Individual Differences in Sound Change

Jeff Mielke – University of Ottawa
Alan Yu – University of Chicago
Course time: Monday/Wednesday 11:00 am – 12:50 pm
2407 Mason Hall

See Course Description

One of the great mysteries of linguistics is the so-called actuation problem, first articulated in Weinreich, Labov, and Herzog 1968, and still largely unanswered to this day. The question is what causes the inception of language change, if the linguistic conditions favoring particular changes are always present? Previous studies on sound change have mainly focused on group effects, that is, effects observed in a population as a whole. Recent work has drawn on interspeaker variation for a solution to the actuation puzzle. The main impetus for considering individual differences in the context of sound change comes from the need to build a linking theory that bridges the gap between the emergence of new linguistic variants and their eventual propagation.

This course will explore sources of individual linguistic differences, and the role they may play in the initiation and propagation of sound change.  Idiosyncratic variation provides an opportunity to understand the limits and flexibility of the human capacity for language, and to better understand the observed properties of natural languages, which are systems that must be shared by individuals who differ from each other in important ways.  We will focus on three types of individual-level factors that have been implicated in language variation and change, namely covert linguistic/phonetic differences (e.g., differences in lexicon, articulation, and cue weighting), social-attitudinal matters, and neuro-cognitive factors.

Students enrolling in this course should have at least one course in phonetics and/or phonology.

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