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A06 Disentangling cross-linguistic and language-specific aspects of register variation

Overall question

This project aims at better understanding how register knowledge relates to grammatical aspects of linguistic knowledge. It does so by specifically taking a comparative viewpoint and addressing aspects of the universal and language-specific nature of register variation. We will test our hypotheses by directly comparing three typologically different languages (Persian, German, Yucatec Maya) with widely different register distinctions through the parallel application of the same methods.

Languages greatly vary in register diversity. Some languages (Persian) show more salient differences between registers than others (German), in spite of both being used orally as well as in written form. Still other languages (Yucatec Maya) are mainly used for oral communication with only incipient written use.

Research goals

First, we will investigate cross-linguistic vs. language-specific properties of register (Research goal 1), tackling the question of which aspects of syntactic variation are cross-linguistically associated with register and which aspects are language-specific.

Second, we will concentrate on the impact of differences in register diversity and normative aspects on cross-linguistic similarities and differences in register variation (Research goal 2). Third, in order to disentangle language-specific and cross-linguistic components of register variation, we will focus on syntactic phenomena related to the encoding of information structure that are likely to be register sensitive (Research goal 3).

The phenomena to be considered for these three research goals include (a) word order operations reducing syntactic compactness, such as right- and left-dislocations and (b) the choice of referential expressions as pronominal or null. More specifically, we will investigate i) whether there is a cross-linguistic association of structural devices that reduce syntactic compactness. We will compare informal spontaneous speech to formal speech and written language, where we expect existing word order variation to be more clearly restricted to positions within clausal boundaries. We will investigate ii) to what extent variability in the use of referential expressions differs by register within and across languages.

Fourth, since cross-linguistic studies on register variation are still rare, we will develop methods for the parallel investigation of register variation across languages involving both language production and perception (Research goal 4). At first, we will build a Lang*Reg corpus based on guided naturalistic (spontaneous) language production in different situations. In a second step, production data will be complemented with perception data collected through a gradient judgement study and a situative classification task on the association of syntactic variants with specific situative contexts.

Project leaders

Elisabeth Verhoeven, Institut für deutsche Sprache und Linguistik (IdSL) der HU Berlin
Aria Adli, Romanisches Seminar der Universität zu Köln


Nico Lehmann
Vahid Mortezapour
David Müller


Nico Lehmann