Exploring probabilistic grammars in varieties of English

This project formed the basis for my own PhD thesis on the English dative alternation in varieties of English. Broadly speaking, the project married the spirit of the Probabilistic Grammar Framework (which is the methodological outcome of the usage-based turn in linguistic theory, positing that grammatical knowledge is experience-based and partially probabilistic) to research along the lines of the English World-Wide Paradigm (which is concerned with the sociolinguistics of, and linguistic variation across, post-colonial English-speaking communities around the world). Because variation is a core explanandum in current linguistic theorizing, the project as well as my own thesis contributes to the development of usage-based theoretical linguistics by adopting a variational, large-scale comparative, and sociolinguistically responsible perspective.

In my work, I analysed the various factors driving the variation between the ditransitive dative (e.g. Mary gives John an apple) and the prepositional variant (e.g. Mary gives an apple to John) across nine different varieties of English. Data was sampled from the International Corpus of English (ICE) and the Corpus of Global web-based English (GloWbE) on each of the nine varieties, namely four traditionally labelled ‘native’ varieties – British, Irish, New Zealand and Canadian English -, and five ‘non-native’ varieties, namely Hong Kong, Singapore, Indian, Philippine and Jamaican English.

Employing different statistical techniques, such as mixed-effects modeling, conditional random forests, cluster analysis, and multidimensional scaling, I show that the constraints driving this variation are largely stable across varieties, i.e. their effect direction is the same regardless of location. For instance, the longer one constituent is in the number of letters with respect to the other constituent, the more likely one of the variants become. However, the increase or decrease in likelihood is different across varieties. That is, the effect that a constraint has on the variation differs in degrees between localities. Furthermore, some effects also differed in strength depending on the register in which the dative variant was used (e.g. newspaper vs. spoken dialogue) and seems to be lexically dependent. My findings thus not only speak to the cognitive nature of this variation but also highlight that any such cognitive processes have to be grounded in the social reality that lead to their entrenchment (termed ‘cognitive indigenization’, see our publication here).

(For more information, check out the project’s website here.)

Project members

  • Prof. Dr. Benedikt Szmrecsanyi (PI)
  • Dr. Jason Grafmiller
  • Benedikt Heller (PhD fellow)
  • Melanie Röthlisberger (PhD fellow)

Particle placement in Ontario English

This work developed out of a collaborative effort between myself and Sali A. Tagliamonte (UofT, Canada). During a 5-month research stay at the University of Toronto, I extracted constructions with transitive particle verbs (I picked up the book vs. I picked the book up) from transcribed sociolinguistic interviews representing the speech communities of 6 different locations that form part of the Dialects of Ontario project (for more information on that project, see http://ontariodialects.chass.utoronto.ca/). The final dataset contains a bit more than 6,000 tokens. The extent to which social (age, gender, etc.) as well as language-internal factors (length of direct object) shape variation in particle placement in Ontario English are analyzed using regression modeling and conditional random forests in R (R Development Team 2016). Stay tuned for more information!


Röthlisberger, Melanie & Sali A. Tagliamonte. 2018. “You can just google it up”: Patterns of variation in particle placement in North American English. Poster  presented at the 92nd Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, 4-7 January 2018, Salt Lake City, US. [pdf poster][pdf handout]