Dissertation available

Emily Bender bender at csli.stanford.edu
Thu Oct 26 15:38:21 EST 2000

Hello everyone,

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


It is currently available as one-up and two-up .ps files and
as a one-up .pdf file.  If you are not able to download those
formats, please contact me for other formats or hard copy.

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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