School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics

Language Variation and Change

Research Themes

Language variation and change (LVC) includes:

  • variationist sociolinguistics
  • dialect syntax
  • historical/diachronic linguistics
  • grammaticalization
  • corpus analysis
  • linguistic typology

The LVC research group works on diverse issues that relate, broadly speaking, to synchronic language variation and diachronic language change. This includes sociolinguistic variation in English, where we focus in particular on Tyneside, Northumbrian and Irish varieties of English as well as British English ethnolects and standard British English. We study these partly through corpora specially constructed for the quantitative analysis of linguistic variation and change, such as the Diachronic Electronic Corpus of Tyneside English (DECTE) compiled and housed at Newcastle. Our specialisms in this area include: morphosyntactic and discourse-pragmatic variation and change; dialect syntax; and language and dialect contact.

We also work on variation and change in the earlier history of English and in various other languages (the Germanic family more widely, as well as modern Welsh, Irish, Spanish and Bengali), focussing on grammatical phenomena such as word order, negation, and features of clause-linking. In this work, we take a specific interest in the mechanisms by which change is introduced into the language system and diffused through communities of speakers. A further area in our research is cross-linguistic and typological comparison. This involves close investigation of specific grammatical phenomena in various languages, with a view to identifying the precise details of where they differ or are the same, and investigating the wider patterns of linguistic variation and language typology.


Karen Corrigan's current research agenda falls into two main strands:

  • investigating historical and recent changes in both Irish English in Ireland and North Eastern English in the UK, with a particular focus on the impact of language and dialect contact on these varieties; and
  • creating and digitizing spoken and written data from legacy materials as well as from recent sociolinguistic interviews, in a manner which conforms to world standards.

Her research in these two areas has been supported by major grants from external funding bodies for the following projects:

  • A Parametric Approach to Language Contact (The Leverhulme Trust - 1/9/00-1/12/02);
  • A Linguistic Time-Capsule: The Newcastle Electronic Corpus of Tyneside English with Hermann Moisl at Newcastle and Joan Beal at the University of Sheffield (AHRB/C - 1/10/01-30/4/05);
  • The Empire Speaks Back: Northern Irish-English as a Post-Colonial Dialect (AHRC - 22/9/08-21/1/09);
  • A Linguistic "Time-Capsule" for the Google Generation: The Diachronic Electronic Corpus of Tyneside English [] with Isabelle Buchstaller at the University of Leipzig and Hermann Moisl at Newcastle (AHRC - 25/10/10-31/1/12);
  • Múin Béarla do na Leanbháin - 'Teach the Children English' (AHRC - 1/2/14-31/7/15).

Anders Holmberg is involved in two main research projects on the syntax of British English dialects:

  • Variation in word order in the double object construction (with Bill Haddican of CUNY); and
  • Subject-verb agreement systems (with Karen Corrigan at Newcastle and Isa Buchstaller at the University of Leipzig).

He also works on two projects in linguistic typology:

  • The Syntax of Yes and No, funded by a Leverhulme Major Fellowship Oct 2011-Oct 2013. This project is building a typology of the syntax of answers to yes/no-questions among the languages of the world, mainly focusing on: (a) Are yes/no-questions standardly answered by answer particles or by echoing the predicate of the question?, (b) How are negative yes/no-questions answered?
  • In collaboration with researchers at Cambridge, the ERC-funded project Rethinking Comparative Syntax (ReCoS) (directed by Ian Roberts at the University of Cambridge, 2011-2016). This aims to explain the structure and limits of syntactic variation among the languages in terms of hierarchies of parameters.

Heike Pichler specialises in the study of discourse-pragmatic variation and change in synchronic dialect data. Her work on items and constructions such as I dunno, and stuff, innit, whose primary functions are interpersonal and textual rather than referential, is concerned with:

  • developing reliable and replicable methodologies that can capture the full complexity of variation and change in discourse-pragmatics;
  • demonstrating the theoretical insights that can be gained into the structure of synchronic language variation and the interactional mechanisms creating it by subjecting discourse-pragmatic variables to systematic variationist analysis.

She is also interested in British English ethnolects, particularly in how religion and ethnicity affect everyday language use.

Geoff Poole's research focuses primarily on the history of Spanish, with some comparative interests in historical and contemporary varieties of Iberian Romance (e.g. Portuguese, Asturian, Catalan). His work concerns particularly a cartographic approach to the diachrony of the left periphery of the clause as this relates to phenomena such as object pronoun position, interpolation, verb-second and the development of negative polarity items.

Maggie Tallerman is a collaborator on the Syntactic Atlas of Welsh Dialects project, which is run by David Willis at the University of Cambridge and funded by the British Academy:

The project aims to establish the extent of variation in the syntax of present-day Welsh, including age-related variation and variation due to linguistic background, as well as geographical variation. Specifically, its aims are:

  • to establish the distribution of major syntactic variants in Welsh using a systematic methodology
  • to establish patterns of change via age-related variation
  • to examine the effects of language revitalisation on the syntax of Welsh
  • to provide material for further analysis of Welsh syntax in any framework
  • to provide a repository of material available for researchers and the general public interested in any kind of variation within the Welsh language as spoken today

Maggie Tallerman is also interested in the question of how work on grammaticalization in modern languages can inform our knowledge of the evolution of language in our species.

Joel Wallenberg works on empirical studies of language change, focussing on syntactic change in Yiddish, English, and North Germanic. His focus is on how quantitative data from syntactic change can be used to test hypotheses about syntactic theory. By formulating specific, mathematical hypotheses about the patterns found in language change, he aims to contribute to the theory of language variation and change. He also develops and tests hypotheses about syntactic structure, usually in combination with data on language use and syntactic change. This involves investigating: (a) how changes progress and why some changes spread while others never get off the ground; (b) where linguistic variation (especially alternations between categorical variants) is encoded in the human language faculty.

Joel Wallenberg employs mathematical evolutionary theory to understand the patterns of language change. He hopes to ultimately contribute to the theory of how variants spread on the level of individual speakers and populations of speakers.

William van der Wurff's work is mainly in the history of English, with a special focus on syntactic change. Areas of special interest are: word order phenomena, relative clauses, the expression of tense-mood-aspect, negation, and elliptical expressions of various types. In this work, his aim is to reconcile theories of language structure and substance with the historical data by trying to pinpoint specific configurations that seem to be susceptible to change and determining what structural properties they share. Fine-grained empirical work reveals unexpected constraints and regularities in the data for specific constructions in the history of English, often mirroring similar patterns attested in other languages. Hence, he has also addressed possible explanations for these types of findings.

In addition, William van der Wurff works on what look like exceptional, puzzling or cross-linguistically rare patterns (such as past tense imperatives in Dutch or the complex patterns in negative perfects in Bengali), where initial results suggest that explanations in terms of diachronic development shed most light on the facts.