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Syntactic Variation and Linguistic Competence:
The Case of AAVE Copula Absence

Emily M. Bender, 2001

Ph.D. thesis, Stanford University


This thesis explores the implications for competence theories of syntax of the data on variation found by sociolinguists working in the Labovian tradition, through a case study of variable copula absence in African American Vernacular English (AAVE).

A distributional analysis of the categorical constraints on AAVE copula absence shows that it is indeed a syntactic, rather than phonological variable, contra Labov (1969, 1995). Further, its analysis requires a phonologically empty element, even the surface-oriented framework of Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar (HPSG) (Pollard and Sag 1994).

AAVE copula absence is also subject to well-studied and robust non-categorical grammatical constraints. Previous formal approaches to such non-categorical constraints on variation treat non-categorical grammatical constraints as separate from whatever social constraints might also apply. Building on the idea that variation is socially meaningful (Labov 1963, Eckert 2000), I propose that, on the contrary, social and grammatical constraints interact: social constraints are conceptualized as the social meaning of a variable, and grammatical constraints as the intensifying or attenuating effect of the grammatical environment on the social meaning or social value of the variable. This hypothesis is tested and substantiated by a matched-guise experiment, focusing on the effect of the following grammatical environment.

Three types of linguistic knowledge seem to be involved in the judgments the participants gave in the experimental task: knowledge of social meaning attached to linguistic forms, direct knowledge of a grammatical structure that is computable from more basic signs already in the grammar, and knowledge of the frequentistic, non-categorical grammatical constraints on variation. Traditional conceptions of linguistic competence place all three of these types of knowledge outside the grammar proper. However, I argue that that distinction is not based on empirical evidence and should be subject to reevaluation. Further, I suggest that sign-based grammars are uniquely suited as models for exploring possible extensions of linguistic competence and that sociolinguistic variation, the social value of variables and the non-categorical grammatical constraints that apply to them provide an interesting locus for the study of the boundaries of linguistic competence.

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Emily M. Bender (bender at csli dot stanford dot edu)
Last modified: Fri Oct 13 12:41:35 2000