My research interests lie at the intersection of two core attributes of human language: (1) its inherent variability and (2) its social nature. The first of these refers to the fact that no two utterances are exactly alike, and also that we have many ways of linguistically formulating similar thoughts and communicating comparable messages. The second attribute arises naturally from the fact that people use language in specific temporal, physical, and social contexts.

Most of my research has focused on variation in the linguistic behavior of Spanish speakers in the United States. In the context of working with this community, I (along with collaborators) have examined numerous variable phenomena in pursuit of answers to a range of questions. Among the findings that have emerged from my research are the following: (a) lenition of Spanish syllable-final /s/ is best viewed as a phenomenon with both categorical and gradient properties (Erker 2010 and 2012, please see my curriculum vitae  for full citation information), (b) patterns of morphosyntactic variation in Spanish are sensitive to lexical frequency effects (Erker and Guy 2012), (c) children gradually acquire sensitivity to linguistic factors that condition morphosyntactic variation (Shin and Erker 2015), (d) the intergenerational outcomes of language and dialectal contact among Spanish-speaking residents of New York City include (i) structural convergence , (ii) dialectal leveling , and (iii) intergenerational stability  in variable linguistic behavior (Erker and Otheguy 2016; Erker, Ho-Fernández, Otheguy, and Shin 2017), and (e) in situations of linguistic contact, the intergenerational trajectory of patterned linguistic variation is modulated by the varying social salience of specific linguistic features (Erker 2017a). Outside the domain of variation in Spanish, my research has also challenged conventional wisdom on the phenomenon of hiatus resolution in American English (Davidson and Erker 2014). At present, my primary research agenda is the creation of a sociolinguistic profile of the Spanish-speaking community in the Greater Boston Area.

The Spanish in Boston Project – My research team and I are developing a large-scale  corpus of spoken Spanish,  collected in the greater Boston area and to be analyzed within the context of  variationist sociolinguistics (and made publicly available to language scholars). This research, which is funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS-1423840),  examines a range of variable linguistic phenomena in order to assess the possibility that language and dialect contact are promoting the emergence of a Boston Spanish speech community. At present, the research team has interviewed 192 Bostonians with origins in one of 21 Latin American nations.

Here are some  links to local press regarding the project: An interview on WGBH’s Under The Radar. A written piece in WBGH’s local news section. An article about the project in BU’s online daily newspaper BU Today. And an article in the Boston Globe. I also gave a TEDx talk that summarizes some of the study’s findings.

Downloadable Publications (pre-publication drafts):

Shin, Naomi and Daniel Erker. (2018). Questioning  Theoretical Primitives in Linguistics Inquiry – Papers in honor of Ricardo Otheguy.

Across the world, professional linguistic inquiry is in full bloom, largely as result of pioneering thinkers who helped rapidly modernize the study of human language in the last century. As the field continues to move forward, further solidifying its position as a conduit of insight into the human condition, it is essential to take stock of the theoretical primitives that have given linguistics its intellectual foundation. This volume does precisely that, inspecting the load-bearing components of the edifice upon which contemporary linguistics has been constructed. The volume’s authors – whose expertise spans the Generativist, Functionalist, and Variationist research traditions – remind us of the need to revisit the conceptual bedrock of the field, clarifying and assessing our primary theoretical moves, including those relating to such elemental components as the ‘linguistic sign’, ‘a language’, ‘structural relations’, ‘grammatical category’, ‘acquisition’, ‘bilingual’, ‘competence’, and ‘sociolinguistic variable’.

Link to publisher’s page for entire volume.

Erker, Daniel. (2018). Sociolinguistic approaches to dialectal, sociolectal, and idiolectal variation in the Hispanophone world.

All of us are many things at once. In a single person we may encounter a mother, a daughter, a lawyer, an African American, a Christian, a liberal, a Latina, and a New Yorker. In another individual, we may find a fisherman, a grandfather, a retiree, an atheist, a Cuban, a painter, etc. The goal of this chapter is to highlight the ways in which the many dimensions of individual human identity have served to illuminate language use within the Hispanophone world.

Erker, Daniel. (2018). Spanish dialectal contact in the United States.

Spanish speakers of varying regional and national origin routinely interact linguistically in the United States. Spanish dialectal contact  results from this interaction, and it is the focus of the current chapter, which aims to accomplish three goals: (1) to identify several challenges that scholars face when studying dialectal contact, (2) to survey a selection of studies that demonstrate how this topic can be carefully and effectively examined, and (3) to articulate generalizations about Spanish dialectal contact within the framework of contemporary sociolinguistic theory. The next section highlights a number of obstacles to gaining insight into the linguistic outcomes of Spanish dialectal contact. Then a range of studies is presented that examine the linguistic behaviors of particular groups of Spanish speakers in specifi c locales of the United States. These studies share a methodological focus on sociolinguistic variables, or linguistic features whose expression is constrained by social and linguistic factors and which, in a U.S. context, function as barometers of intergenerational maintenance or change.

