Michael selfie on balcony

Hi, I’m Michael Newman (he, él, ell). My professional titles are Professor of Linguistics and Chair of the Department of Linguistics and Communication Disorders (LCD) at Queens College of the City University of New York and a member of the doctoral faculty at the CUNY Graduate Center. I began my career at QC, which was my first and only tenure-track job in 1997. I became chair of LCD in 2018.

See below for my research organized by area. I include wherever possible links to the full texts. Thanks for checking this out!

How I got my dissertation topic

My 7th grade English teacher, “Mrs. K,” explained that there were rules of grammar. She explained that we couldn’t know something we said was following those rules just because “it sounded like it was right.” Instead, we needed to learn the rules and explain why a form was correct in terms of those rules. For example, “Someone left their coat” sounded right, but it was wrong because they is plural and someone is singular. You had to say “Someone left his coat” even if you were unsure if the person was male or female. She acknolwedged the unfairness of the rule, but there it was. However, I liked the idea of “sounding right,” and I was a fan of  what I would learn to call, “singular they.” Eventually, however, I was vindicated in my first linguistics class in Brooklyn College linguistics class where I learned that the prohibition against singular they was a silly superstition. Eventually, I got to grad school, where I wrote my dissertation on, what else, singular they!

Mrs. K was doing the best she could given the lack of linguistics in teacher education. Grammar instruction in  school would be largely abandoned soon after. Now Americans graduate with little to know sense of how language works or even what it is. I try do my part ot changing that. One of my favorite classes to teach is the College Now Intro to Linguistics offered to high schoolers at Queens College. So thank you Mrs. K. You helped jump start my career as a researcher and a teacher in two ways!

My Connection to Catalonia

In 1981, when I was 25, I moved to Barcelona. I had been a psychology major in college, but I lost interest in that field. I had no particular vocation at that point and I was earning a living waiting tables. I saved up enough money, and I was interested in learning Spanish. So I signed up for a year long certificate course at the University of Barcelona. Why Barcelona? As a gay man, I didn’t want to go anywhere I thought would be unwelcoming, and the Catalans have always done a good job of selling their progressive culture. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the city was enchanting and on the sea. I was aware of the Catalan language, but I understood that everyone was bilingual.

I ended up staying until 1987, living off of teaching English, much of the time as an undocumented immigrant . After a few years, I enrolled in the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and got a llicenciatura (something between a BA and an MA) in Filologia Espanyola amb Concentració en Llengua. That translates to something like Spanish linguistics. I also met my future husband, and thus a permanent connection.

Research Areas

with related published papers


The capstone of doctoral studies is a dissertation. My topic, given the story to the left in blue, was obvious. However, the issue was never of course arguing over the prescription; prescriptivism is to linguistics what creationism is to biology. It is just not a scientific approach to the phenomenon in question. The topic that was more interesting was to understand the linguistics of this prescriptive question. In fact, as I read through the articles on the topic, I realized I needed a much greater background in semantics, syntax of agreement, and pronoun theory. I got that through the generosity of two linguists: Barbara Abbott of Michigan State, a semantician, Sally McConnell-Ginet of Cornell, and Michael Barlow, now of U. of Auckland but then at Rice University, whose dissertation on agreement became central to my analysis.

Even before collecting my data I found that the idea that singular they was a way of avoiding gender assignment was incomplete. In fact, there were cases of known gender that in which they appeared. It was more a question of whether a specific individual was being referred to. If there was, they appeared (almost) disallowed even if the gender of the individual was unknown (e.g., your cousin).

This insight led to my choice of corpus. It needed to be extemporaneous, have lots of abstract and hypothetical referents and be easily accessible. This was early in the days of corpus linguistics. There weren’t huge collections of online corpora like those available today.

In the end, I found the perfect choice: TV talk shows. They were spoken, had transcriptions  available for purchase, and an abundance of abstract discussions.

I found a complex of factors including gender and the continuum I came to call generic (promoting they) vs. individuated  (promoting singular pronouns) was behind the usage I found.

