Perception of non-standard grammar
The study in a sentence
People in England may speak differently if they come from further to the north or south of the country; this difference is sometimes called the 'North-South divide'.
Most of what we know about this linguistic division is based on pronunciation differences. In this study, researchers looked at grammar, or morpho-syntax, to find out whether people from four cities in England – Newcastle, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton – made different judgements about a variety of grammatical features.
A key question was whether non-standard grammatical features were judged the same when presented either in isolation or in combination.
The results don't show a clear North-Midlands-South divide, but there are some patterns. Listeners also preferred sentences containing more than one non-standard feature, such as "I ain't seen nobody", than those with one.
This is co-occurrence of language features is known as co-variation.
The researchers looked at different kinds of morpho-syntactic variation to find out:
how often people from different English cities hear them, and
whether or not they find them acceptable or "correct" in speech.
The features tested in the study included:
the use of ain't (e.g., "I ain't seen it")
negative contraction (e.g. "I've not seen anybody")
auxiliary-contraction (e.g. "I haven't seen anybody")
negative concord (e.g. "I haven't seen nothing")
What's the difference between "negative concord" and a "double negative"?
Both involve the use of more than one negative form within the sentence, but there is an important difference:
When more than one negative form is used in a sentence to produce a negative meaning, this is negative concord.
For example, "I haven't seen nobody" ["I haven't seen anybody", in standard English] to express that a person didn't see anyone.
When more than one negative form is used in a sentence to produce a positive meaning, this is a double negative.
For example, "She didn't have no money" to express that a person did in fact have some money.
Traditionally, research into dialect variation has analysed individual features in isolation, for example, use of EITHER ain't OR negative concord.
However, looking at features in isolation means we don't see whether or not these features interact, within the grammar of the dialect.
The combination of different language features is known as co-variation.
In this study, researchers tested combined use of different non-standard features:
e.g. use of ain't AND negative concord in the same sentence, such as "I ain't seen nobody".
Results showed sentences with co-variation of non-standard features were more acceptable than non-standard sentences without co-variation.
Is the North-South divide relevant to grammatical variation?
Do certain grammatical features tend to co-occur? If so, how is this co-variation perceived across dialects?
We can use acceptability judgements to understand participants' views on aspects of grammar that they may not be consciously aware of.
By asking participants to rate a sentence according to how acceptable they think it is – e.g. from "not at all acceptable" to "highly acceptable" – we can gather information about people's awareness of language use that is otherwise difficult to access.
Acceptability judgement tasks are easy to run in an online survey, which is a useful way of gathering data from a large number of participants.
- Is the North-South divide relevant to grammatical variation?
Yes: there was some indication of a North-South divide in the data, as judgements about different grammatical features varied by location:
non-standard features were judged to be less frequent in Newcastle, and
participants from Nottingham were more likely to rate negative concord as acceptable, or "correct".
- Do certain grammatical features co-occur and how is this perceived?
Participants reported certain features to occur more commonly in combination:
ain’t + negative concord occur more frequently in combination (e.g. "I ain't seen nobody) than on their own (e.g. "I ain't seen anybody"), according to the data.
Participants judged the sentences containing co-variation of non-standard features to be more acceptable than sentences without co-variation.
In more detail
A longer explanation of the research study
Talk Recording [27 mins]
Slides from the Workshop Talk