Posted by: lcm | October 20, 2013

The Vernacular of Privilege

This post is adapted from a presentation I gave recently as part of the Race Matters Lyceum Lecture Series at the Lee Honors College, Western Michigan University. The presentation was titled Language Variation and Language Attitudes: Race, Class, and Standard-Language Ideology.

Rachel Jeantel testifies at the trial of George Zimmerman (July 2013)

Rachel Jeantel testifies at the trial of George Zimmerman (July 2013)

Let’s start off with some basics. First, language is by its nature variable and in a constant state of flux. That means the normal states of affairs for language is variation and change. That’s because human beings do things to language when we use it. Some of the things we do to it go unnoticed and unremarked upon. Other things attract our attention: She says pop; he says soda. You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. (I don’t, really, but you know.) He says the car needs washed; she says it needs to be washed.

Language variation is an interesting phenomenon to study because language has a way of tricking us into thinking that it has an existence that is independent of its users. It doesn’t. You can theorize about language – a lot of scholars of linguistics do – but if you are interested in analyzing actual language, you are going to need speakers. Speakers bring language into being. All speakers of all languages have this power. This means that every speaker has a strong claim to ownership rights when it comes to the language or languages they speak.

But it is the nature of certain ideological orientations to assert claims of ownership that exclude certain people, certain groups. My position is that these claims are illegitimate.

Before we get into why I think that, let’s get back to our overview of what we talk about when we talk about variation.

How you talk has to do with who you are. And the way you talk is shaped by the people around you and the ways they talk. For most people, their first and most immediate influences are members of their family, the people who take care of them when they are babies and children. Over time, as our spheres widen, so do our linguistic repertoires, the inventory of ways of speaking that each individual speaker has available.

Think about all the different ways of being you have, all the different facets of your personality, the different settings and contexts within which you interact as you move through your days, the various ways you communicate and shift your style depending on where you are, who you’re talking to, what the situation is. Think about how skilled you are at drawing on the right way of being and the corresponding way of speaking in most situations. You do it all the time, shifting easily between styles – and some of you shift between languages – and you do it mostly without even thinking about it.

Your linguistic repertoire is like language itself: variable and in a constant state of change. And it expands as it adapts to new situations in which you find yourself and have to figure out how to be, linguistically and otherwise. You build it over a lifetime, from earliest childhood. As you get older, your world widens. Maybe you start hanging out with some cool kids at school. You may begin to share some of their ways of speaking and develop new linguistic norms collaboratively, often without even realizing you’re doing it. And then later on maybe you get a job, let’s say waiting tables in a restaurant. You learn the language of restaurant work and the in-group styles and terminology of the people you work with. And you also develop a game face, your style for interacting with customers. All these experiences add to your linguistic repertoire, which you will continue to build over time.

Everyone has a linguistic repertoire, although not everyone has the same languages, varieties, or linguistic features in their inventories. Linguists call the external (that is, social) factors that affect the way people talk independent variables. Independent variables are characteristics of individual speakers that interact with language and cause variation.

Some independent variables that interact with language:

  • region/geography
  • race/ethnicity
  • socioeconomic status
  • age
  • educational background
  • communities of practice

Communities of practice are cultural/familial/social/professional communities to which speakers belong and contribute, like the cool kids at school or the restaurant workers we were talking about earlier but they also also include your family, your cohort at school, colleagues at work, the WMU marching band if you are a member of that community, your sorority, people in your neighborhood, place of worship, etc.

When independent variables interact with language, we get what a lot of people think of as dialect. I prefer the term language variation to dialect because I think dialect suggests a closed, discrete way of speaking. This person speaks this dialect (and only this dialect); that person speaks that dialect (and only that dialect). I don’t think that is a good way of thinking about variation because variation tends not to distribute itself into neat categories and groups of speakers that we can draw lines around. Unlike some of my colleagues in the profession, I don’t believe there are such things as dialect boundaries. I don’t even find it that helpful to use the idea of dialect boundaries metaphorically. And I think there are more interesting and useful ways of thinking about variation, its patterns, and its distribution.

But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the idea of dialect for a minute. A common understanding of what dialect is seems to be something that other people speak. In other words, a lot of mainstream speakers define dialect in relation to themselves, meaning that they don’t think of themselves as speaking a dialect. As it turns out, they’re wrong about that.

Of course, there are some people who know they speak a dialect. These are almost always speakers who are aware that the way they talk is stigmatized. They’ve been hearing all their lives how wrong they are.

But the reality is that every speaker of a language speaks a dialect. There is no dialect-free version of a language. As the linguists Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling have put it, “To speak a language is to speak a dialect of that language.”

Remember what we said before about how people do things to language simply by using it? Well, all those independent variables and all those life experiences that add to your linguistic repertoire factor into the processes of doing things to the language. All these things cause variation. They are not the only causes – there are internal, physiological, and other causes – but independent variables are the causes that are among the most interesting to linguists who study language in interaction.

