Minimal differences found in linguistic varieties that are overall very similar provide linguists the opportunity to take a close look at where exactly grammatical systems differ, and how exactly they differ. Though this approach to the study of syntax has proven very fruitful in several different empirical domains, it has not been applied in full force to varieties of English spoken in North America.
The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project attempts to address this gap in two ways:
- Documenting micro-syntactic variation in North American English
What are some of the interesting syntactic properties exhibited by varieties of English spoken in North America? Where are they attested?
- Analyzing micro-syntactic variation in North American English
What do the differences we observe across varieties of English tell us about the syntax of English? and about the architecture of grammar more generally?
The project aims to make both an empirical and a theoretical contribution to further our understanding of contemporary American English. To get a sense of its scope, please visit our website: Yale Grammatical Diversity Project. To read scholarly articles, you can see the collection of articles in Micro-Syntactic Variation in North American English.
Here's a puzzle
One of the syntactic puzzles that I'm currently investigating (along with my colleagues on the Grammatical Diversity Project Jim Wood and Larry Horn) is a type of sentence that involves here or there in sentence-initial position, followed by a first or second person pronoun and by a lexical noun phrase, as in (1) and (2):
- Here's you a piece of pizza.
- Where's me a piece of pizza?
Studying the properties of these sentences has led me to work on a type of sentence in Italian that shares some properties with (1), exemplified in (3):
3. Eccoti una fetta di pizza. `Here's a slice of pizza for you.'
Examples like (3) exhibit similarities with perception verbs and with existential sentences in Italian, which I've recently begun to investigate. Here's a recent handout from an informal talk at NYU.
I have a long term, on-going collaboration with Paul Portner, a semanticist at Georgetown University. Together we have studied a number of topics, joining our expertise in syntax and semantics. We started from the broad question of what makes a clause a member of a certain clause type (declarative, interrogative, imperative or exclamative), moved on to examining the syntax and semantics of exclamative clauses, and more recently have been studying the special properties of imperative clauses, along with Miok Pak, from George Washington University. We have been focusing on two questions:
- what determines when imperatives can be embedded, and
- what are the differences between the subject of imperatives and the subjects of infinitival clauses.
Our on-going collaboration has led to a number of joint publications, such as those listed here.
An Annotated Syntax Reader
This collaborative project with Richard Kayne and Tom Leu culminated in 2013 with the publication of our book An Annotated Syntax Reader: Lasting Insights and Questions. The volume brings together excerpts from thirty-five articles that contain seminal ideas in the field of syntax, and shows how these ideas have shaped the field and are still present in current thinking. For each article, we provide an introduction and a set of discussion questions, with the hope of teaching today's students how to read past work. We are especially interested in bringing out the ways in which each article is simultaneously out-of-date and still essential. We do this by emphasizing those aspects that remain useful and valid, i.e. by highlighting its lasting contribution to the ever-growing (if sometimes underappreciated) solid core of the field of syntax. At the same time, we include references to subsequent work that has made additional progress in the area of syntax in question, so as to help students see the connection between past and current work.
The Comparative Morpho-Syntax of Appalachian English (2006-2008)
Funded by the National Science Foundation, this project was a collaborative effort carried out by Raffaella Zanuttini (then at Georgetown), Judy Bernstein (William Paterson University), Marcel den Dikken (City University of New York) and Christina Tortora (College of Staten Island). In 2006, we received funding from NSF in the form of a two-year collaborative research grant with the four of us as co-principal investigators. The project, entitled "Collaborative Research: The Comparative Morpho-Syntax of Appalachian English", studied morphosyntactic variation both within Appalachian English and between Appalachian English and other varieties of English, such as Belfast English. We focused in particular on subject-verb agreement, using both data from published sources and data collected through our own fieldwork. We worked closely with three graduate students, Goldie Ann Dooley, Erin Quirk, and Corinne Hutchinson.
Linguistic Prejudice: Revealing our Implicit Biases about Language
Working on grammatical variation has afforded me and my collaborators a close look at attitudes toward varieties of English that depart from what is perceived as standard. We thus decided to discuss these negative opinions with a wider audience, with the goal of showing that they have no basis in the science of language, but rather reflect often unconscious biases toward the speakers of those varieties of English. Beginning in the summer of 2017, we developed materials for a workshop that we have been giving to various groups within our institutions. We show that negative reactions toward certain ways of talking are connected to what is called linguistic prejudice, one of the last socially acceptable form of prejudice.
North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (NACLO)
Since the Fall of 2013, I've been part of a group that works hard to bring linguistics to middle and high school students in our area (greater New Haven). The group is led by three Yale undergraduates, Aidan Kaplan, Tom McCoy and Alexa Little, and includes a number of other students and faculty members in Linguistics. We organize meetings in which we go over NACLO puzzles and in so doing introduce the middle and high school students to basic linguistic notions. For more information on NACLO at Yale see our website, and to see some sample problems, visit the NACLO website.
I was a Fellow of the Public Voices Fellowship program at Yale (2014-15). This is a program that invites its participants to reflect on issues such as the social obligations that come with knowledge, and the risks and opportunities that come with sharing our ideas. It aims to increase the participation of women in public debate, encouraging us to think about how our ideas can have more impact. In this context, I wrote my first two op-ed pieces. In the first one, I make the point that there is no single "grammar of English" and that looking down on certain varieties of English is a social prejudice, and not something that has scientific justification. In the second one, I say that language change is inevitable, and that instead of resisting it we should embrace it.
National Science Foundation grant, 2014–2016
“The Microsyntax of Pronouns in North American English”. Co-Principal Investigators: Raffaella Zanuttini and Jim Wood. Total amount: $330,593. (BCS-1423872)
National Science Foundation grant, 2006–2008
“Collaborative Research: The Comparative Morpho-Syntax of Appalachian English”. Co-Principal Investigators: Judy Bernstein, Marcel den Dikken, Christina Tortora and Raffaella Zanuttini. Total amount: $208,037. (BCS- 0617133).
National Science Foundation grant, 2003–2005
“Clause Types: Form and Force in Grammatical Theory." Co-Principal Investigators: Paul Portner and Raffaella Zanuttini. Total amount: $206,664. (BCS- 0234278).