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Sali A.Tagliamonte, language detective

Killam Research Fellowships at U of T

Professor Sali Tagliamonte conducting research in Almonte (photo courtesy of Professor Tagliamonte)

Linguistics researchers tend to notice details others miss, from from the ever growing popularity of words such as "right" or "so" and demise of words such as “shall” and “doth” – to the way young people use extra lettersss when texxting. 

When reporters notice a shift in language they call on Professor Sali Tagliamonte, a leading expert in the field. Tagliamonte is one of three U of T faculty to receive a Killam Research Fellowship this year from the Canada Council for the Arts.

U of T faculty are receiving half of this year's fellowships, which provide researchers with $70,000 each year for two years to support their work. U of T has received 121 Killam Research Fellowships since the program was established in 1965  to honour eminent Canadian scholars and scientists engaged in research projects of outstanding merit in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, health sciences, engineering and interdisciplinary studies within these fields.

Tagliamonte joins chemistry professor Mark Lautens who is developing more effective and environmentally sound pharmaceuticals, and mathematician Jeremy Quastel, whose work attempts to crack the code of mathematical formulas.

U of T News asked Tagliamonte to describe her work and its significance for society.

Tell us about your research.  

I am a sociolinguist, but I could also be called a “language detective.” My research focuses on how language varies and how it changes. My focus is on subtle variations in language, pronunciations, vocabulary, expressions, structures and processes.

The really cool thing about this type of research is that it enables me to see how a highly complex evolving human system works and in turn how the human mind works. Also, because ongoing changes in language reflect social, cultural and other human factors I can also discover what is going on in the communities where people use language — network, neighbourhood, city, or country.

What kind of impact could this research have for society?  

1) Language varies and changes. Recognizing trends and cycles in language use engages the general public in awareness of dialect differences, of innovations and of general changes in the way people talk. My research offers an interpretation of those differences and helps people to understand them.
2) Language has social meaning.  People are labeled and judged by the way they talk. A simple sound difference — a ‘d’ for a ‘t’ can cause deep-seated psychological and social problems. My research can counteract the negative views such differences engender about the people who use certain types of language and even people’s own beliefs about their own language.
3) The Internet. Everyone wonders if the media has an influence on language. My research has demonstrated that teenagers use fewer short forms, acronyms and emoticons (smiley faces, etc) than expected. Moreover, Internet language exhibits a unique blend of written and spoken norms and the evolution of new registers of written language. Instead of aberrant, it is creative and responsive and rich with ideas.

Many findings arising from my research have impact for society. Commonly held assumptions about how young people speak are often refuted: for example, the use of discourse like by teenagers is systematic, rule governed and has roots in the history of the language (e.g. it can be found in elderly speakers in the UK). A person’s age can be easily identified in his/her use of intensifying adverbs. In the early 21st century if you are over 40, you will tend to use 'very' as an intensifier of adjectives, e.g. I’m very happy, but if you are under 40, you mainly use 'really.' The use of grammatical features, e.g. have for possession, e.g. I’ve got a cat, gradually changes into an alternative construction, 'I have a cat' and no one notices.

A famous shibboleth of Canadian identity, 'eh,' is becoming an older person’s feature in urban centres, giving way to 'right,' but in outlying communities it is retained. While these phenomena may seem trivial individually their linguistic patterns tap larger societal patterns and cultural developments. They give us insight into what is driving changes in society. In the Canadian context for example they can answer questions such as: Are Canadians becoming more or less like Americans? Are the varieties of English spoken by different ethnic groups in Canada becoming more similar or more different? How are these changes spreading into the outlying areas of Canada?

The evidence from my research can also be used to tap social cohesion, discover communication networks or identify a predator. Many aspects of human behavior are exposed in the patterns and nuances of language. The cumulating results of these studies will tell us how Canadian society is evolving.

What drew you to this field – and to this particular focus?

The roots of my interest in language are deep in childhood experiences. My grandparents lived in a small town in Southern Ontario. It was a farming hamlet in one of the oldest settled areas of Ontario, Canada, called Maple Station. They owned the general store, gas station and post office. The store was always filled with locals – farmers mostly, many of them members of the first families that immigrated to Canada from the British Isles. When I visited as a child, I would race to the store every time someone came in, trailing behind the adults to eavesdrop on their conversations. In the evenings, my great aunts and uncles would visit. Coming from farming stock, the families were huge. My grandfather had eight brothers and sisters and my grandmother had nine. There were people around all the time. They often talked long into the evening, playing euchre or crib. I can still hear the lilting cadence of those voices in my mind. At the time, I listened and marveled at how different they sounded.

