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Gregory Guy: "Variation and linguistic theory: rules or usage?", ANU, 1 December 2015

Australian National University, Evolution

Date: 1 December 2015

When: 4pm, 1 December 2015

Where: The Engma Room, Coombs Building, The Australian National University (Directions here)

For several centuries, the principal theoretical models in linguistics have been organized around an opposition between abstract system and concrete usage, a dichotomy which was formulated by Saussure as langue vs. parole, and by Chomsky as competence vs. performance.  The dominant approaches saw linguistic theory as accounting for regularity and systematicity in langue or competence, typically relying on abstract rule-based formalisms.  These theories saw usage as disordered and irregular.  Opposed to this are models that take usage as primary and regularities as emergent.  Such “usage-based” models (cf. Bybee 2001) rely on concrete representations such as remembered exemplars, eschewing abstraction; they typically seek to account for lexically differentiated phonological phenomena, including variability, gradience, lexical frequency, and probabilistic properties.

An alternative that seeks to account for both system and usage – for langue and parole – emerges from variationist sociolinguistics, which postulates that variability is inherent and heterogeneity is orderly.  The ‘variable rule’ (VR) model, incorporating generative productivity as well as quantitative precision, preserves the advantages of rule-based models, including abstraction and the capacity to represent categorical processes.  But VR resolves many limitations of these formalisms with probabilistic quantification: any rule, process or constraint may be associated with a probability, which permits the treatment of variation and gradience.  Lexically specific phenomena and frequency effects are accounted for by means of enriched lexical representations.  This paper will consider evidence from studies of variation in several languages, addressing both phonology and syntax, including adult speech, child language, and reanalysis across the life span, which show that speakers have both abstract, discrete elements and variable but orderly productions in their language.  Variable processes provide a nondeterministic but recoverable link between these different representations.


We would like to invite HDR students at the ANU to attend a special morning tea with Professor Guy where we will discuss one of his papers (to be circulated prior to the day) in preparation for the afternoon seminar. Students will also have an opportunity to discuss their own research with Professor Guy. The seminar will be followed by drinks in the COEDL kitchen area.

11am: Morning Tea with HDR students (COEDL kitchen area)

4pm: Seminar: Variation and linguistic theory: rules or usage? (abstract below)

5:30pm: Wine, cheese and biscuits (COEDL kitchen area)

Please direct any questions or queries to

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University