The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Issue of Monday, December 5th, 2022

Industry workshop (12/7) - Dr. Charlotte Prieu

who: Dr. Charlotte Prieu
when: 12/07, 2pm
where: virtual talk (contact Hadas for zoom link)
what: Charlotte finished her PhD in French Linguistics from the University of Illinois in 2022. In her dissertation titled “Language practices of a digital Black feminist community on French Twitter: gender, race, and sociopolitical discourse”, she worked on gender inclusive language and racial denominations in a social context promoting universalism and colorblindness. She currently works at AWS as a Machine Learning Data Linguist where she annotates linguistic data in English and in French within the Comprehend team.

Minicourse (12/6, 12/8) - Nicole Holliday (Pomona College)

Prosody and Identity in Linguistic Variation: Minicourse

Times: 12/6 and 12/8, 12:30pm-2pm
Location: 32-D461


Variation in intonation and voice quality is among the least well-described phenomena in both phonetic and sociolinguistic research. This is especially a limitation due to research in recent years that has described the importance of such variables for speakers and listeners in presenting and interpreting social-indexical information (Purnell et al 1999, Thomas and Reaser 2004, Holliday 2021). This body of research has also shown that intonation and voice quality variables can carry a range of social meanings that can be controlled and manipulated by speakers both at and below the level of consciousness. Thus, we begin with the premise that speakers’ use of pitch, prosody, and voice quality variables is a robust area to investigate the intersection of language and identity, as well as the nature of phonetic variation. In this minicourse, participants will be introduced to basic concepts in sociophonetics, with special attention to prosodic and voice quality variables. The course will concentrate on the theory and application of methods that help to elucidate how speakers communicate various aspects of personal identity, as well as how listeners perceive them. These fundamental aspects range from the community-level, such as region and race/ethnicity, to the more individual-level, such as persona construction.

On the first day of the minicourse, learners will be introduced to the major questions of sociolinguistics in the 21st century, as well as sociophonetic methods and analytic procedures, with a focus on prosodic and voice quality variables. The readings for this day come from Erik Thomas’ influential textbook, Sociophonetics: An Introduction (2011), in order to provide students will an equitable starting point for better understanding such analyses. On Day 2 of the minicourse, participants will read two journal articles that focus on different types of questions in sociophonetics. The first paper, Thomas and Reaser (2004) is a foundational work that describes several decades worth of research on the issue of ethnic identification in sociolinguistics. The second paper, Burdin, Holliday, and Reed (2022), is a more recent study focusing on describing production-level differences between speakers of three different lects of American English. Participants will leave with a better understanding of how prosody works in sociolinguistic variation, which will enhance their ability to ask questions about variation that they may encounter in their own research.


Burdin, R.S., Holliday, N.R. and Reed, P.E., 2022. “American English pitch accents in variation: Pushing the boundaries of mainstream American English-ToBI conventions”. Journal of Phonetics94, p.101-163.

Holliday, N.R., 2021. “Perception in black and white: Effects of intonational variables and filtering conditions on sociolinguistic judgments with implications for ASR”. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence, pp.102.

Purnell, T., Idsardi, W. Baugh, J. 1999. “Perceptual and Phonetic Experiments on American English Dialect Identification.” Journal of Language and Social Psychology 18 (1): 10–30.

Thomas, E.R. and Reaser, J., 2004. “Delimiting perceptual cues used for the ethnic labeling of African American and European American voices”. Journal of sociolinguistics8(1), pp.54-87.

Thomas, E.R. 2011. Sociophonetics: An introduction. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Colloquium (12/9) - Nicole Holliday (Pomona College)

Title: Sociophonetic Variation and Human Interaction with Digital Voice Assistants

Location: 32-141
Time: 3:30pm-5pm, 12/9

Abstract: As technology that relies on speech is increasingly integrated into modern American society, voice assistants are becoming a more significant part of our everyday lives. This talk will present the results of three studies that focus on social perception of voice assistants, voice quality variation among the assistants themselves, and how one assistant’s “tone of voice” evaluation reinforces systematic linguistic bias. Results of the first study demonstrate how listeners engage in racialized judgments of digital voice assistants and that these judgments interact with perceptions of the personality of such assistants, providing evidence that listeners personify these voices. Results of the second study shed light on the voice quality features that may trigger judgments of speaker race and personal characteristics, even when the speaker is non-human. Finally, results of the third study show the ways in which speech recognition technology can reinforce and perpetuate bias against already marginalized groups of speakers. A more comprehensive understanding of how sociolinguistic variation interacts with the design of such assistants may help us to understand how listeners process variation and make judgments of voices, both digital and human. Additionally, a thorough analysis of how computational systems police speaker behavior can help us address systematic inequality as the linguistic line between humans and computers becomes increasingly porous.

LF Reading Group 12/7 - Omri Doron and Jad Wehbe (MIT)

Speaker: Omri Doron and Jad Wehbe (MIT)
Title: Post-Accommodation Informativity
Time: Wednesday, December 7th, 1pm - 2pm

Abstract: We discuss a constraint on global accommodation proposed by Heim stating that an accommodated presupposition must not settle the QUD (Heim, 2015). We argue that this constraint follows from the asymmetry between the pragmatic status of presuppositions and assertions assumed by the satisfaction theory (Stalnaker, 1970; Kartunen, 1974). We provide evidence that local accommodation is sensitive to this constraint, thus arguing that local accommodation maintains the asymmetry. This poses a challenge to theories of local accommodation.

Phonology Circle 12/5 - Aljoša Milenković (Harvard University)

Speaker: Aljoša Milenković (Harvard University)
Title: Markedness is not enough: Tone-stress interaction in Optimality Theory revisited
Time: Monday, December 5th, 5pm - 6:30pm

Abstract: As a general tendency in many languages, higher tone attracts/is attracted by metrical prominence, while lower tone tends towards metrically weak positions (Goldsmith 1987; Hayes 1995; Smith 2002; de Lacy 2002). The existing Optimality-Theoretic accounts use either negative markedness constraints or prosodic licensing to model tone-to-foot mapping. In this talk, I argue that both markedness- and licensing-based approaches fail to capture the full range of cross-linguistic variation. The markedness-based approach (de Lacy 1999, 2002, 2007) faces two empirical problems. First, it predicts a universal dispreference for higher tone in the weak position of a foot. This prediction is at odds with the stress pattern of Neoštokavian (Standard) Serbian, a South Slavic dialect with tone-driven stress, which preferentially constructs disyllabic trochees with a High-toned nonhead (Bethin 1994, 1998; Zsiga & Zec 2013). Second, given that negative markedness constraints penalize Low and Mid tone in stressed syllables, the theory treats stressed contour tones as marked because of the markedness penalty incurred by their Low/Mid-toned components. Consequently, contour tones are expected to be avoided and/or eliminated under stress. This is inconsistent with the fact that many languages restrict contour tones to stressed syllables, and no language restricts contour tones to unstressed syllables (Zhang 2000, 2001). The licensing-based account (Breteler 2017, 2018; Breteler & Kager 2022) readily explains both the preference for High-toned foot nonheads observed in Serbian and the metrical behavior of contour tones. However, unlike negative markedness constraints, the licensing approach has no means to enforce higher tone in foot heads and lower tone in foot nonheads, thus missing a well-documented empirical generalization. As a solution, I pursue a hybrid approach which combines de Lacy (2002)’s *Nonhead-Tone hierarchy with the licensing constraints of Breteler (2018). The midway approach adopted here is shown to improve the typological coverage of both existing approaches.