Appalachian English is a group of linguistic varieties, or "dialects", spoken roughly in the central and southern part of the Appalachian Mountain range. These dialects can differ from standard English in a number of ways. For example, with respect to the structural properties of sentences and the words inside them (the 'morpho-syntax'), they allow sentences like "The girls likes pizza", where a third person plural subject occurs with a verb carrying the -s suffix (which is reserved for singular subjects in standard English). In the domain of relative clauses, Appalachian English permits examples like "At first, you wouldn't believe the characters come knocked on my door", in which "who"/"that" are omitted, something that is not possible in standard English. With support from the National Science Foundation, Drs. Judy Bernstein, Marcel den Dikken, Christina Tortora and Raffaella Zanuttini, a team of researchers from four different academic institutions, will combine their expertise in theoretical linguistics and experience in fieldwork and work together to investigate these phenomena with the aim of reaching a deeper understanding of grammatical variation, particularly in the areas of the syntax of subjects and subject-verb agreement.
There are many reasons why it is important to study different linguistic varieties, including those that do not constitute a "standard" language. Linguists view a speaker's knowledge of his or her language as an object of scientific investigation, and model it as a system of interacting principles, valid for all languages, and a number of choice-points relating to these principles on which languages may vary. Thus, from a scientific perspective, a comparative study of the morphological and syntactic properties of varieties of English will provide an opportunity to look at these grammatical systems with a magnifying glass, and to determine where exactly they can vary, and how. This can lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of grammar. From an educational point of view, this project will train young scholars in the analysis and description of lesser-known linguistic varieties, as the research group will include two graduate students and a regional consultant. This training component of the project will thus add to the pool of scholars who are skilled in the documentation of languages.