Mind, Technology, and Society Talk Series

Kie Zuraw
Associate Professor, University of California, Los Angeles
Time/Date: 3-4:30 p.m. Monday, November 30, 2015

Chancellor’s Conference Room, KL 232

Polarized patterns of variation in (mainly) phonology


The normal distribution–the bell curve–is common in all kinds of data. The distribution of phonologically varying words, however, is sharply non-normal in the cases examined in this talk (from English, French, Italian, and Tagalog). To take a morphological example, for each English verb we could ask what percentage of the time it has an irregular past (taught, sung, went) rather than a regular one (reached, jumped, talked), and plot a histogram of these percentages. A bell curve would see most words clustered around some value, say 50% irregular, with much smaller numbers of words having extreme behavior (100% irregular, or 0% irregular). Instead, the great majority of English verbs have a consistent behavior, and only a few show variation (e.g., dived ~ dove).

In the cases examined here, a histogram of variation rates is mostly shaped like a U (or sometimes a U so lopsided that it looks more like a J) rather than a bell.  In some cases (e.g., French “aspirated” words) there is a diachronic explanation: sound change caused some words to become exceptional, so that the starting point for today’s situation was already U-shaped. But in other cases, such an explanation is not available, and items seem to be attracted towards extreme behavior.

Two mechanisms for creating U-shaped distributions over time will be presented, with speculation as to why some distributions of variation are U-shaped and others bell-shaped.

Suggested reading:

Zuraw, Kie. 2015. Allomorphs of French de in coordination: a reproducible study. Linguistics Vanguardhttp://www.degruyter.com/view/j/lingvan.ahead-of-print/lingvan-2014-1017/lingvan-2014-1017.xml?format=INT

Kie Zuraw is an associate professor in the Department of Linguistics at UCLA, working on sound patterns of languages, especially Tagalog and other Austronesian languages. She is particularly interested in how humans make sense of the variable, probabilistic language input that we’re exposed to. Her website is http://www.linguistics.ucla.edu/people/zuraw/.