James Stanford, Assistant Professor of Linguistics
& Cognitive Science
Dartmouth College

Variation in Indigenous Minority Languages: Theoretical Impact and Research Challenges

When: Wednesday, 11/28/12, 4:30pm
Where: Science Center 183

Indigenous minority languages have provided crucial insights in many areas of linguistics, including phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, typology, anthropological linguistics, and other areas. Likewise, the discourse of language endangerment highlights the importance of describing, documenting, and revitalizing such languages (e.g., Krauss 1992; Grenoble & Whaley 1998; Harrison 2007 inter alia). Unfortunately, however, indigenous minority languages remain underrepresented in variationist sociolinguistics, i.e., in the research paradigm of language variation and change exemplified by the work of William Labov. Many of the classic principles of language variation and change tend to be primarily based on data from majority languages or well-known minorities (e.g., Labov 1994, 2001). Yet recent studies suggest that underrepresented indigenous minority languages have the potential to play a valuable role in variationist sociolinguistics (Stanford & Preston 2009). This talk is based on fieldwork results from the author's research on Sui, Zhuang, and Hmong, as well as other variationist sociolinguists' work in other less commonly studied communities. The results show how indigenous minority languages provide new insights about language variation and change with respect to gender, social stratification, transmission and diffusion, communities of practice, age, dialectcontact, dialectometry, child dialect acquisition, and less commonly studied sociolinguistic variables (lexical tone).

I'm interested in language variation in less commonly studied minority communities, so I'm involved in linguistic field research of the Sui people in China and other underrepresented groups like Hmong communities in the United States. Before graduate school I lived in mainland China for about 7 years where, among other eye-opening experiences, I learned Chinese and Sui, a Tai-Kadai minority language of Guizhou Province. Returning to the U.S. for graduate school, I received my Ph.D. in Linguistics in 2007 from Michigan State University through the University Distinguished Fellowship program. Along with my sociolinguistic training, I also have a Bachelor of Science in Physics. As a result, I enjoy studying both the social, "human" side of language use as well as quantitative analysis of linguistic variables.