Now, just because everyone speaks a dialect doesn’t mean that all ways of speaking are created equal. Far from it. As everyone in this room well knows, some language varieties and the linguistic features associated with them are valued more highly than others. That is to say some dialects are valued more highly than others.

When we say some varieties of language (or some linguistic features) are valued more highly than others, what we are saying is that there are some ways of speaking that are privileged compared to other ways of speaking. Linguists are likely to explain this by saying there is a prestige dialect that is held as the preferred way of speaking and that other ways of speaking are stigmatized in relation to that prestige variety. Other folks who aren’t linguists might say that there is “correct” speech and then there is everything else: “incorrect speech,” “bad grammar,” “broken English.” There is unfortunately often an explicit value judgment that goes along with these observations.

But languages, language varieties, and linguistic features themselves have no intrinsic status. They do not have greater or lesser linguistic value or validity in relation to other features or varieties. in reality, though, it is hard to separate a linguistic feature, set of features, or language variety from the social status of the speakers who use it. And that is really the issue here: The status of the speakers determines the status of the speech. When speakers are not valued by the wider mainstream culture, the way they speak is often stigmatized as a result. And so judgments about “correctness” are often more about the social value of the speakers than about the linguistic qualities of the speech, even though the judgments profess to be about language and even though those making the judgments often believe that to be so. In other words, the relative value of language varieties – and by extension, of their speakers – is socially imposed.

Conversely, linguists are interested in observing and documenting the ways languages and language varieties actually work. Languages, varieties, and linguistic features that don’t meet the communicative needs of their users don’t survive for very long. This is one way in which the language bends to the will of its users, which is exactly what it’s supposed to do. A feature either does what its users need it to do – say, mark past tense or possession, for example – or the feature will not stay in use. The survival of ways of speaking, whether we’re talking about individual features or language varieties, is itself, in the view of linguistic researchers, evidence of their effectiveness.

Linguists understand all human languages and varieties as rule-governed, which is to say that a given language functions according to a system. Not all systems are the same. What may look ungrammatical about one system to users of another system may be working smashingly for its own users. One system is not more or less “correct” than other systems. Linguistically, that kind of value judgment doesn’t make any sense. In other words, there is no correctness continuum; there is a value continuum that is created perceptually; that is, by way of people’s perceptions and attitudes about features, varieties, and speakers. And the attitudes about the features and varieties derive from attitudes toward the speakers. It really is that simple.

In other words, we humans have a bad habit of interpreting things and assigning value in relation to what we’re used to, and that includes what we’re used to hearing and saying. And mainstream cultures in many societies – including this one – have institutionalized these interpretations into widely acceptable and highly powerful ideologies. One of these is the ideology of standardness.

A good definition of standardization is institutionalization of prestige variety of a language (‘institutionalization’ meaning to establish as norm or convention).

Standardization is often supported by authorities like dictionaries, grammar and usage manuals, English teachers, curmudgeonly newspaper columnists, and other commentators who claim the language is deteriorating at the hands of (some of) its users. More recently, a genre of Facebook memes about language use, some of them incredibly hostile toward certain groups of speakers, have joined in on the unhealthy fun of self-proclaimed language authoritarianism.

For example, there is this:

Visual representation of mean language attitudes.

Note: This is unkind.

And this:

Visual expression of mean language attitudes.

Note: This is also unkind as well as ill-informed. (Linguistics: Knowing the difference between grammar and orthography.)

In the U.S., we have an interesting situation, which is that in American English, the prestige varieties have a negative definition. That is, Standard(ized) American English (SAE) is identifiable by what is missing from it rather than than by any specific identifying features it contains. In other words, for American English, the prestige variety is one in which there are no (or few) features that are socially branded as nonstandard: SAE is a variety with no stigmatized features. At least theoretically. I say “theoretically” because no one speaks SAE without ever producing any stigmatized features. No one.

Lots of Americans speak what mainstream speakers (that is, speakers of what is perceived as SAE) would consider nonstandard varieties. For example, think about how the speech of the Southern U.S. tends to be perceived and represented by the wider American culture. When the linguist Dennis Preston asked research participants to illustrate on maps where they imagined dialect areas to exist in the U.S., many singled out the southeastern U.S. as not only a salient dialect area but as one they perceived negatively.

This may suggest that the attitudes at issue have to do with regional variation, but there is more to it than geography. Similarly, New York City speech tends to score low in measures of language attitudes, but again, there is something more going on here. As we’ve noted, the attitudes aren’t really about language at all but about speakers. Attitudes about Southern speech may be more about judgments about rural speakers, perceived lack of education of these speakers, and perceived low social status. For New York City speech, perceptions about ethnicity and class are clearly implicated. For example, negative attitudes about New York City speech tend to focus on features produced by working-class speakers and by those perceived as “ethnic,” such as Italian-Americans, Jewish Americans, Irish-Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, etc.

