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English 4720: Language Variation in American English
Dr. Lisa Minnick

English 4720 meets T/Th 10-12:50 p.m. in 3037 Brown
Office hours: Wednesdays 3-5 p.m. and by appointment in 923 Sprau

Navigation links for Spring 2010 syllabus:


Course description

From the catalog: English 4720 is study of regional and social varieties of American English from sociolinguistic perspectives, focusing on the forces that influence different types of language variation. Examines issues of linguistic bias and offers a multi-cultural perspective on the role of language in daily life.

Learning objectives

In this course, we will discuss the theories and practices of language variation research, particularly as applied to American English. In doing so, we will consider approaches to the study of language variation, with attention to key figures, studies, and methodologies. We will discuss the functions and effects of dialectal variation, and how factors such as geography, ethnicity, gender, social status and other extralinguistic variables interact with language and contribute to variation. We will also explore how popular perceptions and attitudes contribute to the differential valuation of American English varieties and the effects of these valuations. Finally, students will learn the skills and practices of linguistic research and language description and apply these skills to original linguistic research projects.

Students who complete the course successfully will acquire the following:

Required texts
Finegan and Rickford, Language in the U.S.A. (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and $10 fee card.

Midterm exam 20%
Final exam 20%
Collaborative project 20%
Working-group activities 15%
Quizzes 10%
Homework 10%
Attendance and participation 05%

In order to participate in online discussions and complete certain electronic assignments, all students will need to join our class Facebook group: English 4720, Spring 2010.

Exams: The midterm and final exams will include phonetic transcriptions, articulatory descriptions, identifications and terminology, and questions covering lecture, discussion, and readings.

Collaborative project: Working in small groups, students will design and conduct an original language-variation study, gathering and analyzing linguistic data. Each group will present its results in a 6-8 page research paper, in journal-article format. We will discuss and work on this project extensively in class as you generate ideas, consult scholarly literature, carry out your research, and analyze your results. This project is an opportunity for you to apply the material you learn in class in a hands-on, experiential way.

Working-group activities: Each student will be part of a working group for class activities and the collaborative project. Working-group activities are experiential activities for applying the theories and methods you’re learning in class.

Homework assignments engage the skills and knowledge you will need for the course, as well as make it possible to explore topics beyond our classroom readings and discussions and to collaborate and exchange ideas in creative ways.

Quizzes: In this course, you will learn the International Phonetic Alphabet and other linguistic description skills and terms. Quizzes are opportunities to apply this knowledge as part of your preparation for the advanced instruction in English linguistics that occurs in ENGL 4720.

Course policies

Attendance and participation: I think Language Variation in English is fun and interesting, but it is also demanding, requiring a solid set of skills and base of knowledge that you will have to master early on, so active participation is a must. This means you need to be present every day to the extent that it is humanly possible. Readings, discussions, and activities complement each other, so you’ll need to be in class in order to participate in all components of the course. If you must miss class, my policy is to permit three “free” absences. By “free,” I mean no questions asked and that I do not differentiate between excused and unexcused absences. I also mean that’s all you get. Exceptions can only be made in cases of serious illness (such as those requiring hospitalization) and other documentable emergencies. If you miss additional class meetings, there may be a substantial deduction in your course grade. Five or more absences may result in a course grade of E. It is each student’s responsibility to stay on top of all course material and assignments and get the notes from a classmate following an absence. Missed classes cannot be made up in office hours or at any other time. Leaving at the break counts as an absence.

Being late to class and leaving earlyshould be kept to a minimum. If you’re late, you risk missing important course content which may be over by the time you get there, and it can be distracting to other students and the instructor. The same goes for leaving early. If you are late, please stay after class to make sure you have been marked present. Habitual lateness will result in a reduction of your attendance and participation score and hence your course grade.

Late work is generally frowned upon in college and elsewhere, and this class is no exception. Arrangements must be made in advance (and you’ll need a documentable explanation). Unexplained late work (or excuses after the fact) will not be accepted and a grade of zero will be assessed.

Makeups: Quizzes and in-class assignments and activities cannot be made up if missed because of lateness or absence. Makeups on major assignments, such as exams or papers, must be arranged with me in advance of due dates in order to avoid penalties, and you will have to make a pretty strong case in order to be granted an extension.

