Meet a Researcher - linguist Alex D'Arcy


Associate Dean Research Margaret Cameron talks to Department of Linguistics professor Alex D’Arcy, the 2018 Research Excellence Award winner for the Faculty of Humanities.

Congratulations on your award! This is a true honour, and you join the ranks of illustrious past recipients, all of whom have made wonderful contributions to research. In the 13 years since you completed your PhD at the University of Toronto, what do you consider to be the highlight of your research career?

There are so many highlights, but I have to go with Jeopardy here. I mean, that’s not one that you ever put on your wish list: “One day I hope that my work will be a question in the double jeopardy category…” And yet here we are. Eight-hundred years of ‘like’ was the basis of a Jeopardy question. It’s pretty surreal.

Your current SSHRC-funded Insight project examines how and when children begin to participate in ongoing language change. What is your hypothesis, and what do you anticipate discovering?

Kids Talk is predicated on the very basic observation that children, not adults, are the movers and shakers of language change. But, everything we think we know about how that happens is based on post-hoc evidence. Nobody has ever watched it happen—until now! So my students and I are starting with a big list of questions: Is change logistic? What is the starting place? Is it the same across genders? Do changes start at the same time across genders? Do they advance at the same rate, along the same linguistic pathways? etc. One thing is emerging quite clearly: Kids don’t start with the community vectors for changing features. Parents are tuning their performances to the developing gender identities of their children, so they’re shifting the language model in the direction of change that matches that. This is exciting stuff, because the models in the literature assume a community baseline that caregivers pass on to their kids. The truth is turning out to be much more nuanced than that. I’m seriously stoked.

Working with graduate students is essential to your research. What sorts of skills do your students acquire while working in a Sociolinguistics Research Laboratory (SLRL)? How can these skills be translated into a non-academic context?

The SLRL is a collaborative space. At any given time there are undergrads through post-docs in there, including visiting research students, co-op students, and interns. I do one-on-one training but there’s also a lot of peer mentorship going on. So the most important skill is working in a team environment, with people from a range of backgrounds and experiences. But they are getting digital literacy as they move across various software platforms, from spreadsheets to transcription to concordancing to analysis. Believe me, being able to write down what speakers are saying is a highly valuable and transferable skill! But seriously, they’re keeping track of a lot of information, so alongside field work expertise, linguistic analysis skills, protocol implementation and upkeep, etc., they’re getting insight into project management. This will help them conduct their own research. We also deal with ethical issues on regular basis, and it’s never too early to develop ethical consciousness. This is a real life issue, because every piece of data that the students touch is someone’s lived experience.

You always seem to be looking towards the next project, full of ideas for the future. Can you give us a hint of where your next project will take you?

I have to limit this to one project? There are lots of little ones in the works, but there are two big things on the horizon. The first involves a synthesis of my work that tracks language variation and change longitudinally, into the past. You can’t have language change without language variation (i.e. two or more forms competing to express the same meaning), and one eventually “wins out” in some sense. This means that my field is a branch of historical linguistics, yet much of the work draws on evidence from current speakers. I think that when we do this, we run the risk of losing sight of the roots and causation of change, because even variation that is stable now implies a change at some point in the past. So if we mistakenly identify current linguistic events as new events, because we aren’t also looking backwards, it necessarily impacts our theoretical and empirical interpretations. This is my next book project. The second one plays with the idea that linguistic choices are in some sense “culturally specific acts” as well as “cognitively specific acts”. If a speaker has variable options to choose from, how do their choices impact how they are perceived (because meaning is both social and linguistic), and how do the social and linguistic contexts of that choice impact perception? I’m developing this work in collaboration with a colleague at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa, Katie Drager, who’s an expert in experimental models. And of course we’re playing with my favourite feature for that work: like! Just when you think you’re done with a thing, a new question sucks you right back in…