Looking into language attitudes goes beyond simply observing and describing linguistic differences. It focuses attention on the social dimensions of variation, including what social and ethnic variation can reflect about differential access to resources, power, and status and about the role of language in maintaining social, racial, and ethnic hierarchies. These emphases are particularly important for variationists working in education, and it is important for teachers – and education majors, future teachers – to learn about them so that they will be well equipped to meet the needs of all the students who populate the diverse classrooms that await them. Teachers are on the front lines of this issue.

Our lyceum topic this semester is Race Matters, so let’s talk now specifically about the ways in which race does matter when it comes to attitudes about language in American culture. Let’s talk about language in the African American community.

First, some definitions of what I am going to refer to as African American English (AAE). [1]

Here’s one definition I like a lot:

Lisa Green (2004: 77):

African American English is “a linguistic system of communication governed by well defined rules and used by some African Americans (but not all) across different geographical regions of the USA and across a full range of age groups.”

“Characterizing features of the variety are uniquely related to the history, culture, and experiences of [African Americans] although the variety shares many features with other varieties of English.”

Here’s another good one:

John Baugh (2004: 305-6):

African American English is “the linguistic legacy of the slave trade.” Speakers are descendants of those “historically deprived of access to schools and to equal justice under law.”

These definitions engage the question of whether African American English is characterized by the linguistic features used by its speakers or by the identities of the speakers themselves. In these definitions, Green and Baugh suggest that it is about both: AAE is characterized by features, or more precisely clusters of features, as well as by independent variables that for many speakers cluster as well, resulting in shared — although not identical — experiences. We’re still talking about individual speakers.

AAE has a grammar and it has rules that govern it. As we have discussed, all productive varieties of all languages are rule-governed and systematic. If they didn’t, speakers would not be able to understand one another and the variety would therefore cease to exist. These rules apply to phonology (pronunciation), grammar, and vocabulary. Speakers have to adhere to these generative rules to communicate effectively. The rules that govern AAE and other stigmatized varieties are differentially valued externally — socially and politically — but there is nothing linguistically “wrong” or “ungrammatical” about these varieties. The system is just different. Different doesn’t mean wrong.

AAE is probably the most stigmatized variety of American English, and you better believe its speakers know it. Yet AAE persists and in fact thrives, with tens of millions of speakers nationwide, despite the overt stigmatization its speakers are subjected to and despite decades of eradication attempts through misguided educational policies that are themselves the results of misconceptions about language diversity that unfortunately persist today.

Since the 1960s, when researchers first began to turn their attention to it, AAE has become the most studied variety of American English.

AAE also continues to be linguistically healthy, adaptable, and fully capable of meeting the communicative needs of its speakers. When it doesn’t meet their needs, speakers adapt it so that it does. That is how language works. Its continuing success as a long-thriving language variety suggests that speakers clearly value it for reasons that its critics can’t understand or don’t respect. It suggests that AAE is culturally valuable and helps to build and maintain community and solidarity. It may also appeal to speakers who are not interested in trying to talk like people who seem not to like or value them very much. Linguistically, AAE is a resounding success. Politically, on the other hand, it is a target.

A widely held attitude about AAE views its use as a linguistic deficit. This view assumes that AAE reflects lack of linguistic competence or even intelligence on the part of its speakers. This view is simply not linguistically valid. For one thing, AAE speakers, like speakers of all other varieties of language, are a highly diverse community of individuals. For another, there is no correlation between the language variety (or varieties) spoken and intelligence.

To believe otherwise is a prejudice.

Attitudes about AAE and the value of its speakers have real-life consequences. When you have schoolchildren who are written off by their teachers who assume that students are uneducable because of the way they talk, educational outcomes are going to be severely compromised, which means that economic well-being is likely to be significantly compromised as well. Beyond the educational experience, speakers of stigmatized varieties also experience job discrimination, and their testimony in legal cases is even sometimes seen as less credible, including in the recent trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

John Rickford and others have commented on the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, the 19-year-old friend of Trayvon Martin who was on the phone with him until shortly before he died and who testified for the prosecution in Zimmerman’s trial. As Rickford notes, “a torrent of invidious commentary” dominated the public reaction to Ms. Jeantel’s testimony, and much of it was “grotesquely racist, misogynistic and dehumanizing.”

Rickford also points out that in her post-trial interview with Anderson Cooper, juror B-37 said she thought that “because of her education and communication skills,” Ms. Jeantel “just wasn’t a good witness.” As Rickford observes, “it’s clear that Juror B37 was clueless about the role of race.”