Erker, Daniel (2017). Contact, Co-Variation, and Sociolinguistic Salience: What Mr. Rogers Knows about Language Change.

This study asks whether and how the features that define a language variety co-vary within the communities and speakers said to be representative of it. Of particular interest is the relationship between multiple variable in a setting known to promote contact-induced language change. The central idea that emerges here is that less salient linguistic variables are more likely to co-vary, that is, to be uniformly influenced by the contact setting, than are variables of higher salience. This claim is supported by an analysis of five variables in the speech of four Spanish-speaking adults, two of whom have lived their entire lives in the contact setting and two who are recent arrivals to it. The variables are (1) filled pauses, (2) the presence vs. absence of subject pronouns, (3) subject pronoun position (i.e., pre- vs. post-verbal), (4) general subject position (the pre- or post-verbal position of non-pronominal subjects, e.g. lexical NPs, clauses, etc.), and (5) coda /s/ weakening, examined in terms of rates of deletion as well two acoustic parameters. It is only with respect to the last of these features, which is highly salient sociolinguistically, that strong regionally delineated continuity in the Spanish of the U.S. born speakers is clearly observed. The four lower salience features have shifted in parallel, increasing in similarity to the use of analogous features in English. These results indicate that in a setting characterized by language contact, the fate of socio-linguistic variables is mediated by salience. Low salience features are more susceptible to the influence of the contact setting and are more likely to be uniformly reshaped by it. High salience features, in contrast, are differentiated by speakers’ greater awareness of their social signaling potential and are more likely to unfold along autonomous and individuated trajectories.

Erker, Daniel and Joanna Bruso. 2o17. Uh, bueno, em… Filled pauses as a site of contact-induced change in Boston Spanish.

There is mounting evidence that the filled pauses that pervade spontaneous speech constitute a rich site of linguistic inquiry. The present study uses a comparative variationist method to explore possible effects of language contact on pause behavior, examining 3810 filled pauses produced by 24 Spanish-speaking residents of Boston, Massachusetts. Interspeaker differences in pause behavior correlate with intensity of contact. Participants who have lived in the United States for a larger fraction of their lives, who use English more frequently, and who do so more proficiently fill pauses differently when speaking Spanish than do those who have spent less time in the contact setting and whose English skills and usage are more restricted. Results show that a greater degree of contact corresponds to increased use of centralized vowels in phonologically filled pauses (i.e., more frequent use of [a(m)] and [ə(m)] at the expense of [e(m)]). This pattern is interpreted as evidence of contact-induced change.

Erker, Daniel. 2017.  The limits of named language varieties and the role of social salience in dialectal contact: The case of Spanish in the United States.

Studying dialectal contact offers linguists an opportunity to critically examine some of our most basic assumptions about language. In particular, careful consideration of geographically constrained patterns of linguistic variation highlights the limitations of named language varieties as tools for linguistic inquiry. Ultimately, the locus of contact is not to be found in the interaction of such abstractions, but rather in the individual minds of those who live in contact communities. The present paper highlights these issues through a discussion of Spanish dialectal contact in the U.S., with a special emphasis on the variable social salience of regionally differentiated features. Work reviewed here is consistent with previous research that finds the relative salience of features to be a key determinant of their trajectory in situations of contact. Change in the use of high salience features is likely to be the result of direct accommodation between speakers, while change in low salience features is likely to arise by other, indirect mechanisms. The role of salience in shaping the outcomes of contact reinforces its inherently social nature, reminding us that what we hope to understand are not the results of dialects in contact, but rather, those of people in contact.

Erker, Daniel and Ricardo Otheguy. 2o16. Contact and Coherence: Dialectal leveling and structural convergence in NYC Spanish.

The sustained and intense interaction of massive groups of English and Spanish speakers in the U.S. has the potential to deepen our understanding of continuity and innovation in linguistic systems under heavy contact. The current study focuses on Spanish as it is spoken in the largest urban center of the United States: New York City. It examines a range of variable phenomena in the most extensive collection of Spanish in New York to date: the Otheguy Zentella Corpus of Spanish in NYC (OZC). The data represent original research by the first author as well as the efforts of several other scholars who have examined aspects of the OZC in detail. When synthesized, results reveal two broad patterns in the Spanish of long-time NYC residents: diminished regional differentiation and structural convergence with English. These trends emerge across numerous levels of linguistic structure, manifesting in patterns of syntactic, morphological, and phonological variation.

The coherence of these phenomena is consistent with the view that contact-induced change is tightly constrained, both socially and structurally, and that it is unlikely to manifest as haphazard bricolage. This is because, while the intensity of linguistic innovations and the time required for their onset and implementation may vary from feature to feature, such changes derive ultimately from a single source; namely, the set of linguistic and social factors that characterize the contact situation. As such, we can expect contact-induced changes to be restricted and of a kind, imbued with the character of the whole to which they belong.

Naomi Lapidus Shin and Daniel Erker. 2015. The emergence of structured variability in morphosyntax: Childhood acquisition of Spanish subject pronouns.

