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Review of  The future of dialects

Reviewer: Marco Caria
Book Title: The future of dialects
Book Author: Marie-Hélène Côté Remco Knooihuizen John Nerbonne
Publisher: Language Science Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): Breton
German, Swiss
Issue Number: 28.4378

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REVIEWS EDITOR: Helen Aristar-Dry


The conference Methods in Dialectology XV held on 11-15 August 2014 in Groningen, the Netherlands as the fifteenth in the series started in 1972, consisted of the presentation of 140 single-papers. For the first time the organizers included a poster session consisting of fourteen posters, two of which were awarded with prizes for young scholars funded by the Alliance for Digital Humanities Organizations.

In “The future of dialects: Selected papers from Methods in Dialectology XV”, edited by Marie-Hélène Côté, Remco Knooihuizen and John Nerbonne, the main topic focuses on the methodology dealing with the dialects of different linguistic areas and the papers include studies on several idioms going from the “immigration languages” in Canada to some variants of Japanese.

The book consists of three main sections: “The future”, “Methods” and “Japanese Dialectology”. In the first section, as the title proposes, the articles deal with the problematic of the dialects and their future. It is widely acknowledged that traditional dialects are suffering from an increasing loss of prestige against the standard languages, especially in Europe, due to the massive predominance of the standard languages in education and communication media. Starting from this perspective Naomi Nagy describes in her paper “Heritage languages as new dialects” the situation of the heritage languages (Faetar, Cantonese, Italian, Korean, Russian and Ukrainian) imported to Canada by immigrants and eroded or influenced by Canadian English or Canadian French and in which way these heritage languages can be identified as new dialects of their original standard counterparts. Nagy also insists on the necessity to integrate methods of contact linguistics. Anne-Sophie Ghyselen analyses in her contribution “From diglossia to diaglossia: a West Flemish case study” the phenomenon of diglossia and diaglossia in Ypres, West Flanders. The results of her surveys show that both dialect and standard language are used as a means of daily communication in the area, respectively for informal/regional and formal/supraregional situations. The intermediate variety of speech between dialect and standard idiom, the Tussentaal, appears to be too heterogeneous and unstable to be considered as an autonomous variant. In “The future of Catalan dialects’ syntax: A case study for a methodological contribution” Ares Llop Naya uses the micro-comparative syntax method in order to obtain fine-grained data related to the negative constructions in Catalan. In particular, he combines existing studies on Catalan with dialect literature, speaker recordings and even folk-linguists and he focuses on the negation particle “cap” (head) and its use in Pallarese Catalan (a Northwestern Pyrenean Catalan dialect, very conservative and in contact with Aranese Gascon, Aragonese and French) to show clearly that innovation in variation research consists also of a multi-methodological linguistic approach.

In the second section the contributions study the dialects from the point of view of the Dialectometry and the necessary new approaches to this branch of the Dialectology. Simon Pickl writes in “Fuzzy dialect areas and prototype theory: Discovering latent patterns in geolinguistic variation” that for decades dialect areas, or rather regional distribution of dialect analogies, have been considered as one of the favourite means of presentation of the dialectological research about the influence of geography on varieties of speech, even if it was widely evident that such cladistic techniques could not always represent the real dialect relationships, since the dialect continua were to be found in the data,, and the borders of these dialectal zones were often too dim. A good solution suggested by the scholar consists of avoiding some dialectometric methods such as clustering in favour of considering dialect areas as fuzzy and trying to reconstruct the varieties through the well-known theory of Isoglosses and the technique of factor analysis. It will result that if dialect varieties can be seen as fuzzy categories, they cannot consequently have sharply defined boundaries but show several features directly correlated to the many overlapping cultural and linguistic co-occurrences and variants. In the second contribution entitled “On the problem of field worker Isoglosses” Andrea Mathussek analyses the technique of field worker isoglosses (FWI) with special reference to their presence in the Sprachatlas vom Mittelfranken. The author writes that the field workers were conscious of the risks of possible idiosyncrasies in transcription originating in the individual habits of the researchers; they attempted to eschew them by comparing, co-transcribing and meeting to discuss on their works. Using the web application Gabmap which has been conceived to highlight dialect variations, the author demonstrates how the differences owed to FWI were present even after a high level of efforts to avoid them.

