benedikt Szmrecsanyi

Benedikt Szmrecsanyi is an associate professor of linguistics at the Department of Linguistics of KU Leuven. His research interests include variation studies (synchronic & diachronic), probabilistic grammar, language complexity, geolinguistics, and dialect typology. Recent books include Grammatical Variation in British English Dialects (2013, CUP), and Aggregating Dialectology, Typology, and Register Analysis (2014, ed. with Bernhard Wälchli, de Gruyter). He has some 30 papers in international, peer-reviewed journals, including e.g. in Language, Language Variation and Change, the Journal of Linguistic Geography, the International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, and English World-Wide. He is an associate editor of the journal Cognitive Linguistics, and is currently directing two Research Foundation Flanders-funded projects: Exploring probabilistic grammar(s) in varieties of English around the world, and The register-specificity of probabilistic grammatical knowledge in English and Dutch.

Exploring probabilistic grammar(s) in varieties of English

Inspired by work in comparative sociolinguistics (e.g. Tagliamonte 2001) and quantitative dialectometry (e.g. Nerbonne, Heeringa & Kleiweg 1999), this talk sketches a corpus-based, variationist method (Variation-Based Distance & Similarity Modeling – VADIS for short) to rigorously quantify the similarity between varieties of English as a function of the correspondence of the ways in which language users choose between "alternate ways of saying 'the same' thing" (Labov 1972: 188). In other words, the basic idea is to measure inter-speaker variability by assessing intra-speaker variability. To showcase the potential of the method, I present a case study that investigates three syntactic alternations (the dative alternation, the genitive alternation, and the particle placement alternation) in some nine international varieties of English. Key findings include, first, that probabilistic grammars are remarkably similar and stable across the varieties under study. Second, more often than not we see a fairly robust split between "native" (a.k.a. Inner Circle) varieties, such as British English, and "non-native" (a.k.a. Outer Circle) varieties, such as Indian English.



Labov, William. 1972. Sociolinguistic patterns. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.

Nerbonne, John, Wilbert Heeringa & Peter Kleiweg. 1999. Edit Distance and Dialect Proximity. In David Sankoff & Joseph Kruskal (eds.), Time Warps, String Edits and Macromolecules: The Theory and Practice of Sequence Comparison, v–xv. Stanford: CSLI Press.

Tagliamonte, Sali. 2001. Comparative sociolinguistics. In Jack Chambers, Peter Trudgill & Natalie Schilling-Estes (eds.), Handbook of Language Variation and Change, 729–763. Malden and Oxford: Blackwell.