Linguistics 001      Fall 2015     Final Project     Due Mo 12/07

The assignment

In plain language: explain something about how a piece of talk (or text) works.

More exactly: analyze the communicative effects of some aspects of one or more linguistic performances, attending to at least two different levels of linguistic analysis.

"Analyze" means "explain on the basis of specific examples and general principles."

"Communicative effects" means "the (likely) effects on a real or hypothetical interlocutor or listener." This can be construed very broadly: the interpretation of the literal meaning; the perception of dialect; the relationship to social stereotypes or cultural norms; the generation of an emotional response; the control of turn-taking; or many other things.

"(Some aspects of) one or more linguistic performances" means (in the simplest case) a recording of a conversation, speech, reading or monologue. You can also compare two such recordings, or look at properties of a large set of such recordings (though this last may be too ambitious for a project of this size, unless you have some programming skills and knowledge of how to apply them to linguistic datasets). Songs are permitted -- but your analysis should be primarily linguistic, not musical. In principle, you can start with a written text (such as a transcript) rather than a recording, but a recording is better. You might also use a set of written texts for background analysis, with a more detailed analysis of a specific passage you look at in spoken form. (Note that "performance" doesn't mean "acting", it is just being used as a term to cover everything from ordinary conversation to a formal political speech.)

"Attending to at last two different levels of linguistic analysis" means that you should discuss two or more of the standard levels of linguistic analysis: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics. The two levels might be connected to a single communicative effect, for example if you looked at the use of pitch range and sentence structure in quoted dialogue; or the relationship of pronunciation and lexical choice to dialect perception; or the rhetorical use of timing and parallelism. However, you can also consider several linguistic aspects of a passage with respect to several different kinds of effect.

All in all, this is a very loose requirement. The main constraints are: deal with (at least one) specific spoken passage, and look in detail at the relations between linguistic form and communicative effect. There should be some sort of overall point: it's not enough (for example) to break a passage down into morphemes and also show its syntactic structure.

Homework assignments throughout the semester will be designed to lead you through some of the first stages of your project, as well as giving you skills that you will need to do the analyses. In particular, we will make many suitable audio passages available, as well as giving you some practice in creating and analyzing your own.

Q and A

Q: When is the project due?

A: On Monday December 14.

Q: How should I submit the project?

A: Normally, by email to Mark Liberman. If you send an attached file, be sure that its name is something like "YourNameLING001FinalProject", not "Project".

Q: Can we do joint projects?

A: No, everyone should hand in an individual project report. However, you should feel free to join others in analyzing different aspects of the same material -- this will allow you to share some of the work, and (more important) to discuss your individual project with others who are both informed and interested.

Q: Can you give some examples of plausible projects?

A: Your material might come from political rhetoric, advertisements, stand-up comedy, TV or movies, poetry readings, recordings of patients with speech or language disorders, Supreme Court oral arguments, or your own family's oral history. You might aim to analyze why a particular piece of speech is especially effective -- or especially annoying -- for a specific audience; or you might try to explain the nature of a particular kind of accent or a particular way of talking.

Some interesting past projects:

  • A comparison of Al Gore's pitch range and speaking rate variation to those of other national politicians.
  • The relationship between Cantonese tone and the melody of popular music.
  • Hindi-English code switching in conversation.
  • The rhetoric and phonetics of Jon Stewart's double-takes.
  • Beat alignment in different styles of hip-hop.
  • Linguistic clues in U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments to justice's eventual votes.

If your project is primarily text-based, your analysis might rely on web searches for particular constructions or word usage patterns, applied to the analysis of a specific document.

During the term, many possible projects will be mentioned in lectures and recitations. In addition, you'll meet individually with your TA and/or the instructor to discuss the design of your project.

Q: Does the linguistic performance have to be in English?

A: No. But it needs to be in some language that the instructor or one of the TAs knows well, or else the analysis needs to be compelling and very clearly explained.

Q: What should I actually hand in as my final project report?

A: We recommend an ordinary printed document, though you might choose to create a multimedia document (say in html). In the latter case, it will probably be easier for us if you can put it on line (e.g. in However, we would like to emphasize that your grade will mainly depend on the content of the project. An insightful analysis, cogently but plainly presented, will impress us more than a relatively content-free multimedia showcase. This is not to discourage you from enhancing your analysis with a creative presentation. In particular, if your analysis focuses on aspects of the sound, then we should have access to the sound in digital form.

Q: How long should my project report be?

A: The short (though not very helpful) answer is "long enough to make your point." Keep in mind that this project counts for 20% of your grade.

Q: How should I approach the project?

A: There will be several preliminary assignments to help you with this. The first preliminary assignment (due 11/09) will specify your selection of material and give a short but clear statement of the main point of the analysis. In the second preliminary assignment, due 11/25, you'll develop your linguistic analysis and interpretation, whose details you'll work out with your TA.

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