Simonetta Montemagni and Martijn Wieling focus their research “Tracking linguistic features underlying lexical variation patterns: A case study on Tuscan dialects” on lexical dialectology and on the use of graph theory to show the characteristics of Tuscan dialects. The innovation introduced to the traditional dialectometry consists of regarding as characteristic only those features which meet both the conditions of how representative and how distinctive the studied features are. Guylaine Brun-Trigaud, Tanguy Solliec and Jean Le Dû follow in their paper “A new dialectometric approach applied to the Breton language” an innovative dialectrometical approach pertaining the Breton language and basing their research on data from the Nouvel Atlas Linguistique de la Basse-Bretagne Le Dû (2001). In particular, the authors report the results obtained resorting to the Levensthein algorithm which is applied to measure and to record statistically the dissimilarities and the resemblances between different ways of pronouncing a word. The target of the authors is to determine whether the cause of linguistic distance resides in the repetition of the same linguistic circumstance or whether it is the result of a series of manifold transformations. A really interesting point of view on another dialectometrical technique is given by Jelke Bloem, Martijn Wieling and John Nerbonne in “Automatically identifying characteristic features of non-native English accents”, who measure quantitatively the level of characterisation of a speech trait to automatically identify the distinctive features of non-native English accents.

In “Mapping the perception of linguistic form: Dialectometry with perceptual data” Tyler Kendall and Valerie Fridland deal with the dialectometrical methods, particularly the geo-statistical techniques, by proposing them as effective tools for perceptual phonetics tasks: the aim of their research is in fact not only to understand the regional differences in vowel perception in the USA from a statistical point of view, but also to strengthen the validity of the collaboration between dialectometry and sociolinguistics. In his contribution “Horizontal and vertical variation in Swiss German morphosyntax” Philipp Stoeckle deals with the German spoken in Switzerland. Even if he doesn’t identify his work as purely dialectometrical, he uses the Delaunay-Voronoi techniques to obtain an index of variation based on the aggregation of over 57 items. The author focuses on the syntactic variation and he measures the occurrences of a given variant also on a geographical scale to determine the eventual degree of dominance.

In their second co-written contribution “Infrequent forms: Noise or not?” Simonetta Montemagni and Martijn Wieling investigate how effective the simplification of dialectometrical data through the removal of infrequent forms is. They use hierarchical bipartite spectral graph partitioning to highlight variations in a large corpus of Tuscan dialects applying a double analysis: the first one includes the variants used at least by the 0,5% of the informants and the second one which includes all the given variants in the data. The final result of their research is that using all data allows them to establish a geographical characterisation more aligned to a linguistic basis than by using curtailed data.

Christoph Wolk & Benedikt Szmrecsany describe in “Top-down and bottom-up advances in corpus-based dialectometry” their use of three different dialectometrical approaches applied to morphosyntactic variation in the Freiburg Corpus of English Dialects. The first two approaches are “top-down”: one of them uses a pure frequency-based analysis and the other investigates the probabilistic variants. The third approach is “bottom-up” and it avoids pre-built lists and uses a permutation-based metric deriving directly from the analysis of the data. In “Imitating closely related varieties” Lea Schäfer, Stephanie Leser and Michael Cysouw investigate the mechanisms involved in the phenomenon of imitation of closely related languages, offering interesting overviews on the role of perceptual dialectology, psycholinguistics and the study of the evolution itself of a language.

In “Spontaneous dubbing as a tool for eliciting linguistic data: The case of second person plural inflections in Andalusian Spanish” Victor Lara Bermejo tries to analyse in an innovative way the sociolinguistic evolution of a Peninsular Spanish phenomenon whose most recent research dates back to the 1930’s: the use of a single pronoun used to address a group of people. In “Dialect levelling and changes in semiotic space” Ivana Škevin deals with the levelling of a dialect in correlation with the concept of semiotic and sociolinguistic space. The loss of many romance words in the Dalmatian dialect of Betina, Croatia, is not due to the influence of standard Croatian but to the lesser importance of these words in the daily life of the speakers. This alteration in the semiotic space has the same result as that occurring in case of dialect levelling: the loss of the peculiarities of a dialect.

