A Microcomparative Study of Negation in Dialectal Variation

Project: Research project

Project Details


Linguistic variation, or the use of different words, sounds, or grammatical structures to communicate the same meaning, is a fundamental aspect of language. A well-known example is the use of "pop," "soda," and "coke" to refer to sweetened carbonated beverages in different regions of the US. While variation in word choice between different regions is often considered unremarkable and even entertaining by non-specialists, other types of variation receive more scrutiny. For example, while some speakers use sentences like, "I didn’t eat anything this morning" to express that they skipped breakfast, others might say "I didn’t eat nothing." From a linguistic perspective, this type of variation has the same systematicity and legitimacy as variation between words for carbonated beverages. However, double negatives like "I didn’t eat nothing" are often considered by non-specialists to be incorrect, and carry social stigma. Examples like these are present in many linguistic varieties, and studies have shown that even speakers who do not use "mainstream forms" can easily understand them in context. This project collects new information from a variety of speakers of different dialects–many of whom are often excluded from academic research. Through comparing how individuals from different regions and ethnic groups use certain types of negative sentences, the project uncovers areas where these groups overlap in their linguistic knowledge, and it more accurately delineates differences that exist. Previous experimental research on non-mainstream forms, such as the case of double negative, which is also known as Negative Concord, has included speakers of mainstream varieties. It suggests that there may be more areas of grammatical overlap between mainstream and non-mainstream varieties than one might expect based on the sentences they produce. This project explores the extent of this overlap, by comparing the real time comprehension of speakers of these varieties directly. To compare and contrast the grammatical knowledge that different speakers have of Negative Concord, the project explores two abilities considered signatures of such knowledge: prediction of an upcoming word or structure, and the association of social information about contexts in which a structure is likely to appear. The researchers employ the methods of phoneme detection–a measure of prediction, and eye tracking, which is a measurement of real time comprehension and association, including social knowledge. The project contributes much needed data on speakers who are not proportionally included in experimental research on language. In addition, the project employs undergraduate and community researchers from underrepresented minority groups, providing unique experience and training opportunities. The research team leverages their expertise in scientific communication for public audiences to translate project results for broad consumption.This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.
Effective start/end date9/1/238/31/26


  • National Science Foundation: $384,272.00


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