I graduated with this dissertation in 1993 and it was eventually published in 1997 as Newman (1997). Epicene pronouns: The linguistics of a prescriptive problem Garland. I thank Larry Horn for his support in selecting it for his amazingly named  but tragically discontinued Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics Series.

I have two other publications associated with this work:

Newman, Michael. 1992. Pronominal disagreements: The stubborn problem of singular epicene antecedents.  Language in Society, 21(3): 447-475

Newman, Michael. 1998. What can pronouns tell us? A case study of English epicenes. Studies in Language. 22(2): 353-389. (text available with link)

The Studies in Language paper is much better than the Language in Society one, although it has about half the number of citations.

Finally, I want to note that the findings were before the use of singular they to refer to trans and other individuals who wish to be referred to with non-gendered pronouns took off. The results might be different now, although the difficulty some of us have with using they in that way may be owed to holding on to the generic meaning. Also, the quantitative analysis I used at the time now seems exceptionally simplistic.







The basic animating question behind my work on academic literacy is why some students do better in college than others. I began to wonder about this in graduate school when I was teaching remedial courses at Lehman and Hunter Colleges. Why did these often bright students not do so well? There were all kinds of obvious social factors, but I’m a linguist. I wanted to know the mechanics of what they needed to do that they weren’t doing. This approach is in the tradition of Shirley Brice Heath, the sociolinguistics of literacy.

When I got my first job at Ohio State, I had the idea of starting by seeing what students, not labeled remedial, did in their classes. I found (somehow) four volunteers who ranged from highly successful to struggling. I met with them once a week for a full quarter and followed exactly what they did. I recorded our sessions, and had them transcribed by an excellent RA. They just explained what had happened that week.

The following two semesters I went over the data using qualitative analysis, isolating common themes and patterns. I also looked at other research on academic literacy, in particular John Swales‘s theory of genre analysis. I also did readings in information theory, in particular when it occurred to me that information was central to what was going on. I eventually landed on Barwise and Perry‘s theory of Situation Semantics, which explores the structure of information and information flows.

Eventually, I came to the idea that the students were playing an information processing game. They identified, isolated, synthesized and displayed information on anything that was designated an assessment. The professor then gave them points to the extent they successfully provided the target of information. The information was structured in terms of simple facts, concepts which are (following from Situation Semantics) are propositions that are used to classify facts, and theories which are complex arrangements of concepts. Students often screwed up by providing unexpected facts, displaying the wrong type of information (e.g., facts instead of concepts), realizing how to process information (e.g., not realizing how you can’t memorize a lot of facts in an isolated way), or misreading the professor (e.g., not getting the hints as to which information is important).

This work appears in one book:

and two articles:



After Ohio State, I didn’t get an offer for an academic job except one I turned down at a non-selective private university in NYC teaching writing. I thought it would be dead end, and I didn’t trust the institution or think of any good reason for a student to go there. They could do better at a public university. So I began to work in an alternative high school in Queens. I wasn’t a great teacher. I didn’t have the skills to control the class, and I wasn’t organized. I basically didn’t know how to do the job.

However, I learned a ton!, more than the students who seemed to like me despite my lack of skills. I’d like to think I would have eventually figured it all out, but I got my job at QC. I decided to explore the language I heard the kids speaking. As a known quantity and liked by students and trusted by the administration, I was allowed to return and do fieldwork. I interviewed a lot of students, some of whom I had as a teacher, although now it was two years later. I stayed doing fieldwork one or two days a week for two years.

