Past Honours topics in Linguistics

Below are the abstracts of a selection of Honours thesis by past students.

Rosemary Billington, Linguistics Honours Prize winner 2008

Location, location, location!: Regional characteristics and national patterns of change in the vowels of Melbourne adolescents.

Recent evidence has suggested that the phonetic characteristics of Australian English vowels are changing, but investigations into Australian English vowel shifting have primarily involved data from New South Wales. Early accounts held that Australian English was remarkably uniform, but in light of recent evidence of regional vowel variation, this necessitates further exploration. The present study widens the scope of investigation into vowel shifting and variation by providing comparable data from Melbourne.

Recordings were made of productions of the 18 vowels of Australian English by male and female adolescents from Melbourne. Frequency values were extracted for the first and second formants, and compared with recent data from Sydney and Adelaide, as well as 1960s New South Wales data, to investigate three hypotheses: 1) regional differences will be present in the vowels of different Australian states, 2) vowel innovation is likely to exist for Melbourne adolescents, but will interact with regional vowel characteristics, and 3) gender differences will be present in the degree to which Melbourne males and females orient to innovation or regional affiliation in their vowel realisations.
The results indicate that there are clearly identifiable regional characteristics present in the vowels of different Australian states. These obscure general observations of the vowel shift in Melbourne, but some clear indications of vowel innovation are present. Females display more supralocal, potentially innovative features, while males display more pronounced regional characteristics. This study contributes to the ongoing exploration of the proposed Australian vowel shift and its dissemination in different regional centres.

Rebekah Bennets,  (Linguistics & German) Linguistics Honours Prize winner 2008

A linguistic analysis of personal correspondence between members of North American Mennonite communities in the late nineteenth century

Although a great deal has been written about the Pennsylvania German language and the tenaciously diglossic situation in the sectarian groups who speak this language, writing within these communities has largely been ignored. No analysis exists of the linguistic situation before the twentieth century, and no study has been conducted on the language used in personal communication. Consequently, little is known about the roles of German and English in writing at this time or the structure of the German used.

In this study, 157 letters from members of Mennonite communities in North America in the late nineteenth century were analysed in order to answer three questions: what was the role of English in the Mennonite communities in the late nineteenth century; what did written German look like in personal communication at this time; and what can this data tell us about Pennsylvania German at this time and the role of English in recent changes.

It was found that although the majority of correspondence was in German, there was evidence that the use and knowledge of English was much more widespread than previously thought. The language of writing showed significant differences to both High German and Pennsylvania German, representing a separate variety. Finally, a number of features present in contemporary Pennsylvania German were found to be non-existent or in earlier stages of development at the time of this data, suggesting the recency of these changes; the role of English in these changes could not be determined from this data.

Edwina Hilton-Thorp, Honours 2008

Seeking Inorganic Effects of Maternal Cocaine Use on Child Language Development: Maternal Speech Style

There have been numerous studies conducted on the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure on child language development. A child that has been prenatally exposed to cocaine may be affected neurologically and thus have biological reasons for impaired language development. However, maternal cocaine use can also adversely affect social functions in the mother, such as stimulation of and attentiveness and sensitivity towards the child. Besides impairing social functioning, cocaine use is correlated with psychological characteristics including depression and anxiety, which could consequently affect parenting style. Previous research has examined various direct effects of prenatal cocaine exposure in a biological sense, and indirect effects relating to the quality of mother-child interactions, maternal psychosocial characteristics and other environmental factors. The current study focuses on the possible effects of cocaine use on maternal interactive style which may be associated with delays in child language development. The child-directed language of 66 mothers (44 cocaine users and 22 non-cocaine users) is analysed and categorised into maternal speech styles using data from dyadic play sessions made available through the CHILDES database. Results of the analysis reveal few statistically significant differences between the cocaine-using and non-cocaine using mothers in this study. Limitations of the study and directions for future research are discussed.

Naomi Ferguson, Honours 2008

Americanisation of Australian English: Attitudes, Perceptions and Usage


This study investigated the attitudes, perceptions and usage of Americanisms in Australian English by ninety-three first year linguistics undergraduate students at Monash University. The results indicated that the attitudes of the majority of young people are not showing a greater tolerance towards language change and Americanisation. Most students clearly believed that the incorporation of American elements into Australian English is detrimental to the language. In general, it seemed that people are more aware of spelling conventions than other linguistic features. Spelling was more likely to be perceived as American. There was no clear indications that if participants identified a linguistic feature as American that they were more likely to avoid using it. However, using an item did seem to affect how people perceived it. When American English items were used they were viewed as less American than participants who did not use it. Participants often reported using multiple terms as synonyms or to convey different meanings when presented with a group of terms to choice from. Usage suggests that Americanisms are adding to the lexicon and diversifying Australian English rather than overrunning it.

