Project explores the ‘marvelously diverse’ ways we speak English

“Here’s you a piece of pizza” may sound like an alien way of speaking to some — unless of course you’re one of the linguists working on the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, in which case, it’s just one of the “fascinating” variations of the English language that they look forward to studying each and every day.

The project, which is currently funded by a two-year National Science Foundation grant, explores the diversity found in varieties of English spoken in North America by documenting the subtle — but systematic — differences in syntax, the study of how phrases and sentences are put together.

The project began in 2010, shortly after Raffaella Zanuttini, professor of linguistics, came to Yale. She had almost 20 years of experience working in what is known as ‘micro-comparative syntax’, an approach in which one compares languages that are minimally different from one another, with the goal of reaching a detailed understanding of their syntactic structure. She had a vision of extending this approach to the study of English spoken in North America, a domain that had not yet been studied in a systematic way, and eventually creating a syntactic atlas of North American English.

This research plan was embraced by her colleague Larry Horn, professor of linguistics and philosophy, a scholar with broad interests who had already been teaching a course called “Dialects of English.” They formed a research team, combining their expertise and research goals, and started the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, inviting both undergraduate and graduate students as collaborators. In 2012 Jim Wood joined the Department of Linguistics as a post-doctoral associate and took a leading role in the project, “infusing it with new ideas and methodological innovations,” notes Zanuttini.  

According to the linguists, the project has several missions. “On the theoretical side, as syntacticians, we are hoping to get a better sense of how English varies,” notes Wood, who is a lecturer in linguistics. “That will give us a deeper insight into how language works in general. That’s our scientific goal. There is a gap in the study of syntactic variation in American English, and we want to learn as much as we can about the syntax of English, and of human language more generally, from this perspective.”

To understand the syntax of human language, linguists sometimes compare languages that are radically different from one another (like Navajo and English), and sometimes compare languages that are minimally different from one another. This project looks at the minimally different varieties of English spoken in North America.

“Unlike variation in phonology (often referred to as ‘accent’) and in the lexicon (‘skillet’ vs. ‘frying pan’ or ‘soda’ vs. ‘pop’), variation in grammatical systems within English has for the most part not been systematically investigated,” Horn says.

“We want to rectify this gap by accumulating information about sentences that exhibit syntactic variation. Such variation may be found among speakers who live in a certain geographical region, or who belong to a certain age group, or to a particular social or ethnic group ” notes Horn. Examples of these constructions are included on the project’s website.

Another goal of the project is to create an awareness of dialect variation in a way that is non-judgmental and interesting.

“Language is fascinating, and I think we should find a way to share the things we discover with the public,” says Wood. “One way of connecting with the public is by looking at the language that they speak and that is around them every day and try to instill them with that sense of fascination. It’s not about right and wrong; it’s about the excitement of looking at all of the different ways you can put sentences together.”

Wood says that the study of linguistics “has been very eloquently described as the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities. It’s an intersection between the two.”

The humanistic component of this project is that the researchers are not interested in what is considered to be correct — or prescriptive — grammar, but   in what people do naturally. “The notion of correct is something that is artificially placed on a system that exists, sort of like putting your fork on the left side of the dish versus the right side, whereas the kind of language we are interested in is just what people do naturally,” says Wood.

“Independent of what is considered to be correct,” says Wood, “ there is a set of mental rules that people are using to form their sentences. We are not really aware of these rules because they are internalized. We hear someone say something, we acquire that rule, and we apply it. What we are trying to do with this project is to understand such  rules, and how they relate to other rules in that person’s mental  grammar.”

Zanuttini adds that there is also a social implication to this research. “Often people are convinced that there is a right way of speaking a language and a wrong way of speaking that language. From the point of view of a linguist, that is really off the mark for many reasons,” she says. “It is important that people  who criticize others for how they speak realize that they are really using language as a way of conveying a social prejudice. If they hear the Queen of England pronounce a word without an ‘r’, they think it’s fancy. But if they hear somebody from the North End of Boston, or someone from Brooklyn who comes from a working-class background pronounce the same word without an ‘r’, they think that person is beneath them.”

“We linguists can see through this, because we have a more scientific approach to language,” says Zanuttini. “We believe that creating an awareness of what we consider to be basic facts about language can have a positive social effect, by making people aware that they are expressing a negative evaluation of others. However, we are not saying that it’s not useful for people to also have command of the standard, that is, the prescribed variety of English.”

“It wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors to say just forget about learning standard English and do what comes naturally all the time,” says Wood. “We all style-switch all the time. The way I am talking in this environment is different from how I would talk at home. Being able to function in different aspects of society often entails that kind of code-switching.”

“We want to see more success in literacy education, and success in finishing education, and to see people be able to achieve their goals,” says Wood. “I think it’s the view of a lot of linguists that the way to do that isn’t by prescribing that saying this is wrong while saying that is right, but by introducing the concept that the grammar of a language really exhibits variation. And that’s why we need to learn standard grammar as a separate thing.”

“We would never encourage someone to go to a job interview and not speak the variety of English that is considered the standard, the most appropriate variety for that context in that community,” says Zanuttini. “Rather, we encourage people to gain mastery of the standard variety, while at the same time also taking pride in other varieties of English that they might speak.” 

“When you get rid of the judgment side of it,” says Wood, “this topic is just fascinating. All of the different forms that you encounter when you hear people from different regions speak are very interesting. We are constantly editing and updating the site. It’s a constantly evolving project.”

During the past year members of the project have been conducting nationwide surveys using an online crowdsourcing platform asking for people’s judgment on sentences. They plot the results on a map.

One of the most interesting discoveries that the group has encountered are presentative sentences like “Here’s you a water bottle.”

“That sentence just floored me,” says Wood. “It seemed very alien and different to me. The overall pattern was very clear: In the South people found that sentence to be completely normal, while in the North, no one thought it was normal. It was pretty stunning, and it turns out you can do it with ‘where’ as well. ‘Where’s me a screwdriver?’ or ‘Where’s me a place to eat around here?’”

“Grammar is always changing,” says Wood. “Why not celebrate that we don’t speak a static language that is in a book, but a fluid thing that is always changing and evolving? It’s part of what it means to be a human who speaks a language. And the next person over is just going to speak it a little bit differently.”

Adds Horn, “We are very much engaged in an uphill battle to chronicle — and educate non-specialists about — the marvelously diverse character of the English language.”

(Image by Michael S. Helfenbein)