Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft Leibniz-Gemeinschaft

New collaborative research center of ZAS and Humboldt University


Researchers at Humboldt-University and at the Leibniz-Centre General Linguistics (ZAS) in Berlin want to find out together how the way we speak depends on the situation we find ourselves in and whom we are speaking to.

The new Collaborative Research Centre (SFB1412 "Register: Language-Users’ Knowledge of Situational-Functional Variation") will be funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The project will receive eight million euros for an initial funding period of four years starting in January 2020. Four of the 15 subprojects will be located at ZAS: “Speaker’s choices in a creole context (Krifka und Veenstra), “Modelling meaning-driven register variation” (Sauerland und Solt), “Register in the development of periphrasis in the history of English (Alexiadou und McFadden) und “Variation in Situated Interaction” (Jannedy). 

It is well known that we speak differently with superiors than with colleagues and differently with friends than with neighbours. The utterances " I am angry“ and "I am pissed" mean in principle the same thing, but depending on who we talk to, we say either "angry" or "pissed“. The researchers assume that it is not just words that differ. Rather, they believe that, depending on the situation, we also use different sentence structures and occasionally different sounds.

Young people often speak so-called "Kiezdeutsch" and say "isch" instead of "ich". This sound variant is not necessarily a lack of language ability, since the kids are quite capable of pronouncing the pronoun in the standard way in other situations (e.g. in job interviews).

Up to now, standard language and colloquial language have been regarded as different language systems. However, the scientists in the new project assume that all the different variants are part of one single language system, in which rules can be defined according to the situation in which we speak.

The fact that register differences do not necessarily have anything to do with colloquial or standard language can be seen, for example, with time expressions. How exactly a time is given can also vary from situation to situation: If a friend wants to pick me up at the train, it is normal to say that the train arrives at 7:53 am. If, on the other hand, I want to say when I will be in town, I would rather say that the train arrives at eight o'clock. The exact time of 7:53 would be unusual here. Nevertheless, both statements are colloquial in the conventional sense.

Obviously, in our language development we not only learn the meaning of words and how to combine them meaningfully, but also how we should speak in which situation, in order not to attract attention or on the contrary to attract attention. The project will investigate what the rules for this look like and how the grammar can be supplemented with these rules.

Prof. Dr. Anke Lüdeling from the Institute of German Language and Linguistics at HU Berlin will be the spokeswoman of the Collaborative Research Centre. The vice-spokesperson will be Prof. Dr. Artemis Alexiadou from the Institute of English and American Studies. Artemis Alexiadou is also Deputy Director of the Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft (ZAS) Berlin.

Contact to the researchers at ZAS can be arranged by:

Dr. Fabienne Salfner
Pressestelle Leibniz-Zentrum Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft
Tel: +49 176 27805112