Classroom etiquette: You are encouraged to read and think critically and of course not required to agree with everything you read or hear in this class. In my experience, learning works best when an open dialogue is encouraged. All thoughtful contributions are welcome; I ask only that everyone be respectful during class discussions. The goal is for our classroom to be a safe place to flex your intellectual muscles, where everyone feels comfortable generating, expressing, and challenging ideas. Your help in reaching this goal is essential. Also, please familiarize yourself with the Western Michigan University Student Code, linked here:

Students who are not willing or able to abide by the code and respect the rights of everyone to a comfortable teaching and learning environment will be asked to leave.

Other etiquette issues: Sleeping, eating, grooming, reading non-course materials, doing homework, having conversations, using any kind of electronic communications device, and other such activities are discouraged because of their disruptive and impolite nature, and also because they impede full participation. Your active participation is part of your course grade, of course, but also, nothing interesting will happen in class without your input. That is, the class will be as interesting as you make it.

No recording of any kind – audio, video, photographic, or otherwise – is permitted in this class without the informed consent of all students and the instructor. Everyone in this class has a right not to have their voices and/or likenesses recorded without their knowledge and permission, including the instructor. We will use voice recording equipment in our work for English 4720, but surreptitious recording (i.e. recording any individual without his or her knowledge) is unethical and therefore not allowed, either in our linguistic research or in any other form or context.

Learning the discipline of linguistics is a cumulative process. Gaps in your knowledge early on can cause problems later. Let me know as soon as you can if you feel like you’re getting behind. My job is to help you learn this stuff, so by all means take advantage of this resource by coming to office hours, talking with me after class or during the break, or making an appointment to meet.

Grading criteria for all assignments:

A = 4 for excellent work (not 'good' or 'above average'); work of the highest quality.
BA = 3.5
B = 3
CB = 2.5
C = 2
DC = 1.5
D = 1
E = .5 for work that does not meet minimum standards; 0 for work not turned in.

Graded assignments and exams will generally be returned within one to two weeks. At any time during the semester, you are welcome and encouraged to stop by during office hours (or make an appointment, if you are not free during office hours) to discuss your progress in the course.

University Policies

Religious Observances Policy: The University is a diverse, multicultural enterprise and, as a community, we jointly embrace both individual responsibility and dignified respect for our differences. It is WMU’s general policy to permit students to fulfill obligations set aside by their faith. It is the University’s intent that students who must be absent from scheduled classes to fulfill religious obligations or observe practices associated with their faith not be disadvantaged. However, it is the student’s responsibility to make arrangements with his/her instructors in advance. It is in the student’s best interests to approach each instructor expeditiously and with sufficient notice so that the rights and responsibilities of the instructor are not disrupted. I ask to be informed early in the semester if you must miss class for religious reasons.

Students with disabilities should contact Ms. Beth Denhartigh at 387-2116 or beth (dot) denhartigh (at) wmich (dot) edu so that any physical, learning, vision, hearing, or other disability can be documented and accommodations arranged. Please note that a determination must be made by Ms. Denhartigh’s office before accommodations can be made.

Academic honesty: All work you turn in for this class must be your own, with all outside reference sources properly cited and acknowledged. Plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration, any kind of falsification or forgery, computer misuse, multiple submission, complicity, and any other type of academic dishonesty on any exams or work assigned for this course, will not be tolerated in any form. All students are required to read and comply fully with the policies and definitions outlined in the Western Michigan University statement on academic integrity, linked here:

If there is reason to believe any student has been involved in academic dishonesty, he or she will be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. The student will be given the opportunity to review the charge(s) and have the opportunity for a hearing. Please consult with me if you are in doubt about how to cite a source in your paper, whether a source is appropriate, whether a citation is needed, if you are not sure what level of help on an assignment constitutes complicity or collusion, or with any other academic integrity questions. As I am also required to uphold the standards of academic integrity, my policy is zero tolerance for any type of deception, and I do not want for any of you to find out the hard way how seriously I take this.

Schedule of Reading and Major Writing Assignments

Everyone is encouraged to refer frequently to our Facebook Group page and our class updates page for news, announcements, and schedule changes. These things happen. Lectures and discussions will not be recapitulations of readings, so please come to class each Tuesday having read the week’s assignments unless otherwise noted.

Week 1: Introduction to course; what is language variation?
Jan 12-14

Tuesday, Jan 12

  • Introduction to course.
  • What is language variation?
  • Approaches to the study of language variation.

