Plenary Sessions

Wednesday, 11 December 

Sociolinguistic trios, quartets, and ensembles: New compositions for the Meyerhoffian Symphony

James N. Stanford, Dartmouth College

As Meyerhoff (2017, 2019) proposes, if we blend language documentation and variationist approaches together, the result can be a magnificent "linguistic symphony" that represents the language more richly than any unidimensional approach ever could. The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity project has carried out this blended "symphonic" field approach on an impressive scale (Evans, this conference), including recent fieldwork across a wide range of linguistic ecologies in the Asia-Pacific region (e.g., Schokkin, Kashima, Duhamel, Singer, Evans, Skirgard, Garde, Ellison). Other recent projects, including Mansfield's "polysynthetic sociolinguistics" of Murrinh Patha and Barth's work on Matukar Panau, exemplify this blended approach as well.

Unfortunately, such approaches are still rather rare in sociolinguistics around the world. Although variationist sociolinguists began investigating indigenous minority languages as early as Sankoff (1980) and Foley (1980), such languages remain underrepresented in this subfield of linguistics (Nagy and Meyerhoff 2008; Stanford and Preston 2009; Smakman and Heinrich 2015; Stanford 2016; Kasstan and Horesh 2018; Guy and Adli 2019; Barth, Schokkin, Travis, Lindsey 2019 inter alia). As a result, many of the classic sociolinguistic principles depend heavily on traditional studies of large, majority languages in Western, industrialized, often monolingual societies (refreshing exceptions include Walker et al. 2019 on Chinese varieties, and other likeminded research). By contrast, many other linguistic subfields like phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, typology, anthropological linguistics and so on, have long recognized the importance of small indigenous languages. Meanwhile, field linguists see the need for a greater focus on describing and quantifying variation while building a grammar (e.g., Nagy 2009; Bowern 2015), rather than demoting linguistic variants to a footnote or parenthetical comment. All of this brings us to Meyerhoff's linguistic symphony.

Taking the viewpoint of a sociolinguist, the present talk investigates new "compositions" for this linguistic symphony. The talk explores the increasing importance of composing our projects collaboratively, often involving indigenous scholars and other members of the communities being researched (e.g., Rodriguez Louro and Collard, this conference). When are such approaches the most useful? When are other approaches more appropriate? How can researchers and communities decide which approach to take? The talk examines a series of variationist sociolinguistic studies composed of different combinations of researchers, including research with Sui, Bouyei, Zhuang, Ersu, and Na/Mosuo language communities in southwest China, as well as work with Hmong Americans, Lakhota, Navajo, Inupiat and other indigenous communities in North America. While presenting the quantified sociolinguistic results from these projects, this study ponders the benefits and challenges of different compositions of these research teams, including benefits of emic versus etic perspectives and the differing project roles of insiders/outsiders,as well as nuanced differences in field locations and sociopolitical circumstances-- all of which can help us to make music together, linguistically. 

Barth, Danielle, Dineke Schokkin, Catherine Travis, Kate Lindsey. Workshop on “Variation off the beaten path: Expanding our understanding of social structures." New Ways of Analyzing Variation 49, University of Oregon, October 10.

Barth, Danielle (2019). The right way to talk about kin in Matukar Panau. New Ways of Analyzing Variation 48, University of Oregon, October 11.

Barth, Danielle (2018-20). Matukar Panau corpus building for the study of language use in context. Endangered Languages Documentation Program (ELDP).

Bowern, Claire (2015). Linguistic fieldwork: A practical guide. Palgrave Macmillan.

Evans, Nick (2019). Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity: Incorporating variation into language documentation. Presentation for LVC-A4 / Australian Linguistic Society, Macquarie University, Sydney, December 11.

Foley, Lawrence (1980). Sociolinguistic patterns. In Lawrence Foley, Phonological variation in Western Cherokee. New York: Garland. 158-213.

Guy, Gregory, and Aria Adli (2019). Workshop on multiculturalism and multilingualism in a megacity, February 21, New York City.

