Dissecting Language

A photo portrait of Sabriya Fisher, Assistant Professor of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences

At the University of Pennsylvania, linguistics students made forays into the field to interview Philadelphia residents for more than 40 years. They recorded a wide swath of unique speech patterns as part of a course the university once offered. “Any aspect of language you want to study now, the data is there,” says Sabriya Fisher, a recent Penn Ph.D. who joined Wellesley’s Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences in the fall.

Fisher has big plans to create a similar, rich data set at Wellesley. It’s early days, but she’s already secured a spot for the College’s first sociolinguistics lab in Clapp Library. She envisions a space where students can convene from across disciplines—anthropology, sociology, psychology, English—to collect and study local voices and stories. The ultimate goal? To create a database of New England speech to inform the next generation of research in language variation and change.

Fisher is fascinated by how language varies from person to person, and even in the same person depending on whom they’re talking to. Most recently, she’s studied the word “ain’t” and its past-tense use, a feature unique to African-American English. She pored through dozens of sociolinguistic interviews and determined African-Americans increased their past tense use of “ain’t” in the 20th century. It’s a finding that adds to the discourse on how language evolves. Prior to Wellesley, Fisher worked on a study that looked at how younger Philadelphians have trended away from using features of the local accent.

Fisher developed a love of language as an undergraduate student at Binghamton University in upstate New York, where, as a sophomore, she signed up for a course called Language, Culture, and Communication. She had long picked up on subtle differences between her African-American mother’s speech and that of her father, who is of mixed European ancestry. Fisher noticed that her mother, a schoolteacher, often spoke one way on the phone with colleagues, and another way at home. The course gave Fisher the tools she needed to talk about those observations. “The class changed my life,” she says.

“Language is such an important part of our lives,” Fisher adds. “When we really stop and look at it from a scientific perspective, we’re doing some amazing things.”

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