“She didn’t notice, for instance, what Anderson Cooper did—how completely she identified with Zimmerman’s perspective, and how her references to Jeantel and Trayvon (“the way THEY talk . . . the type of life THEY live”) distanced them,” Rickford writes.

He also asks whether “jurors were also prejudiced against Jeantel’s vernacular, like those who pilloried her on social networks as stupid, not realizing that her speech is a complex, rule-governed system that linguists have been studying for decades” and suggests that if juror B-37 (and possibly other members of the jury as well) had found Ms. Jeantel “incomprehensible and not credible,” it was possible that “race, credibility, communication and misperceived ‘evidence’ perhaps influenced the verdict.”

If you have a strong stomach, check out Sherri Williams’s compilation of “good, bad, and ugly tweets about Rachel Jeantel,” including quite a few that focused on the way she talks. As Williams notes, “Instead of focusing on her testimony social media erupted w/criticism about her speech, looks, mannerisms, race & education.”

I said earlier that I think that ideological orientations that position some speakers as owners of the language and others as answerable to those self-appointed owners are illegitimate. Here is why I think that: It is because language ideologies based on unequal ownership of the language and a hierarchy based on an arbitrary notion of “correctness” are inherently racist and classist. Look at the speakers whose speech is stigmatized: Is it wealthy white folks? Of course not. It is people of color, poor and working-class people, “ethnic” people. Coincidence? Please.

Another ideological problem is that a lot of people seem to think that there are only two possible options: inflexible policing of standard-language ideology (although that’s not what they call it, of course) or total linguistic anarchy, which is what some of my English-professor colleagues sometimes accuse me of advocating. (And they say it like it’s a bad thing.)

But this is a false dichotomy. Racism and classism, including the linguistic kind, aren’t just going to go away by themselves. This means that not only do students from nonstandard-speaking backgrounds need serious language and literacy instruction in the privileged ways of speaking and writing but also that all speakers, including standard speakers, need equally serious instruction in the understanding that the privileged ways of speaking and writing are just that — privileged — as well as in the understanding of language variation and change and of the existence and functions of linguistic attitudes and ideologies.

Focusing on this is a way for those of us who are educators – and those of you who are future educators – to start doing some of the hard work of shifting cultural discourses and practices so that more of the burden of confronting discriminatory language ideologies might someday begin to fall on those doing the oppressing (whether unwittingly or not) rather than keeping that burden solely and squarely on the oppressed.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of us never actually get this kind of instruction (correction is not instruction, by the way), in considerable part because many elementary and secondary English teachers simply don’t ever get any rigorous instruction in linguistics as part of their coursework or training. This means that teachers are without the tools they need for understanding and responding to language variation in their classrooms, which is a serious barrier to teaching language and literacy effectively to diverse student populations.

The teachers and education majors I know care passionately about students and are highly motivated to act in their best interests. That is what drives them to pursue the work of teaching in the first place. But without an understanding of language and how it works, along with an understanding of variation and what it means, they not only can’t fix any of this but they – often unwittingly – exacerbate it. And while we dither, serious harm comes to generation upon generation of children who come to school speaking something other than a preferred variety (like standard English) as their language of nurture. They don’t get the instruction they need and have a right to because the teachers not only often don’t know how to do it but they also often harbor negative attitudes developed over a lifetime of exposure to the pervasive ideology of standardness. And their standard-speaking classmates never learn how unjust and damaging the language attitudes that dominate educational institutions as well as the wider culture really are. And so the cycle continues.

Some of you may already know that much of my teaching involves the training of undergraduate education majors. Students in my classes are called upon to do considerable work in the critical analysis of language ideologies. This work begins with the assumption that all students are entitled to be treated with respect, including linguistically, regardless of the relative esteem in which their languages and varieties of nurture are held. As many of our graduates go on to discover as teachers in their own classrooms, not stigmatizing nonstandard speakers in the process of privileging the way some but not all of the kids speak is a lot more effective than sending nonstandard speakers the message, from day one and in a million different ways, both overt and subtle, that the way they talk is bad and wrong and they just need to start talking right already. Because believe me, that is what a lot of kids are still hearing in their K-12 classrooms, even in 2013. Sadly, they are sometimes still hearing it in their college classrooms as well.

And while we’re on the subject of reality, here is another one: Those who come to school speaking standard English as their language of nurture are in fact really nothing more than lucky. They are the possessors of a privilege that is just as insidious and just as invisible to most of them as the advantage of their own whiteness is to many white students and the advantage of their social status is to many middle- and upper-class students. And it is in just as desperate need of critical inquiry.