Meredith Scheffer, Honours 2008

Aspects of Literacy Practices in Primary School Children

The purpose of this research was to explore the attitudes primary school children and their parents have towards reading as a leisure activity, and identify the kinds of literacy practices that are shared within families, such as preferred places or times for leisure reading. Research questions driving this study sought to find out if boys are less inclined to take part in reading activities in their leisure time compared with girls, or if they maintain a more negative outlook on the role of reading than girls do. The research questions also set out to explore the relationships reading practices at home have with those at school. Children from Grades 1-6 at a Victorian primary school were invited to take part in a short recorded interview session based upon a set of questions relating to their literacy habits and choices at home and in the classroom. The parents of the child participant were also provided with a short personal questionnaire to fill out, featuring questions similar those in the child interview, relating to reading materials provided in the home and the kinds of reading activities that are done there. The parent and child reveal differing – and similar – perspectives on the role of reading and the ways they engage with materials that they enjoy.

Thorsten Schmidt, Honours 2007

The LingTool application: An interface for the production of interlinear morphemic glosses in XML

Across the languages of the world, morphological processes follow different patterns in order to yield complex words. While sequential arrangements of separate morphemes are the norm, less prevalent morphological operations like reduplication involve complex, non-concatenative word formation processes. In linguistic literature it is common practice to represent the results of morphological analysis by means of interlinear morphemic glosses (IMG).

The thesis will introduce the LingTool application which supports linguists in their attempt to create well-structured language documents. The interface follows the best practice recommendations as advocated in the standard literature and converts the idiosyncratic output of a specialised, widely used program for the production of IMG representations into a multipurpose format. The resulting document complies with the formal requirements of the linguistic community and represents a suitable language record for preservation and dissemination.

In the thesis different morphological processes are described and corresponding IMG representations are exemplified and discussed. Further the role of IMG texts in the basic format of documentary linguistics is highlighted. When IMG representations complement language documentation they should be coded in a sustainable format that allows for portability and reusability. LingTool provides an interface which facilitates the production of linguistic documents that conform to these important demands for archiving and diffusion.

Jessica Cleary-Kemp, Linguistics Honours Prize winner 2006

Givenness, definiteness, and specificity in a language without articles:
The use of NP markers in Saliba, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea

Across the languages of the world, the functions of reference tracking, specificity marking, and definiteness marking are commonly fulfilled by articles. In languages without articles, these functions necessarily fall to other parts of the grammar, including demonstratives and other NP markers. This thesis examines the use of three NP markers, newa, and hesau(na), in Saliba, an Oceanic language of Papua New Guinea. These elements have previously been described as marking ‘specific’, ‘given’, and ‘specific-indefinite’ NPs respectively. The current study closely examines the categories of givenness, definiteness, and specificity, focusing on pragmatic and semantic correlates, such as referential distance, identifiability, and pragmatic importance. These features are shown to account for the distribution of NP markers in a corpus of narrative and non-narrative Saliba texts.

Melanie Burns, Honours in Linguistics 2006

Expletives, abusive swearing, euphemism and dysphemism: An examination of taboo language and its functions in Australian television

Cultural notions of taboo often lead to sanctions on the type of language used to describe such topics. The language used to refer to taboo topics may be euphemistic (evasive and indirect) or dysphemistic (including forms of offensive language). This thesis explores the representation and uses of euphemism and dysphemism in popular Australian-produced television shows. The specific language analysed includes four functional types of taboo utterances – expletives, abusive swearing, euphemisms denoting a taboo referent, and dysphemisms denoting a taboo referent. The latter two categories are limited to direct references to sexuality, bodily processes, and bodily functions. Episodes of the television programs NeighboursMcLeod’s Daughters, All SaintsThe WedgeThe GlasshouseComedy Inc. – The Late Shift,and The Chaser’s War on Everything are analysed, for a total of 12 hours of comedy and 12 hours of drama. Instances of taboo speech are coded according to their context, speaker, addressee, and purpose, with language analysis focusing on both the function of such utterances and the specific lexicogrammatical forms. Major findings include gender differences in offensive language use, with male characters using both euphemism and dysphemism more frequently than female characters, and differences in the specific functions of taboo language between the comedy and drama genres and between differently rated programs. These findings are discussed in relation to previous research into taboo language and media studies.