Kie Zuraw of UCLA will be giving a job talk titled “Polarized Variation” (abstract below) in the Linguistics department on Friday, 20 February at 3:30 pm in ILC N400. All are welcome to attend.
The normal distribution–the bell curve–is common in all kinds of data, and is often expected when the quantity being measured results from multiple independent factors. The distribution of phonologically varying words, however, is sharply non-normal in the cases examined in this talk (from English, French, Hungarian,Tagalog, and Samoan). Instead of most words’ showing some medial rate of variation (say, 50% of a word’s tokens are regular and 50% irregular), with smaller numbers of words having extreme behavior, words cluster at the extremes of behavior–that is, a histogram of exceptionality rates is shaped like a U (or sometimes J) rather than a bell. The U shape cannot be accounted for by positing a binary distinction with some amount of noise over tokens, because some items (though the minority) clearly are variable, even speaker-internally. In some cases (e.g., French “aspirated” words) there is a diachronic explanation: sound change caused some words to become exceptional, so that the starting point for today’s situation was already U-shaped. But in other cases, such an explanation is not available, and items seem to be attracted towards extreme behavior.
Two mechanisms for deriving U-shaped distributions will be presented, with some speculation as to why some distributions of variation are U-shaped and others bell-shaped.