In “Code-switching in the Anglophone community in Japan” Keiko Hirano investigates the use of the Japanese lexicon in native English-speaking teachers of English in Japan and the phenomenon of code-switching Japanese-English. The research shows how the use of Japanese words increases proportionally to the duration of the period the teacher has lived in Japan and that it is correlated to the social network built by each native speaker of English with other native speakers of the same language. Both the last two papers of this section deal with the technique of ultrasound tongue imaging applied to dialectology. In “Tongue trajectories in North American English /æ/ tensing” Christopher Carignan, Jeff Mielke & Robin Dodsworth draw their attention to the /æ/ variant in North American English, comparing its phonetic realisation before different consonants and in different variants. The results show different degrees of vowel-consonant coarticulation of /æ/ in the North American dialects, but the authors also take the opportunity to emphasise how attractive the ultrasound tongue imaging technique can be.

In “s-retraction in Italian-Tyrolean bilingual speakers: A preliminary investigation using the ultrasound tongue imaging technique” Lorenzo Spreafico use the same technique to investigate the realisation of /s/ in South-Tyrol, Italy. He highlights how the articulation of this consonant is opposed to the apical one of Italian, particularly in /sV/ vs. /sCV/ in Italian and Tyrolean words pronounced by Italian-mother tongues, Tyrolean-mother tongues and bilinguals in different contexts, suggesting that the articulation of /s/ is influenced by the contact with Italian. The author concludes his article expressing the necessity of more studies to clarify the sociophonetic significance of the results he has attained with his research.

In the last section the papers deal with Japanese dialectology. In “Developing the Linguistic Atlas of Japan Database and advancing analysis of geographical distributions of dialects” Yasuo Kumagai gives details on the ongoing development of the Linguistic Atlas of Japanese Database (LAJ) and on the digitalisation of the materials collected for it from 1966 to 1974. Kumagai emphasizes that some of this material, when updated, offers the possibility to investigate the geographical distributions of standard forms or the degrees of similarity among localities and the consequent emerging network representation of these phenomena. In the following two papers “Tracing real and apparent time language changes by comparing linguistic maps” and “Timespan comparison of dialectal distributions” the authors, respectively Chitsuko Fukushima and Takuichiro Onishi, discuss and use the longitudinal data deriving from a comparison between the material contained in the LAJ and recent linguistic surveys. Fukushima makes use of four surveys proposed in different periods to trace the language changes which occurred in the Niigata area from a diachronic perspective. The superimposition of the maps obtained from the surveys gives isoglosses that show completed language changes and changes still in progress. Onishi makes use of two surveys to investigate the theory of waves for linguistic changes. The author analyses a period covering 50 years of geolinguistic data for the same area, obtaining as a result the fact that language changes are neither continual nor gradual, but almost immediate, and not only from the centre to the periphery of an area, but also inversely. However, these changes do not occur easily because dialect is a way of communication for people, and dialect changes could obviously impede or aggravate the communication itself.

In the conclusive article “Tonal variation in Kagoshima Japanese and factors of language change” Ichiro Ota, Hitoshi Nikaido and Akira Utsugi discuss the tonal variation in Kagoshima Japanese (KJ) by analysing the phonological and social factors that may invest the language changes. KJ shows relevant differences from Standard Japanese (SJ), especially in the use of accented and unaccented words. The authors point out the fact that change patterns toward accented/unaccented, respectively indicated as “de-dialectization” and “de-standardization”, are strictly connected to different social meanings and influenced by the role of the mass media.


“The Future of Dialects” is an innovative book for all the dialectologists who want to use dialectometry for their research. It gives important advice on how dialectometrical techniques are to be used in analysing linguistic data already disposable, but it also points out the necessity to apply new methods for the collection of new materials. For all these reasons the papers contained in the volume should be read not only for their intrinsic value, but also as a guide in conducting studies of variationist linguistics, covering the matters of areal, social and historical changes in dialects.
I am a PhD of the University of Sassari, Italy. My research fields deal with the linguistic minorities in Italy, especially those of German origin. With my PhD dissertation I have analyzed the situation of Kanaltal/Val Canale, a small valley of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, where Italian, Friulian, German and Slovenian dialects still coexist. I hope I will be given the possibility to continue this research, also focusing on the similar situation in South-Tyrol.