I get excited by variation in language: cases where we have more than one way of saying the same thing. I want to find out what kinds of factors shape our (often subconscious) choices in these cases, and how this variability is represented in our mental grammars.
Some specific topics I've worked on are below.
I'm interested in the general question of how surface variability is represented grammatically. In much of my work, I focus on particular variables, and use quantitative data from large spoken corpora to determine which abstract processes are giving rise to the varying forms. Most recently, I've applied these efforts to auxiliary contraction and the phonetic realization of other function words in English.
Connected to this, and in collaboration with Meredith Tamminga and David Embick, I'm also interested in the constraints and processes which shape a speaker's selection and production of varying forms. One strand of this work concerns the role of psycholinguistic aspects of the language production system in shaping the distribution of sociolinguistic variants. At the University of Manchester, I worked with Hilary Wynne, supported by the University's Humanities Strategic Investment Fund, to investigate how the advance planning of speech may affect auxiliary contraction and other variable phenomena.
A growing body of evidence demonstrates that speakers can make some changes to their language after the critical period for language acquisition. However, there's still much we don't know about language change in later life. What kinds of changes are possible, and are some more likely than others? What motivates speakers to change? And how does such change take place: are grammatical representations modified, and if so, by what mechanism(s)?
I'm currently addressing some of these questions through a longitudinal study of nature documentary narrator Sir David Attenborough's Received Pronunciation. I'll also be working on related topics as part of the Modeling the Linguistic Consequences of Digital Language Contact project, funded by the Icelandic Research Fund and headed by Sigríður Sigurjónsdóttir and Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson. I first became interested in these questions when I worked with Gillian Sankoff on her longitudinal study of Québec French during my PhD.
I have a longstanding interest, going back to my BA thesis, in the source and status of regional dialect differences. I've addressed this topic with respect to Continental French, Modern Occitan, and, most recently, British English. At the University of Manchester, my students and I created Our Dialects, a large and comprehensive set of UK dialect maps.
Connected to this topic, I have an interest in how the changes that often differentiate regional dialects are actuated. An ongoing project investigates language learners' capacity to deal with opaque or exceptional forms, which I argue has led to variation and change in the voicing of stem-final fricatives in words like houses and paths.
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