Christina Tortora, Professor of Linguistics at the College of Staten Island, was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Fellowship for her project entitled, “A Syntactically Annotated Corpus of Appalachian English.”
Tortora describes the highly labor-intensive project as “building an extremely large tool for linguists.” She has been collaborating with Michael Montgomery, Professor Emeritus at the University of South Carolina, who has been collecting recordings of Appalachian speech from East Tennessee State University, Appalachian State University, Alice Lloyd College, and many other colleges in Appalachia.
“The goal,” said Tortora, “is to provide linguists with a tool that they can use to do research, which will further our understanding of language variation and change.” As Professor Montgomery collects the recordings, many from people who were born before the Civil War, Tortora has been digitizing them; then, using a text-to-speech alignment system engineered at the University of Pennsylvania, she is aligning the digitized speech with the transcripts of the recordings. Using a program called “PRAAT,” which helps perfect the transcripts, she is thus creating a perfect textual replica of the digitized speech; the purpose is so researchers can study the phonetics of Appalachian speech by typing a search into a database and being able to instantly hear what it sounds like.
The database itself will be extensive, with well over a million words of transcribed recordings of Appalachian speech, which will also be syntactically annotated. “The process of syntactic annotation–also known as “parsing,”–gives syntactic structure to the text, so that researchers can search not just for words, but for syntactic structures of any type. The idea is to give researchers access to the linguistic significance of the recordings,” said Tortora.
Understanding the structure of Appalachian English is “very important to our understanding of the development and history of the English language,” said Tortora. “This understanding will then put us in a better position to develop more sophisticated theories of language structure, linguistic variation, and language change.”
Dr. Tortora has been studying syntax for nearly 20 years and spent the better part of the 1990s doing fieldwork on Borgomanerese, a dialect spoken in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy. She has taught both at the University of Padova (Italy) and the University of Michigan, and has given many lectures and talks, both nationally and internationally.
The National Endowment for the Humanities is a government-run grant-funding agency dedicated to supporting research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities.