Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hrs /session


24.900 Introduction to Linguistics or 24.9000 How Language Works, or permission of instructor

Course Description

Variation and change are basic properties of language: All languages show variation in form across geographic space and between social groups, and languages are always changing. It makes sense to study these phenomena together because they are intimately related: language change is the basic source of language variation. That is, if a language undergoes different changes in different areas or among different subgroups, then variation results. So studying language change can help us to understand variation, and the nature of linguistic variation provides evidence as to how language changes. The course will focus on variation and change in phonetics and phonology, and most case studies will be drawn from the English language. We will play particular attention to explicit, computationally implemented models of the mechanisms of sound change.

Topics to Be Covered

Geographical variation:

  • Overview of accent variation in the USA (and the UK)
  • IPA transcription
  • Acoustic analysis of vowels

Sound change as a source of variation I: Regularity of sound change:

  • What changes in sound change?
  • Case studies: US English æ-tensing, ow-fronting, English trap-bath split

Sound change as a source of variation II: Age-related variation:

  • Do speakers participate in sound changes over their lifespan?
  • Case studies: vowel changes in Philadelphia, Queen Elizabeth II

Sound change as a source of variation III: Social variation:

  • Language as a social marker
  • Case study: vowel changes on Martha’s Vineyard

Variation within the individual, stable variation:

  • The nature and grammatical analysis of variation within the individual
  • How does diachronically stable variation arise?
  • Case study: English t-d deletion

The mechanisms of sound change I: Phonetic conditioning:

  • Questions: Why is sound change phonetically conditioned? Why is sound change (often) phonetically gradual? How can sound changes continue across generations? What triggers a sound change?
  • Answers: models of phonetically-conditioned sound change

The mechanisms of sound change II: Grammatical conditioning:

  • Grammar conditions/constrains sound change
  • Case studies: morphological conditioning, chain shifts
  • Models?

The comparative method:

  • Exploiting principles of sound change to infer relationships between languages and reconstruct parent languages

Syntactic change:

  • Case study: change from OV to VO word order

Course Requirements

  • Readings
  • Assignments
  • Final project
  • Attendance and participation in class discussions


Assignments40 %
Draft of final project10 %
Oral presentation of project20 %
Final paper30 %


There will be three assignments that require written submissions of around 1000 words, reporting on analyses of data pertaining to variation and change. The remaining assignments (about 4) will involve short exercises practicing skills such as transcription and acoustic analysis, or collecting data in preparation for one of the larger assignments. Collaboration in preparing assignments is allowed (and encouraged), but you must write up your assignments individually.

Final Project

In the second half of the semester you will collect and analyze a body of data concerning an interesting example of language variation or change. You can work on a wide range of topics, subject to my approval, but projects should generally include collection of some primary data (e.g. usage data, pronunciation data from the historical record or from recordings), and formal analysis of those data (e.g. analyzing the grammatical difference between two stages or variants of a language, computational modeling). I will distribute a list of suggestions for topics.

A draft of the final project is due by session 21. This draft should include a clear presentation of your data together with a preliminary analysis. You will receive feedback on this draft, make revisions and do further work taking this feedback into account, and submit a final version on the last day of class. The length of the paper should be about 2000 words.