One interesting group I got to know were students in a rap class that met once a week. They were happy to show me what was going on in their class, and I hired a former student to help transcribe recordings and do some interviews of his own. Amazing! What I noticed was that although the teachers were very progressive, and trying to use rap to teach the students about social inequality, the students were only pretending to play along. They were totally aware of that inequality and the ideology their professors were teaching them. They were opposed to then Mayor Giuliani’s racist policing practices, but other than that, they had no time for what they understood to be socialism. They were actually quite libertarian in their views (what Dawn Norfleet calls “Ghetto Republican”). In a way this is not surprising.  As an intelligent and thoughtful 16 year old, if major social change is required for you to get ahead, if you think everything stacked against you, then you’ll probably become very bitter and pessimistic. If you think highly of your abilities, and imagine that you can succeed if you try, you can overcome those obstacles, you’re more likely to charge ahead optimistically into the future. Maybe that is less realistic, but there’s still a path. Moreover, this ability to flip scripts, to move ahead, and defy odds is all built into hip-hop as is the competitiveness and the self-confidence.

When I did this work, I felt it was important to always ground my conclusions in “member checking,” the practice of showing my thoughts to my participants, even to the point of having them look at drafts of articles. I really ended up admiring these kids, who cared enough to share their perspectives with me. They’re all adults now, and I’ve lost contact with them, but I hope that if they didn’t make it in the music industry, their efforts hadn’t been in vain.

The articles on Hip Hop include the following:


At Columbia, I met Mireia Trenchs-Parera, who after she finished her doctorate, landed a job at the then new Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. Eventually, we decided to collaborate and explore the sociolinguistic situation there.

There are a great many important sociolinguists and Catalonia has always attracted important sociolinguistic attention from outsiders too. The reason is that Catalan rarely for non-state languages in Europe has not only managed to survive but to thrive, this despite linguistic oppression over the centuries that culiminated in the severe efforts of the Franco dictatorship to turn Spain monolingual.

Our first project was to update two seminal studies by Kit Woolard that measured language attitudes in Barcelona using the matched-guise technique (Newman, Trenchs-Parera, & Wu 2008). Listeners (called judges) respond subjectively to various voices, in our case speaking in Catalan and Spanish. The judges are asked to give their impressions on a series of human traits. What they don’t know is that each speaker they listen to has one Catalan version and one Spanish version. The results were that most participants seemed to prefer bilingualism over either language on its own, which upends some of the ideas about what language attitudes consist of. We labeled this preference “linguistic cosmopolitanism.” Later we did interviews with some of the participants, which we analyzed qualitatively, to better understand their motivations (Trenchs-Parera & Newman 2009), and this showed that the partipants were arrayed in a spectrum of language ideologies from most pro-Catalan monolingualism to most pro-Spanish monolingualism but with a pro-bilingualism cosmopolitan stance in between, each in opposition to and .  At that time, I also collected interviews at a school in a working class neighborhood in Barcelona, with a high proportion of young immigrants. Immigrants who were anti-Catalan could be found among both autochthonous and immigrants, but their motivations for disliking Catalan were quite different (Newman 2011). A different paper derived from the that school (with the pseudonym Inca Garcilaso) involved the interface of Catalan government language policies and  local school policies and the effect on Latin American students (Newman, Patiño-Santos, & Trenchs-Parera 2012). Another collaboration is in Catalan comparing the language attitudes of different immigrant groups (Trenchs-Parera, Larrea Mendizábal, & Newman 2014) We also did two literatures reviews (Newman & Trenchs-Parera 2015, Trenchs-Parera & Newman 2015), the first focused on language ideologies in the 20th century Catalonia when immigration was mostly from other parts of Spain, and the second on the 21st century, when immigration was international. We also examined the role of Spanish in Barcelona for a volume on Spanish in global cities edited by Andrew Lynch (Newman, Trenchs-Parera, & Corona 2019). The latest paper I have on Catalonia also involves Latin Americans and it explores how ethnic identity emerges in the context of different experiences and reactions of immigrants (Newman & Corona 2023).




51New York is where variationist sociolinguistics all began! Labov (1966) did his seminal work on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After he left for UPenn (after one of the most notorious tenure battles in linguistics history), work on New York City English (NYCE) was basically abandoned until the expansion of the NYU Linguistics Department in the 1990s. The first important variation work that came out of NYU was from graduate students, first my now colleague Cece Cutler, who did some qualitative research and later Kara Becker’s important dissertation that replicated Labov’s study.

