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Seminar: How many variable grammars does it take to model a world language?, Benedikt Szmrecsanyi, 6 Apr

Australian National University

Date: 19 February 2018

Seminar: How many variable grammars does it take to model a world language?

Speaker: Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (KU Leuven)

Venue: Engma Room (5019), HC Coombs Building, ANU

When: 6 April 2018, 3.30pm-5.00pm


There is a comparatively extensive literature on determining the grammatical similarity of dialects based on dialect atlas data (see, e.g., Spruit, Heeringa & Nerbonne 2009), but measuring similarity in naturalistic corpus data is a trickier task without well-trodden methodologies. In this talk, I sketch a corpus-based variationist method for calculating the similarity of dialect grammars: what counts is not if and/or how often people use particular constructions, but how – that is, subject to which probabilistic constraints – they choose between "alternate ways of saying ‘the same’ thing" (Labov 1972:188). As a case study, I discuss similarity patterns between regional varieties of English, fueled by a variationist analysis of three major alternations in the grammar of English: the dative alternation (as in I had given Helen the key versus I had given the key to Helen), the genitive alternation (as in the country’s economic crisis versus the economic crisis of the country), and the particle placement alternation (as in cut off the flowers versus cut the flowers off). These alternations are studied in corpus material covering some nine international varieties of English (British English, Canadian English, Irish English, New Zealand English, Hong Kong English, Indian English, Jamaican English, Philippine English, and Singapore English). Analysis shows that the probabilistic variable grammars regulating variation between the (a) and (b) variants are overall fairly similar across varieties of English – in other words, we seem to be dealing with a rather solid “common core” (in the parlance of Quirk et al. 1985:33) of the grammar of English. That said, we do find more or less subtle differences both between regional varieties as well as between syntactic alternations in terms of how hospitable they are to probabilistic indigenization.


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

Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech & Jan Svartvik. 1985. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London and New York: Longman.

Spruit, Marco René, Wilbert Heeringa & John Nerbonne. 2009. Associations among Linguistic Levels. Lingua 119(11). 1624–1642.

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