FWAV2 Workshop

The FWAV workshop is a venue for research that relates linguistic variation and formal analysis. FWAV is not restricted to specific domains such as syntax or phonology. The general theme of the meeting is described below. This year, FWAV will be co-located with DiGS 17 and on this occasion we hope some of the presentations at FWAV will make use of the various historical treebanks that are familiar to many researchers in diachronic syntax.

Labov’s pioneering study on contraction and deletion of the copula in African American Vernacular English (1969) and subsequent work on linguistic variation and change has drawn substantial attention to the relationship between formal analysis and quantitative usage patterns. Robust quantitative regularities have been studied in synchronic as well as diachronic corpus data using a variety of theoretical frameworks. Recently available evidence shows that discrete acceptability judgments in syntax, drawn from a large sample of speakers, also manifest regular quantitative patterns (see e.g. Thráinsson et al. 2013 and references cited there).


What do formal analyses of variation predict to be possible and impossible?

The workshop aims to investigate the empirical content of analyses of speaker variation. Representative research questions include, but are not limited to:

(1)     a.   What are the limits of variation?

b.   Do our analyses provide unifying accounts for apparently disparate clusters of linguistic properties?

c.   How does the child analyze a heterogeneous pool of primary linguistic data?

d.   What types of diachronic trajectories are consequences of language acquisition under variation?

e.   Is the statistical distribution of variation constrained by grammatical factors?

f.   How do we make the best use of statistical tools for formal linguistic analysis?

On a more practical note, the workshop hopes to contribute to the the practice of replicability, data access, and collaborative development.


What does the variation attach to?

We also ask about the relationship between the linguistic machinery and the mechanisms that are responsible for how speakers alternate between functionally equivalent variants. One line of research adopts the design of Chomskyan structure building while proposing independent mechanisms for acquisition of probabilities (Labov 1969, Kroch 1989, Yang 2002). A constraint based parallel is found in Stochastic OT (Boersma & Heyes 2001). Other proposals suggest that frequency distributions in language use are tightly interwoven with the grammar itself. Guy (1991) argued that repeated rule application in Lexical Phonology was responsible for an exponential decay in final -t/-d production in English. Anttila (1997) and Adger (2006) have proposed analyses where usage probabilities reflect the number of times that equally likely paths through the grammar lead to a particular output. Coetzee (2004) suggested that the comparison-based nature of OT imposes an ordering on the frequency of variants. How can we compare and contrast such a multitude of formal proposals?

It may not be the case that all instances of variable usage are of the same nature. Even if we assume acquired probabilities are a part of a speaker’s knowledge about language, it may still be the case that the variation is due to other, non-linguistic, factors. Furthermore, different domains of language may be subject to different constraints on variation. It has been suggested that unlike phonology, syntax is less sensitive to social evaluation (Labov & Harris 1986) but a concrete formulation of this effect is quite a nuanced task (Ingason et al. 2012). The role of interfaces is also important, since variables in syntax can be affected by constraints that operate across the interface, e.g., prosodic constraints on variation in other domains (e.g. Labov 1969, Anttila et al. 2010).

Here the representative questions include:

(2)       a.   Where does the variation come from and how can we distinguish the formal models empirically?

b.   How do we know which type of mechanism is responsible for which part of language usage?

c.   How does a formal analysis of variation handle different domains of language and the interfaces between them?



Adger, David. 2006. Combinatorial Variability. Journal of Linguistics 42(3):503–530.

Anttila, Arto. 1997. Deriving Variation from Grammar. In Frans Hinskens, Roeland van Hout and Leo Wetzels (eds.): Variation, Change and Phonological Theory, pp. 35–68. Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Anttila, Arto, Matthew Adams and Michael Speriosu. 2010. The Role of Prosody in the English Dative Alternation. Language and Cognitive Processes 25(7,8,9):946–981.

Boersma, Paul, and Bruce Hayes. 2001. Empirical Tests of the Gradual Learning Algorithm. Linguistic Inquiry 32:45–86.

Coetzee, Andries W. 2004. What It Means to Be a Losere: Non-Optimal Candidates in Optimality Theory. Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Guy, Gregory. 1991. Explanation in Variable Phonology: An Exponential Model of Morphological Constraints. Language Variation and Change 3(1):1–22.

Ingason, Anton Karl, Einar Freyr Sigurðsson and Joel Wallenberg. 2012. Antisocial Syntax: Disentangling the Icelandic VO/OV Parameter and Its Lexical Remains. Paper presented at DiGS14, Lisbon, July 4–6.

Kroch, Anthony. 1989. Reflexes of Grammar in Patterns of Language Change. Language Variation and Change 1:199–244.

Labov, William. 1969. Contraction, Deletion and Inherent Variability of the English Copula. Language 45:715–762.

Labov, William, and Wendell A. Harris. 1986. De Facto Segregation of Black and White Vernaculars. In David Sankoff (ed.): Diversity and Diachrony, pp. 1–24. Benjamins, Amsterdam.

Thráinsson, Höskuldur, Ásta Svavarsdóttir, Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson, Jóhannes Gísli Jónsson, Sigríður Sigurjónsdóttir and Thórunn Blöndal. 2013. Hvert stefnir í íslenskri setningagerð? Um samtímalegar kannanir og málbreytingar. Íslenskt mál 35:57–127.

Yang, Charles D. 2002. Knowledge and Learning in Natural Language. Oxford University Press, Oxford.