My own work began when I started at Queens College. NYCE , like all forms English in the US is highly racialized. Of course not all New Yorkers speak in a way that is associated with a racial group. However, ideologically, there are strong pressures to conform to those patterns. It came out even in my early data that the high school students I was working with were under pressure to conform to raciolinguistic expectations. I began working with what I called New York Latino English through interviews at the high school I used to work in (Slomanson & Newman 2004 and Newman 2010). Later, I did work collaborating with an Asian high school student whether Asian New Yorkers could be identified racially by voice alone (Newman & Wu 2011).

A big break happened about 2010 when I was asked by Peter Patrick through a friend Dan Silverman to write a book on NYCE. I grabbed that opportunity, and set off on a two year adventure reading, writing, and rereading and reading more and rewriting and eventually it was published by DeGruyter (Newman 2014). In 2016 I began a collaboration three other CUNY linguists, Christina Tortora, Cece Cutler, and Bill Haddican that led to getting an National Science Foundation grant to create the CUNY Corpus of New York City English. The link provides all the output we have produced as part of that project. Work I’ve particularly authored includes (Newman 2016, Newman, Haddican, and Tan 2018, Haddican, Newman, Cutler, & Tortora 2021, Haddican, Cutler, Newman, & Tortora 2022)

 Finally, I’ve worked on some summary articles, including one to appear in the Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of World Englishes and a collaboration with Rafael Orozco comparing variation in New York, London, São Paulo, and Mexico City for the Routledge Handbook of Variationist Sociolinguistics. There will be a chapter forthcoming with Aidan Malanowski on the history of NYCE (and Baltimore English). Finally a current project is working on cluster analyses of NYCE vowels with Kovid Pal Odouard. There will soon be a link to our NWAV 51 poster.


    When was first in Spanish class in 6th grade (10 years old), I learned there were two forms, one to use with some kinds of addresees and the other to refer to the other.  was described as more intimate or for children; usted as less intimate and for speaking to adults (Remember I was 10). No teacher, however, was able to explain exactly when to use the forms. As someone destined to become a linguist, I thought of it as a puzzle, although one with potential consequences of upsetting the people I’m speaking to. After decades now of speaking Spanish, Catalan, and occasionally French, I never lost my puzzlement and so interest in exploring the topic.

    I began to do actual research on it through working with a student Gaby Collazos, who designed an experiment using translation tasks as part of an undergraduate research project for my class (co-taught with Miki Makihara) LCD 388 Voices of New York. In that class students create and carry out their own original research on language in New York. Gaby decided to explore which second person variants New York City Spanish speakers use  by having them translate the single English you under different situations with different pairings of speaker and interlocutor. The technique was my idea based on earlier fieldwork by my husband Francisco Ordóñez on Occitan, Catalan, and Sardinian speakers on clitic combinations. Gaby however elaborated it by adding a description and picture alongslide a translation to translate.

    A number of years ago, I mentioned this work to Víctor Fernández Mallat of Georgetown University, who has been doing research of his own in this area. We decided to join forces, and have been collecting data in the US, Spain, Chile, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Colombia. Colombia is particularly interesting because of the variation within that country, the existence of some unique variants such as sumercé, and the high rates of usted there. However, the research began in NYC, and that is currently the only article we have in publication (Fernández Mallat & Michael Newman  2022). We have presented at various venues, and we’ll be publishing more as data comes in and gets analyzed in 



    As department chair, I don’t have a lot of time to devote to research. I do plan on stepping down after Spring 2024. I’ll retire some years after that. I do hope to continue to work on

    • Spanish second person singular pronoun choice
    • Helping to create a bilingual corpus of Spanish and Catalan in Barcelona
    • Continuing to work on New York City English

    We’ll see how far I get to all that, but even after retiring, I don’t see myself as giving up doing research on language. I can’t imagine what else I could do with my life. 

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    Michael Newman’s Page

    by Aug 20, 2022