As people from different social groups come into contact, they must accommodate differences in morphosyntax (e.g., They was happy vs. They were happy) to successfully represent and comprehend their interlocutor’s speech. In this talk, Zachary Maher presents evidence indicating that listeners know about dialect variation in subject-verb agreement and
deploy this knowledge in real-time language processing, comparing bidialectal speakers of African American Language (AAL) and Mainstream American English (MAE) to monodialectal speakers of MAE. He uses a variety of tasks, including eye-tracking in the visual world paradigm, a sentence transcription task, and a novel sociolinguistic sentence rating task. Across tasks, results suggest that most speakers of American English have some knowledge of morphosyntactic differences between AAL and MAE, but those who speak AAL are broadly more likely to consider the possibility that their interlocutor will use a form that differs from
MAE. These findings indicate that listeners have mental models of morphosyntactic variation, and future research can delve into the details of these models and the dynamics of switching as listeners adjust to different language varieties.