The suggestion that a linguistic variant that functions effectively in a speech community but is considered nonstandard by mainstream speakers is a “linguistic error committed out of ignorance,” as a colleague who teaches literature at another university recently wrote on a Facebook thread on this topic is itself an error committed out of ignorance. It suggests ignorance of the way languages actually work; ignorance of the history of the English language, including its ideological history but also its lexical, grammatical, and phonological development; ignorance of the role of prescriptive grammar and the ideology of standardness in maintaining and reinforcing social and racial stratification. Saddest of all, it suggests ignorance of the unspeakable and incalculable damage the attitudes it springs from do to real people who start to learn beginning on their first day of kindergarten that not only do the people with power and authority over them think that they themselves are “wrong” and “incorrect” and “ignorant” but that so is everyone they love.

Imagine having to sit there and listen to that every day of your life. Now think about the millions of kids who experience that as their reality. Maybe you were one of them. Maybe your child is now. Now think about the parents, many of whom endured the same thing. And the grandparents. When you consider how many lives this kind of thinking has had the power to define and to thwart, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it is an intellectual crime against humanity.

Linguistically, nonstandard variants are only “incorrect” from the perspective of speakers of privileged varieties. It is an inherently biased perspective that deserves to be challenged, but it is often defended by the very people — teachers, professors – who have the best shot at shifting the paradigm and helping the rest of us to move beyond this persistent prejudice. Because that is what it is: a prejudice. Language varieties work according to their internal structures and they respond to the communicative needs of their users. The structures and systems don’t all work the same way. A variety that works differently from how yours works or how mine works is just different. That’s all. The so-called “standard” isn’t better or purer or more correct or more of any of the other ideologically driven characterizations that so many standard speakers believe and have been so successful at convincing nonstandard speakers to go along with. It’s just the variety with the most power and status. That’s all.

So instead of being high-handed about it and thinking that there is something inherently superior about the standard and inferior about everything else, and therefore that standard-speakers are somehow ordained with the right to pass judgment upon those who didn’t get to be born as lucky, I think the more humane and just thing to do, for those of us who got lucky by being born into standard-speaking families or who have subsequently learned and acquired the prestige variety, is to try working a little harder — make that a lot harder — to think about the effects of our language beliefs and attitudes on the lives of the real live human beings who are hurt by them and to try to stop it already.

There is so little at stake for people like us when standard ideologies are challenged in serious and systematic ways, and there is so much at stake for many, many people who aren’t nearly as lucky as the people in this room. I am talking especially to my faculty colleagues who are hearing this today and to the future teachers. Rather than perpetuating the generations of inequity to which these stubborn, irrational, and incredibly damaging language attitudes have contributed, let’s use the power that comes with our great good fortune to work for justice, acceptance, fairness, and empathy.

Notes:

[1] Linguists generally use the terms African American English, African American Language, and African American Vernacular English for the large group of related varieties of language used in African American communities. The term ‘Ebonics’ is still used in some contexts, but it has been so politicized and stigmatized, especially after the controversy surrounding the school board Ebonics resolution in Oakland, California (which the linguist John Rockford has written about extensively), in 1996 that many linguists have now abandoned it.

See also:

 

The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 3:
Can Dogs Predict Phonemic Splits?

Scarlett chills with one of her many frisbees.

(Note: As in all my posts, you can rest your cursor on links for information, including definitions and explanations of linguistic terms and phonetic symbols.)

In my previous post, I wrote about research in which dogs have demonstrated remarkable levels of lexical comprehension, which raises interesting questions about the extent to which language-acquisition abilities long considered uniquely human (or at least uniquely primate) may not actually be exclusive to humans or even to primates after all. Pilley and Reid (2011) report that in a series of experiments, a border collie named Chaser consistently demonstrated her understanding of the connection between words and their referents and even interpreted human grammatical structures to make meaning.

Most intriguing (to me, anyway) is what Chaser’s achievements add to existing knowledge about canine understanding of categories. Earlier research suggests that dogs have this ability, but Chaser is the first to offer evidence that a dog can use human words to categorize things (as opposed to visual or non-linguistic auditory stimuli). As I wrote in my previous post, Chaser understands the word toy to mean any one of the 1,022 things she is allowed to play with (and has individual names for) and recognizes the words ball and frisbee as names for mutually exclusive subcategories to each of which some of the toys belong (by virtue of their being spherical and bouncy for the former or having “disk-like qualities” for the latter), each with its own individual and distinct name. As Pilley and Reid note:

By forming categories represented by common nouns, Chaser mapped one label onto many objects. Chaser also demonstrated that she could map up to three labels onto the same object without error. Experiment 1 demonstrated that Chaser knew the proper-noun names of all objects used in this study. Chaser also mapped the common noun ‘toy’ onto these same objects. Her additional success with the two common nouns ‘ball’ and ‘Frisbee’ demonstrates that she mapped a third label onto these objects. (192)

My attempt at a visual representation of Chaser’s categories,
based on Pilley and Reid (2011).