Thursday, Jan 14: Come to class having read Foreword to Language in the USA.

  • What every 4720 student needs to know about linguistics.
  • The language of linguistics.

Week 2: Introduction to linguistics and the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Jan 19-21

Tuesday, Jan 19: Come to class having read Algeo and Pyles, "The Sounds of Current English."

Thursday, Jan 21: Continue to work through Algeo and Pyles, "The Sounds of Current English."

Week 3: What is American English? History and diversity of the English language in the United States.

Jan 26-28

Tuesday, Jan 26: Continue to work through Algeo and Pyles.

  • Fun with IPA: Learning phonetic transcription.
  • Understanding articulatory descriptions.

Thursday, Jan 28: Come to class having read USA Ch. 1, “American English: Its Origins and History.”

  • Continue work on IPA and articulatory phonetics.
  • The history and diversity of American English.
  • Completed working-group activity #1 (linguistic profile) due.

Week 4: Regional variation and the Northern Cities Shift. IPA homework due Tuesday; quiz Thursday
Feb 02-04

Tuesday, Feb 02: Come to class having read USA Ch. 3: “Regional Dialects” and online readings on the Northern Cities Shift.

  • Language variation and dialect geography.
  • The Northern Cities Shift.
  • IPA homework due at class time.

Thursday, Feb 04: Continue to work through online readings on the Northern Cities Shift.

  • IPA quiz (beginning of class).
  • The Northern Cities Shift.
  • Begin work on Working-group Activity #2: The Northern Cities Shift (time permitting).

Week 5: Working-group activity #2: The Northern Cities Shift.

Feb 09-11

Tuesday, Feb 09: Working group activity #2: Eliciting, documenting, and analyzing the NCS.

Thursday, Feb 11: Working group activity #2 (complete): Field reports due at the end of class.

Week 6: Social variation, language attitudes, and perceptual dialectology.

Feb 16-18

Tuesday, Feb 16: USA Ch. 4: “Social Varieties of American English.”

  • Social and ethnic variation.
  • Independent variables and how they interact with language.

Thursday, Feb 18: USA Ch. 26: “Language Attitudes to Speech.”

Week 7: Language variation in the African American community.
Feb 23-25

Tuesday, Feb 23: USA Ch. 5: “African American English.”

  • African American English, features and history.
  • The linguistic and cultural significance of AAE.

Thursday, Feb 25: Lippi-Green,“The Real Trouble with Black English,” and USA Ch. 16: “Ebonics and Its Controversy.”

Week 8: Spring break!
Mar 02-04

Week 9: Language variation in the African American community (continued). Midterm exam.

March 09-11

Tuesday, Mar 09: Complete discussion of AAE. Review for midterm exam.
Thursday, Mar 11: Midterm exam.

Week 10:
Stylistic variation.
March 16-18

Tuesday, March 16: Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, “Dialects and Style.”

  • Intraspeaker variation.
  • Stylistic variation in theory and practice.

Thursday, March 18: Continue to work through Wolfram and Schilling-Estes, “Dialects and Style.”

Monday, March 22 is the last day to withdraw from class
(not that you’d want to).

Week 11: Language, gender, and sexuality.

Mar 23-25

Tuesday, March 23: USA Ch. 22: “Language, Gender, and Sexuality” and Cameron, "Performing Gender Identity."

Thursday, March 25: Kiesling, “Dude,” and Levon, "Hearing 'Gay': Prosody, Interpretation, and the Affective Judgments of Men's Speech."

Week 12: Protocols for empirical research; developing your research question.

Mar 30-April 01

Tuesday, March 30: Handout on ethical research protocols and working-group activity.

Thursday, April 01: Working-group activity.

Week 13: Continue work on collaborative projects.

April 06-08

Tuesday, April 06: Work on collaborative projects.

Thursday, April 08: Conducting original language variation research.

Week 14: Work on collaborative projects.
April 13-15

Tuesday, April 13: Work on collaborative projects.
Thursday, April 15: Work on collaborative projects.

Week 15: Present and discuss collaborative projects
April 20-22

Tuesday, April 20: Project presentations.
Thursday, April 22: Project presentations; review for final exam. Collaborative projects due.

Final exam is Thursday, April 29, 10:15 a.m.-12:15 p.m.

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