Kasstan, Jonathan, and Uri Horesh (2018). Fresh insights on traditional variationist methods in non-English contexts. Workshop at Sociolinguistics Symposium 22, University of Auckland, New Zealand, June 28.

Mansfield, John (2014). Polysynthetic sociolinguistics: The language and culture of Murrinh Patha youth. PhD thesis, Australian National University.

Meyerhoff, Miriam (2017). Writing a linguistic symphony: Analysing variation while doing language documentation. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 62(4): 525-549.

Meyerhoff, Miriam (2019). Unnatural bedfellows? The sociolinguistic analysis of variation and language documentation. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand 49:229-41.

Nagy, Naomi (2009). The challenges of less commonly studied languages: Writing a sociogrammar in Faetar. In Stanford and Preston (eds). 397-417.

Nagy, Naomi, and Miriam Meyerhoff (2008). The social lives of language. In Miriam Meyerhoff and Naomi Nagy (eds), Social lives in language – Sociolinguistics and multilingual speech communities: Celebrating the work of Gillian Sankoff. Amsterdam: Benjamins. 1-17.

Rodriguez Louro, Celeste, and Glenys Collard (2019). Yarnin’ the blackfella way: Quotation in urban Aboriginal English. Presentation for LVC-A4 / Australian Linguistic Society. Macquarie University, Sydney, December 11. 
Sankoff, Gillian (1980). The social life of language. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Smakman, Dick, and Peter Heinrich (eds) (2015). Globalising sociolinguistics. Abingdon: Routledge.
Stanford, James (2016). A call for more diverse sources of data: Variationist approaches in non-English contexts. Journal of Sociolinguistics 20(4):525-41.

Stanford, James, and Dennis Preston (2009). Variation in indigenous minority languages. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Walker, James (ed) (2019). Special issue on regional Chinese in contact. Asia-Pacific Language Variation 5(1), including articles by Yunming Shan, Jingwei Zhang, Bo Hu, Holman Tse, Naomi Nagy and Samuel Lo.

Thursday, 12 December

Semantic diversity: Now you see it, now you don’t

Lisa Matthewson, University of British Columbia

Cross-linguistic semantic research often reveals rich linguistic diversity: semantic phenomena that differ markedly from those of familiar languages. At the same time, cross-linguistic research often suggests that semantic diversity is not limitless. Phenomena that at first glance appear strikingly divergent sometimes turn out, after targeted fieldwork testing, to display a certain amount of underlying similarity. Such limited diversity is perhaps the most intriguing type of finding, as it takes us a step further towards discovering the boundaries within which human languages may vary.

In this talk I present several case-studies of semantic diversity and also show how the diversity is limited. The case-studies involve modals, the perfect aspect, and yes-no questions. Languages discussed are St’át’imcets (Lillooet Salish), Gitksan (Tsimshianic) and Niuean (Polynesian).

Friday, 13 December

Two way Linguistics: Working together for Indigenous Languages

In December 2017 Professor Jakelin Troy issued a call for the Australian Linguistic Society to work with Indigenous linguists on ways to increase the linguistic expertise and capacity within Indigenous communities for maintaining and improving the health of the languages of Australia’s First Peoples. In response to this call, this plenary panel brings together representatives from a range of Indigenous-led organisations and projects from across Australia to lead a conversation about best practice in how academic linguists (who are mostly not Indigenous) and community-based language workers and linguists currently work together, focusing in particular on the production of user-friendly documentation and teaching materials, and the ways in which linguistic expertise can be developed and sustained within communities.


Eleanor Dixon and Felicity Meakins, Mudburra Language Project 

Sharon Edgar-Jones, Muurrbay Aboriginal Language and Cultural Co-op 

Melinda Holden, First Languages Australia 

Denise Smith-Ali, Noongar Boodjar Language Cultural Aboriginal Corporation, Indigenous Alliance for Linguistic Research


Ilana Mushin, University of Queensland

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