Pilley and Reid report that in monthly tests of her vocabulary over a period of three years, Chaser consistently scored 95% or higher on tasks to show that she recognized and could accurately distinguish among the 1,022 distinct combinations of sounds (i.e. words) that she had learned as names of objects and that she had “no difficulty in discriminating between the many different sounds of the nouns given to her as names for objects” (194, my emphasis).

Much of the discourse surrounding the research with Chaser and other studies in dog linguistics has focused on the lexical: the extent to which the dogs understand words. But in spoken language, words are just combinations of sounds, specifically speech sounds – realizations of phonemes – that in combination become distinct and meaningful. But as we’ve seen, the phoneme is not a discrete, static thing but is fluid, variable, and relational, as are the ways in which speakers (and apparently non-speakers, including dogs) come to understand them.

Where all this is going for me is in two directions, both of which lead eventually — at least in my head — back to The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, with The Phoneme functioning simultaneously in its more or less literal linguistic-terminology sense as well as in a somewhat more metaphorical sense. These two directions have to do with:

  1. how sentient beings, including people and dogs, associate speech sounds with particular and distinct meanings; and
  2. how we (again, people and dogs) conceptualize categories, relations among their constituents as well as across boundaries, and the boundaries themselves.

So, can dogs predict phonemic splits?

Considering the mercurial nature of the phoneme (and of attempts to define it), alongside the ways in which we (people and, it turns out, dogs) use categories to make sense of things and language to help define them, got me wondering about whether dogs might be sensitive in ways that humans may not be with respect to phonological variation among speakers, and if so, what that might mean about their possible perceptions of sound changes in progress.

In my recent exploration of The Phoneme, I note that one way of conceptualizing it — as a (discrete) unit of sound — is complicated by the rest of its definition, that it is a class of speech sounds that a native speaker will identify as the same sound. An “individual” phoneme is actually a category containing multiple sounds, like Chaser’s categories toy, ball, and frisbee, the first of which contains not only the other two (as well as everything the categories ball and frisbee respectively contain) but another nearly 900 words in addition. Toy also functions to distinguish for Chaser what she is allowed to play with from what is off-limits, or not-toy. Similarly, the thing we call a phoneme is a category that contains qualitatively similar but not identical sounds that, despite their variability, native speakers of a language will interpret as close enough to one another so as to be (more or less) interchangeable without affecting meaning. In other words, the differences among them can be ignored. The 26 objects that Chaser knows as members of the class frisbee are not identical to one another, but if Chaser is anything like my border collie, Scarlett, she is probably willing to ignore the differences because all frisbees are good frisbees by virtue of their being frisbees – flying discs that are fun to run after and catch spectacularly — unless she is directed to select a particular frisbee for which she has learned a unique name.

My girl Scarlett has a large collection of frisbees of various materials (e.g. canvas, plastic, rubber) and different colors. She doesn’t seem to care which one she plays with, as long as someone will throw it for her. (Quinn, our Australian shepherd, on the other hand, shows a distinct preference for the firm plastic Wham-O brand Frisbees™, although he has not signed any endorsement deal that I am aware of, so this shout-out is on the house.) While it is sometimes possible for member-sounds (i.e. variant realizations or allophones) within a category or class of sounds (i.e. a phoneme) to sound less like some of the other members of its own class and more like sounds considered to be members of other classes, it seems much less likely that any frisbee could have more in common with any ball than with other frisbees. Based on her past behavior, I think there is pretty much no chance that Scarlett will bring back a ball when she is instructed to “go get the frisbee.” She’s never done that. She always brings back a frisbee.

The apparently essential (to Scarlett, at least) frisbee-ness of flying discs notwithstanding, all categories — linguistic and otherwise — are going to be arbitrary to some extent. One of my favorite linguistic examples of this arbitrariness is the way certain realizations of speech sounds are considered members of separate categories (phonemes) on the basis of qualities that are language-specific, such as the quality in English that distinguishes /i/ (vowel in seat) from /Ι/ (vowel in sit): the so-called tenseness (/i/) or laxness (/Ι/) of the vowel, a quality that is phonemic in English but noncontrastive in Spanish, in which /i/ and /Ι/ are close enough.

So, what does all this have to do with whether dogs can predict phonemic splits? Well, since there’s good evidence out there that dogs have the cognitive ability to determine and comprehend categories and that they can even understand and interpret language (in the form of meaningful combinations of human speech sounds) to do so, I am wondering about whether they understand phonemic categories in the same ways that human speakers do. Would a dog who grew up in an English-speaking household interpret a meaning distinction between sit and seat? Or would a dog who has been responding since puppyhood to the human-articulated instruction to “sit!” by doing just that hear the two words as close enough phonemically (and/or semantically) to respond the same way to an instruction to “seat”? Would a dog raised in a Spanish-speaking family to come running when given the instruction “ven!” (come!) — pronounced [ben] – respond in the same way to an American English-accented version of the same command that sounds like [vεn]?

