Dissertation available

Emily Bender bender at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Oct 26 20:55:39 UTC 2000

Dear Funknetters,

My dissertation, _Syntactic Variation and Linguistic Competence:
The Case of AAVE Copula Absence_ (Stanford University, copyright
2001), is now available on the web at:


It is available as one-up and two-up .ps files and as a one-up
.pdf file.  If you have difficulty downloading it, please contact
me for other formats or hard copy.

Thank you again for all of your helpful feedback to my questions.
I did not find a functional explanation that I was happy with
of the non-categorical constraints on copula absence.  Section
5.4 of Chapter 5 addresses the difficulties I think would arise for
any (purely) functional account of this phenomenon.  The answers
I received on funknet to my question "what is grammar a model of"
were informative as I wrote Chapter 6 ("The boundaries of linguistic

Abstract below.



This thesis explores the implications for competence theories of
syntax of the data on variation found by sociolinguists working in the
Labovian tradition, through a case study of variable copula absence in
African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

A distributional analysis of the categorical constraints on AAVE
copula absence shows that it is indeed a syntactic, rather than
phonological variable, contra Labov (1969, 1995). Further, its
analysis requires a phonologically empty element, even the
surface-oriented framework of Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar
(HPSG) (Pollard and Sag 1994).

AAVE copula absence is also subject to well-studied and robust
non-categorical grammatical constraints. Previous formal approaches to
such non-categorical constraints on variation treat non-categorical
grammatical constraints as separate from whatever social constraints
might also apply. Building on the idea that variation is socially
meaningful (Labov 1963, Eckert 2000), I propose that, on the contrary,
social and grammatical constraints interact: social constraints are
conceptualized as the social meaning of a variable, and grammatical
constraints as the intensifying or attenuating effect of the
grammatical environment on the social meaning or social value of the
variable. This hypothesis is tested and substantiated by a
matched-guise experiment, focusing on the effect of the following
grammatical environment.

Three types of linguistic knowledge seem to be involved in the
judgments the participants gave in the experimental task: knowledge of
social meaning attached to linguistic forms, direct knowledge of a
grammatical structure that is computable from more basic signs already
in the grammar, and knowledge of the frequentistic, non-categorical
grammatical constraints on variation. Traditional conceptions of
linguistic competence place all three of these types of knowledge
outside the grammar proper. However, I argue that that distinction is
not based on empirical evidence and should be subject to
reevaluation. Further, I suggest that sign-based grammars are uniquely
suited as models for exploring possible extensions of linguistic
competence and that sociolinguistic variation, the social value of
variables and the non-categorical grammatical constraints that apply
to them provide an interesting locus for the study of the boundaries
of linguistic competence.

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