Viewing dialect change through acceptability judgments: A case study in Shetland dialect

E Jamieson

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Acceptability judgments are the standard methodology for investigating syntactic variation. While acceptability judgments have been shown to be reliable in cases of assumed stable variation, there has been little discussion of how syntactic change plays out in judgment tasks. This is despite evidence from sociolinguistics that at the end of a change, speakers’ behaviour in production is “unpredictable”. How does this “unpredictability” play out in judgment tasks, where speakers are asked to perform metalinguistic assessments on their use of a changing variable? In this paper, I present the results of acceptability judgment tasks focusing on a particle, –n, available in some biased questions in the Shetland dialect of Scots. This variety has been claimed to be rapidly obsolescing (e.g. Smith & Durham 2011). Combining quantitative analysis of acceptability judgments with qualitative comments made by the speakers, I argue young speakers exhibit perceptual hyperdialectalism in their judgments: extending acceptability of the variable to contexts where older speakers don’t accept it; giving higher ratings than expected given their qualitative comments when the variable is being lost, and generally rating examples which could be perceived as “dialectal” higher. I argue these patterns arise from Preston’s (2013) definition of linguistic insecurity: younger speakers are aware their grammar diverges from a more “traditional” grammar, but the traditional grammar is an important identity marker. These speakers therefore attempt to demonstrate knowledge of an older grammar – but their knowledge is not accurate. These patterns highlight the importance of combining quantitative and qualitative analysis in dialect syntax.
Original languageEnglish
Article number19
Number of pages28
JournalGlossa: A Journal of General Linguistics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2 Mar 2020


  • dialect syntax
  • acceptability judgments
  • linguistic insecurity
  • hyperdialectalism
  • Scots


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