In Spanish, [b] and [v] (and also [β], although it is less commonly articulated at the beginning of a word) are allophones — variant realizations — of the same class of sounds, namely the phoneme /b/. In many varieties of Spanish, word-initial v is often pronounced [b] and rarely [v]. In English, /b/ and /v/ are two distinct classes of speech sounds (and words spelled with v are always pronounced [v] and not [b] by native speakers). The difference between /b/ and /v/ is thus phonemic in English, which can be demonstrated by considering a minimal pair like ban and van. Since the only difference between ban and van in terms of sound is in the initial consonant of each word, the difference in meaning – in English, ban and van are of course distinct words with different meanings – shows that the initial consonants are members of different classes of speech sounds, which is another way of saying that they are phonemically distinct.

In Spanish, the difference between [e] and [ε] is also not phonemic; both sounds are allophones (variant realizations) of /e/. In English, however, the distinction between /e/ and /εis phonemic, as evidenced by the meaning difference between the English words main [me:n] and men [mεn].

The other day, my husband and I were talking about whether dogs can distinguish between variant pronunciations of unstable sounds like /æ/, the vowel in the word cat, which is highly variable in American English partly as a result of the Northern Cities Shift (NCS), a set of apparently interrelated changes in vowel pronunciations. The epicenter of NCS is the Great Lakes region, where we have lived since 2004 after having spent most of our respective lives at various points along the east coast, from Florida (me) to Virginia (him) to Washington, D.C., North Carolina, and Georgia (both of us).

Even after eight years here, to my ears, the differences between NCS and non-NCS pronunciations are so salient that NCS speakers sound to me like they are articulating a different phoneme from the one I use to pronounce words with the /æ/ sound. To me, their pronunciations of cat sound like [kejæt] (‘KAYat’) or [kiæt] (‘KEEat’), with the /æ/ noticeably (to me, anyway) raised and tensed and diphthongized. This is very different from my pronunciation, which has a slightly lowered and backed /æ/ that native Michiganders who hear the difference (they don’t all) hear as [kat] (a vowel sound closer to something that sounds to them like ‘KAHt’).

Example of possible NCS pronunciation of ‘cat’

Of course, the word cat is important to a healthy young dog like Scarlett, and it is one of many words she knows and a member of a subset whose referents she finds incredibly interesting. Sometimes when we see our neighbor’s cat through the enormous picture window in our living room, my husband or I will say to her, “Where’s the cat?” Scarlett will immediately report to the window, stand at attention with her paws on the sill, and visually lock on to the cat with the laser beam that is her famous border collie stare. In the course of our conversation the other day, I said out loud something I think a few hundred times a day, something like, “At what point does this become a completely different sound, with a completely different meaning? I mean, it already sounds that way to me.” To illustrate, I then said (in my best simulated NCS pronunciation, with a highly exaggerated version of a raised, tensed, diphthongized, and lengthened /æ/), “cat.”

Scarlett, who had been napping on the kitchen floor, immediately jumped up, dashed to the living room window, snapped to attention with her paws on the window sill, and looked for the cat.

You may be thinking that this incident does not bode well for my hypothesis that dogs may be able to predict phonemic splits since it was clear that Scarlett completely disregarded what to me is a highly salient pronunciation difference that I can’t believe is not going to end up phonemically distinct sooner or later in American English. I should point out, though, that Scarlett has lived in Michigan for three years, since the age of 16 weeks, so she is as good as native to the region.

This anecdote, while charming, is nowhere near enough evidence to go on, of course, but this post is getting long, so I will just say that in light of Scarlett’s enthusiastic response to my NCS articulation of cat (and the complete disregard it reveals on her part for what I consider a substantial difference from my usual pronunciation), it may be that dogs cannot predict phonemic splits, that they may not be any more sensitive to slight (cough) pronunciation differences than people are. But even American dogs are native speakers not of American English but of barking, growling, yelping, yipping, tail-wagging, and other vocal and nonvocal means of expression that categorically do not include American English or any other human language.

And so even if they cannot predict phonemic splits, even if they pay attention to what we pay attention to and ignore what we ignore (linguistically, anyway), it is really quite remarkable that somehow they have learned to do that. Even if they are no more sensitive to phonological variation than the people who love them (or maybe they are but learn not to be), in a sense they are still demonstrating an impressive capacity for understanding that is not necessarily available to humans when we learn languages non-natively. This capacity may have to do with their cognitive and linguistic abilities, and it may be that they have ways of getting information that have not yet occurred to us (or at least not to me), possibly including the kind of information that can compensate for phonological variability and instability. All I can say for certain at this point is that however they do it, it is clearly another example of the all-around awesomeness of dogs.


The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

The photos of Scarlett in this post are my original work, as is the visual representations of ‘toy’ categories and the illustration of an NCS pronunciation of cat. I hold the copyright for all of images in this post, so please do not use any of them without permission.

