Yale linguists publish paper on YGDP

March 23, 2018

Professor Raffaella Zanuttini, Assistant Professor Jim Wood, postdoc Jason Zentz, and Professor Emeritus Larry Horn have published an article introducing the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project (YGDP). The article covers the motivations, methodologies, and conclusions of the work that has been carried out by the YGDP so far.

While we typically think of all English speakers as speaking “the same language,” it is well known that a wide range of different versions of English exist throughout the world. In fact, because every person speaks their native language a little bit differently, each individual English speaker commands a unique variety of English. When studying English or other languages, linguists often focus on aspects of the language that are common to most or all dialects. However, in order to fully understand how language works, it is also necessary to investigate particular varieties of English in greater detail and consider how they might differ from one another or not.

The core of the YGDP’s research is a series of online surveys administered to English speakers in the United States and Canada. Based on a comprehensive literature search, YGDP members first compiled a list of grammatical constructions appearing in various varieties of North American English. Examples of such constructions include the needs washed construction (The car needs washed, meaning “The car needs to be washed”) and the dative presentative construction (Here’s you a piece of pizza, meaning “Here’s a piece of pizza for you”). Each question of the surveys tries to determine whether or not the participant’s variety of English includes one of these constructions. To do this, the question presents the participant with a sentence containing a particular construction, and asks the participant to evaluate the sentence on a scale from 1 to 5. For example, a speaker who uses the needs washed construction might answer 5 (totally acceptable) for the sentence The cat wants petted, while a speaker who does not use that construction might answer 1 (totally unacceptable). In addition to questions about various grammatical constructions, the surveys ask for various demographic facts about the participant, such as their age and location.

The survey results reveal a number of interesting insights. Most obviously, the demographic information included with each survey allows us to determine the distribution of each particular construction in terms of geography, age, or other factors. For example, the picture in the corner of this page shows the location of each participant who was presented with the sentence Most babies like cuddled. The black dots represent speakers who gave the sentence a rating of 1 or 2, while the green dots represent speakers who gave the sentence a rating of 4 or 5. The map shows that the needs washed construction is mostly used in the Midwest and the Appalachian Mountains.

In certain cases, the surveys show that geographical characterizations of certain constructions may not be completely accurate. For example, the be done my homework construction (I’m done my homework, meaning “I have done my homework”) is commonly thought to be used in Canada, Vermont, and Philadelphia. While the YGDP surveys did find this construction in those areas, participants from Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Maine also found the construction acceptable. Furthermore, some constructions, such as the copy raising construction (John seems like Mary defeated him, meaning “John appears as though Mary defeated him”), do not seem to correlate to any demographic factor.

Finally, by examining the survey results, the YGDP members were able to identify implicational relationships between certain constructions. This means that the presence of one construction sometimes implies the presence of another. For example, consider the following two sentences, both of which mean “Have you visited your grandmother yet?”

  • Have you yet to visit your grandmother?
  • Do you have yet to visit your grandmother?

It turns out that participants who accept the second sentence are highly likely to accept the first sentence, though the opposite is not true. This interesting observation has ramifications for our understanding of the word have. Jim and PhD candidate Matt Tyler are investigating the grammatical properties of have as in You have yet to visit your grandmother. If this have is an auxiliary verb, as in You have visited your grandmother, then someone who wants to know whether or not you have visited your grandmother might ask the first question above (cf. Have you visited your grandmother?). On the other hand, if have is a main verb, as in You have a grandmother, then the second question above would be asked instead (cf. Do you have a grandmother?). The existence of both questions, as well as the implicational relationship between the second question and the first, has led Matt and Jim to develop a more nuanced analysis of have.

Raffaella, Jim, Jason, and Larry’s article was published in the journal Linguistics Vanguard as an open-access publication. It is available for free on the publisher’s website.

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