Focus area Variation and Language Change


The modules on Language Variation and Change (LING-CORE-VAR and LING-INTER-VAR) offer the opportunity to explore linguistic variation within and across languages and their varieties. Historical linguistics, dialectology and language acquisition—in first- and second-language learners—are examples of the linguistic subdisciplines at the core of this module, which explores variation in time, space and at the inter-individual level. Starting from the analysis of examples of variation, students strengthen their theoretical background, compare different theoretical frameworks, and familiarize themselves with recent trends in the field. The hands-on approach of our seminars enables participants to try out different research and experimental methods to investigate linguistic variation. Finally, the weekly colloquium (LING-COLL-VAR) offers a space for discussing research ideas, collecting feedback on Master’s thesis projects, meeting leading researchers from other universities, and getting insight into the research projects currently carried out at the Department of Romance Languages.

Exemplary course announcements

New trends in morphosyntax

The course intends to provide new insights into formal syntax by observing a number of phenomena and using them as a test bed to discuss locality effects and the distinction between minimalism and cartography. The phenomena to be discussed are verb movement and its relation to morphology, adverb placement, topic and focus constructions in V2 and non V2 languages, sentence typing in particular interrogative clauses and relative clauses, how to model the difference between VO and OV languages, the internal structure of the DP.
The general theoretical notions discussed will be: (a) the notion of Locality in relation to Relativized Minimality and the notion of Phase (phase edge, phase impenetrability condition); (b) the notion of null category and the way it can be licensed (from the mirror principle to pro-drop and topic-drop); (c) the distinctions between the minimalist approach and the cartographic model in terms of adjunction, feature realization, movement, copying.

Language variation at the interfaces

This seminar deals with word order phenomena at the interface of syntax and pragmatics. First, basic concepts of the information-structural organization of sentences, such as the notions of topic-commentary and focus-background, will be elaborated. Here, different definitions will be discussed against the background of the question to what extent these concepts are effective at sentence level and/or discourse level. We will then discuss phenomena of information-structural word order variation in Romance and other languages and the possibilities of their syntactic analysis. The phenomena under discussion will not only be considered from a syntactic and typological perspective but also from the perspective of diachronic change and language acquisition.

The acquisition of late phenomena (in collaboration with PSY modules)

It is well-known that language acquisition is a gradual and implicational process. Children acquire some linguistic structures and phenomena earlier than others, and the acquisition of certain linguistic structures depends on the acquisition of other structures. It is still a matter of debate, however, why linguistic structures differ from each other in their timing of acquisition.
In this course, we will focus on linguistic phenomena that emerge late in language acquisition. Looking at a range of phenomena, we will discuss to what extent their lateness depends on their linguistic complexity (e.g., derivational complexity or opacity of form-function mappings), the complexity underlying their processing (e.g., if their processing involves the interaction between distinct modules of grammar) or non-linguistic factors (e.g., frequency of use, cognitive prerequisites).
We will investigate to what extent the lateness of acquisition of linguistic structures depends on the type of acquisition, examining for instance whether phenomena acquired late by monolingual children are acquired late also by bilingual children. Furthermore, we will examine how far different types of bilinguals (simultaneous, early and late sequential) exhibit different acquisition sequences.

Empirical research on language variation

Acceptability judgments are a key source of data in linguistics. In theoretical articles, most of the reported acceptability contrasts are informal, i.e., they reflect the judgments of the author of the article, occasionally with feedback from colleagues or a few informants. Do these contrasts hold up when tested experimentally? And does their reliability differ between languages? In this seminar, you will learn about the debate surrounding the reliability of syntactic judgments, which has been mostly confined to English. Then, you will select an acceptability contrast in a language of your choice, and you will test its reliability by programming your own web-based experiment. This seminar is ideal for students with some background in syntax who want to learn how to conduct their own experiments.