Through my school days I discovered I was naturally good at English grammar. It is a weird skill to have – talk about being a nerd! I can remember my grade four teacher asking me for my opinion about the grammaticality of certain constructions. As a teenager I wrote poetry voraciously, won several contests, even one at the national level and had my work published in many different places. When I went to university I dreamed of becoming one of Canada’s leading poets. Because I thought my interest in language was an interest in English literature I majored in creative writing and English. But that was a big mistake! Although my creative work excelled, I failed miserably in the literary scene. Quite by accident I took a course in dialectology and ended up doing a major paper on — guess what? — the dialect spoken in the small Ontario town where my grandparents lived. I reveled in the dialect's words and constructions, the strange sounds and expressions and most especially the order and explanation that came from my newfound skills. I was hooked. I decided to change my major to linguistics. My English professors told me I would be “maimed for life,” but I didn’t care. I went back and took Introduction to Linguistics and I have not looked back since.


Why U of T?

I have always wanted to be at U of T. After all, U of T is Canada’s premiere university, the epitome of my intellectual aspirations. I applied for my PhD, but that year the PhD program was suspended so I went to another University instead. When I graduated in the early 1990s there were no jobs in Canada. I ended up in England, in a small but illustrious University in Yorkshire (York), one of the top universities in the U.K. and serendipitously the optimal place for a newly graduated sociolinguist.

My sojourn in the U.K. left a defining imprint on me both personally and professionally. The British sociolinguistic scene was a mind-blowing experience. My myopic North American-centric perspective shifted gears. Many of the non-standard language features reported as innovations in Canada and the U.S. circles, were alive and well among the people I met on the street and encountered in the pubs and hiked with in the peaks and dales. My own perfectly respectable middle-class Canadian accent— to my mortification — transmuted into an ill-regarded American drawl.  My children started sounding incrementally more and more foreign. The idea that shepherds in Yorkshire counted their sheep in an ancient Celtic tongue was a source of amazement. In sum, I had embarked on the experience of a lifetime. There I was, a neophyte sociolinguist specializing in language variation and change in English, living on the very ley-lines where it all began. 

As it happens, I am an early riser so I would go to work early in the morning. It was dark and damp but the cheery cleaning ladies were my cherished companions. They taught me how to pronounce British words properly, such as “Scarborough” and “Barbican” and railed me with stories about their lives and children. Listening to these raconteurs, I first conceived of the idea to create a data repository from the York speech community, which became the York English Corpus collected in 1997. By 1998 my students began to collect data from their home towns all over the British Isles. By 2000, I was uncovering the roots of English in the counties that had contributed settlers to North America, northern England, Ireland and Southwest Scotland. 

But I am a Canadian at heart and always dreamed of coming back to Canada. When the Linguistics Department at U of T announced a post in Sociolinguistics in the autumn of 2000, I could hardly contain my excitement. I loved my job, my colleagues and my research in the U.K. and I had just been made Senior Lecturer at York, but I could not resist the opportunity to be at U of T and back in Canada. I submitted my application and I was over-joyed when I was offered the job. I came to U of T in August 2001.

In the closing lines of my latest book, in which I synthesize my research on northern British dialects, I say “there is another north country in my dreaming.” I am referring to Ontario where I have been conducting fieldwork and doing research for the past 12 years. I have come full circle, now back to my own roots, the Killam Fellowship I have just been awarded will enable me to synthesize this research in a book called The Roots of Canadian English.

As a faculty member at U of T I am blessed with a university that champions research. One of its many pluses is its academic community, both departmentally and across the university. Linguistics is a broad discipline, but my department encourages a spirit of interface and connection in our mutual quest to understand the intricacies of human language. The Linguistics Review Panel (our secret name for monthy faculty get-togethers in the Faculty Club Pub) is a source of commiseration and camaraderie. The Athletics Centre where I work out and socialize is a great leveler of people, bringing people together across disciplines and walks of life— faculty, administrators retirees and students. At my college (Trinity), I go to Evensong, High Table or late afternoon tea and I never know whom I may meet up with or what new insights will be shared. In committees I participate and learn how the university works and notice the shakers and movers. Sometimes really important decisions get made and I feel proud to be a part of it.

U of T is an expansive and complex institution — some say it is like Canada, with big provinces like Ontario and small places like Prince Edward Island. But this means there is always something new to discover.


What advice would you give to a student just starting out in this field?

In my research and my teaching, in my fieldwork in small communities far away and with outreach activities in Toronto, I am always keen to inspire wonder and interest in language. Because language is all around us the fodder for a “linguistic detective” is everywhere. It is always possible to make a connection between my research and a person’s experience. 

With students, my goal is to reveal what is there to be seen (i.e. what you know that you don’t know you know), and to give them the tools (i.e. methodology) to make sense of it (i.e. analysis), and to understand it (i.e. interpretation). Then, they can soar. My advice: always be attentive to what is around you because it might turn out to be the source of rich discovery. When you find something you love to do, stick with it. Put yourself in a position to receive. Find people whose work inspires you and learn as much as you can from them.

Of course you can never quite anticipate is how difficult academic research is. You must work hard. But embrace the opportunities to have fun in the process! Finally, listen to your curiosity and let it guide you.