[Colloquium] Recruitment week

Lessons from an isolate: Chitimacha diachrony in areal perspective
Daniel W. Hieber
In historical linguistics, language isolates are often viewed as a problem. Their isolate status makes it difficult to peer into their history, and internal reconstruction is though to be of limited utility. Linguists yearn to rectify any case of a language with no relatives.

Chitimacha is one such isolate from Louisiana. It was documented extensively around the turn of the 19th century, and its last native speaker passed away in 1939. Little has been published on the language, and what has been published reflects linguists’ desire to classify isolates into one family or another. None of these proposals have been widely accepted.

This talk reframes Chitimacha’s isolate status not as a problem to be solved, but as a potential trove of insights into the sociolinguistic history of both Chitimacha and the U.S. Southeast area more generally. I briefly discuss the language-internal evidence for the diachronic pathways of three grammatical features of Chitimacha: positional auxiliary verbs, switch-reference, and agent-patient alignment. In each case, existing lexical or morphological material was recruited for these new functions. However, each of these features is shared by other unrelated languages of the U.S. Southeast, suggesting that their development in Chitimacha was in fact motivated by contact. I propose an explanation whereby multilingual speakers in the Southeast carried over discourse-level patterns of information flow into Chitimacha, and these discourse patterns became more frequent and conventionalized over time, until they grammaticalized into dedicated grammatical constructions. It is not the grammatical structures themselves that were borrowed, but rather a preference for packaging information in discourse in ways that parallel the grammatical structures of the original language. It is precisely Chitimacha’s isolate status which makes it possible to better understand the effects of contact and discourse-induced grammaticalization.

“Oh my [mɑ] god”: Appropriation of African American English and the construction of Asian American identity in Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra
Kendra Calhoun and Joyhanna Yoo Garza

Studies of linguistic crossing, appropriation, and style have shown that the raciolinguistic enregisterment (Rosa & Flores 2017) of linguistic features to named racial categories does not prevent ‘outside’ speakers from adopting them. The interactional and identity work that African American English (AAE) does for non-Black speakers through indexical associations in conversational and performance contexts is demonstrated in research on Asian American appropriations of AAE (Bucholtz 2004; Chun 2013; Reyes 2005). In this study, we analyze comedian Ali Wong’s use of AAE and other raciolinguistically enregistered features in her stand-up comedy special Baby Cobra (2016). We examine how she constructs her identity as a raunchy, self-assured, Asian American woman and argue that Wong employs AAE to draw on the culturally legible ‘sassy Black woman’ stereotype in order to challenge dominant racializations of Asian women (e.g., docile, asexual) and condescending ideologies about “women’s humor.”

The role of syntactic distributions in grammatical gender assignment
Phillip Rogers and Stefan Th. Gries

It is well known that semantics and phonology play a role in gender assignment cross-linguistically. Recent work at UCSB has shown that the lexicon contains fine-grained, probabilistic information about the syntactic distributions of words. As such, we hypothesize that syntactic distributions--defined as the set of dependency relations that a word participates in and how often--may also play a role in gender assignment. With syntactic distributions for nouns derived from the Universal Dependencies treebanks, we perform a random forest classification for each of several languages predicting gender sameness among pairs of nouns based on semantic and syntactic distances, phonological rules, and word frequencies. These models reveal that syntactically similar nouns are less likely to share the same gender, and this may serve to disambiguate nouns that occur in similar contexts. This finding speaks to the functional advantages of grammatical gender that operate subtly and probabilistically in the aggregate, and it illustrates the unique role of syntax as both a feature of words and a locus for discrimination among words.