Adults’ variable use of grammatical structures is highly systematic (e.g. Labov 1994). Yet, we know very little about how or when the variable use of morphosyntactic structures develops during childhood. The current study begins to address this lacuna in the literature by investigating overt versus null subject pronoun expression (e.g. yo bailo ~ bailo) in child Spanish. Over 2,500 finite verbs were extracted from sociolinguistic interviews conducted with 24 monolingual Spanish-speaking children in Oaxaca, Mexico, ages six to eight years old (mean age 7). The children’s rate of pronoun expression was only nine percent, which suggests that the overproduction of null subjects during nullsubject first language acquisition persists into school age. Despite their infrequent use of pronouns, the children’s behavior nonetheless demonstrates a) systematic patterns of variation, and b) evidence of an emerging adult-like system. We demonstrate this through multivariate analysis of six factors routinely shown to constrain pronoun use among adults: Person/number of the verb, Switch-reference, TMA, Semantic class of the verb, Clause type, and Reflexivity. Results indicate that the children in the current study are sensitive to the factors that are the strongest predictors of adult pronoun expression. Taken together, these results – both the low rate of pronoun use and sensitivity restricted to only the most robust conditioning factors – reflect a conservative learning pattern, whereby children introduce new forms into their discourse in a constrained fashion. Additionally, the study suggests that the acquisition of adult-like patterns of morphosyntactic variation proceeds in a predictable sequence: the stronger the pattern among adults, the earlier it emerges in children.

Lisa Davidson and Daniel Erker. 2014. Hiatus resolution in American English: the case against glide insertion.

Discussions of hiatus resolution in English are generally limited to analyses of the phonological oddity of /ɹ/-insertion after certain vowels in some dialects (e.g., McCarthy 1993, McMahon 2000, Uffman 2007). These and other works have assumed that hiatus in all other environments is resolved through glide insertion. Despite some suspicions that “linking glides” in hiatus may be fundamentally different from lexical glides (Heselwood 2006, Cruttenden 2008), there are no systematic acoustic investigations of glide insertion. Moreover, studies of glottal stop distribution in English indicate that there are some environments in which glottal stop surfaces between sequential vowels (e.g, Pierrehumbert and Talkin 1992, Dilley et al. 1996). The goal of this study is to go beyond impressionistic analysis to examine: (1) whether there is acoustic evidence for glide insertion as a hiatus resolution process in English, and (2) what role glottal stop insertion plays.

Daniel Erker and Gregory R. Guy. 2012. The role of lexical frequency in syntactic variability: Variable subject personal pronoun expression in Spanish. 

Much recent work argues that lexical frequency plays a central explanatory role in linguistic theory, but the status, predicted effects, and methodological treatment of frequency are controversial, especially so in the less-investigated area of syntactic variation. This paper addresses these issues in a case study of lexical frequency effects on variable subject personal pronoun use in Spanish.

Daniel Erker. 2012. Of categories and continua: Relating discrete and gradient properties of sociophonetic variation.

Sociophonetic variation is typically examined from either a categorical or a continuous perspective, but usually not both in the same analysis. Thus variable realizations of coda /-t,d/ and /r/ in English are typically treated discretely in terms of the phonetic presence or absence of these phonological units, i.e. in terms of t/d-deletion (Guy 1980, Labov et al.1968) or r-lessness (Labov 1966). Similarly, variability in the realization of Spanish coda /-s/ is often described in terms of three discrete values, [s], [h], or [Ø] (Bybee 2010, Cedergren 1973, Lipski 1985). Vowels, however, have been extensively studied from a continuous perspective that examines differences in gradient acoustic parameters such as  formant  values  (Labov  1994) or duration (Scobbie et al. 1999). While some variability in consonant production has been explored from a continuous perspective (Foulkes et al. 2006) and several studies of vowel production utilize discrete classifications (Watt & Milroy 1999), it remains rare to find discrete and continuous methods of analysis applied to the same phenomenon in the same study

 Daniel Erker. 2010. A subsegmental approach to coda /s/ weakening in Dominican Spanish. 

Analyses of the variable weakening of coda /s/ in Spanish have largely relied on a categorical conception of variability. While categorical descriptions have proven to be useful heuristics, they have nevertheless tended to obscure important facts about phonological variation and the factors that probabilistically condition it. A growing body of research on sociophonetic variation offers evidence that correlations between linguistic forms and social factors can be manifested in fine-grained subsegmental aspects of speech. The current study conducts a subsegmental analysis of coda /s/ in the speech of five Dominican women. Instrumental analysis of 625 tokens: (1) demonstrates that a strictly segmental description groups together tokens that are significantly di¤erent from one another acoustically; (2) offers an instrumentally-based, alternative description of coda /s/ tokens in terms of two continuous, acoustic measures, duration and center of gravity; and (3) argues that a subsegmental approach is better at describing the variation present in speech, and also better exploiting the explanatory power of several linguistic factors known to condition the phenomenon. As a result, the present analysis o¤ers a more accurate picture of the Spanish of Dominicans in New York, and provides a model for greater descriptive and explanatory adequacy in the study of Spanish in general.