The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 2:
Dog Linguistics and the Perception of Categories

Border collies like Scarlett are known for their linguistic skills as well as their extreme cuteness.

In my previous post, I wrote about a few of the many delights associated with the process of introducing undergraduate students to the discipline of linguistics. I observed that despite their overall tendency to acquire general linguistic terminology and the concepts they denote with admirable ease and considerable aplomb, a lot of the students find one key linguistic concept to be an ongoing source of torment, and that is The Phoneme.

I won’t go into the definition again here, so if you need a refresher, please refer to that previous post. I will say that a key theme of that post was that the definition and functions of The Phoneme tend to be difficult for students to get their heads around and that it takes considerable persistence over the course of an entire semester for everyone to get to where they feel OK about it. This difficulty is completely understandable. The idea of the phoneme was initially conceptualized by structural linguists and the definition is thus fluid, relational, and complicated.

On what is going to seem like but really isn’t a completely unrelated note, you’ve probably heard about this really smart dog from South Carolina, a border collie named Chaser, who in three years of training not only learned to understand over 1,000 English words but is also reported to be capable of referential understanding of the words. That means she actually demonstrates understanding of the connection between words and their real-life referents (i.e. she can connect a word with the thing it stands for), rather than merely processing the human articulation of a noun such as frisbee as a command to go get the object so named.

Now, understanding each one of 1,022 words as a distinct command to go get a specific object that is not any of another possible 1,021 objects would be pretty impressive in its own right, and it certainly demonstrates yet another way dogs are awesome. But for Chaser’s study (Pilley and Reid 2011) and similar experiments with other dogs, the researchers indicate that their primary interest is in what word-learning by dogs might help us to understand about processes of language evolution and of language acquisition in young children and about similarities and differences in human and animal communication. (I should note that I am far from convinced by the body of research on this topic that I have consulted so far that the real motivation isn’t just fascination with and love of dogs on the parts of the researchers, which motivation I completely understand and am very much in favor.)

Chaser’s most famous predecessors, border collies named Betsy and Rico, were also renowned for their large vocabularies. Rico could “quickly form rough hypotheses about the meaning of a new word after a single exposure by inferring that the new word is connected to an object he is seeing for the first time,” according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The researchers who worked with Rico, Kaminski, Call, and Fischer (2004), described what Rico was doing as “fast mapping,” which is essentially making educated guesses at meaning on the basis of context (which of course people do all the time). They say that Rico’s example could suggest that fast mapping, which some researchers believe is a key element in child language acquisition, is “mediated by general learning and memory mechanisms also found in other animals and not by a language acquisition device that is special to humans” (my emphasis, because damn). As AAAS explains, Rico’s achievements offer clear evidence that “the ability to understand sounds is not necessarily related to the ability to speak,” and even more intriguing, that his example suggests the possibility that “some aspects of speech comprehension evolved earlier than, and independent from, human speech.”

The beautiful and intelligent Betsy.

But these claims did not go unchallenged. For example, Bloom (2004) questions whether Rico really made a referential connection. He argues that the dog “might not understand reference at all and might be limited to associating the word spoken by the owner with a specific behavior” (Bloom 2004: 1604). In other words, Rico might have interpreted a given word as a command rather than as a name that refers to a specific object. Pilley and Reid (2011: 189) do a better job than I can explaining Bloom’s skepticism:

For example, when Rico was told to “fetch sock,” did Rico comprehend that the label “sock” referred to a specific object and separately comprehend that the word “fetch” meant that he should produce a specific behavior involving that specific object?

If Rico actually treated the label “sock” as a command to “fetch sock” only, then it would not be evidence that he understood reference. That is, Rico may not have understood that the label “sock” referred to a specific object, independent of a behavior directed toward the sock.

If so, then Rico’s word learning may have little to do with language learning as exhibited by humans. In essence, Bloom’s concern addresses the question as to whether Rico understood . . . that objects are independent in meaning from the activity requested [involving] that object.

The adorable and brilliant Rico.

In their work with Chaser, Pilley and Reid (2011) designed their experiments to address the kinds of questions raised by Bloom and others (see especially Markman and Abelev 2004) about whether dogs are actually capable of the kind of referential understanding that Kaminski, Call, and Fischer claim that Rico had demonstrated. The article is a fascinating and accessible read, and I encourage anyone who is interested to check it out in its entirety. In the meantime, their abstract will give you a good idea of what they were after and how they addressed questions such as those raised by Bloom and Markman and Abelev:

Four experiments investigated the ability of a border collie (Chaser) to acquire receptive language skills. Experiment 1 demonstrated that Chaser learned and retained, over a 3-year period of intensive training, the proper-noun names of 1022 objects.

Experiment 2 presented random pair-wise combinations of three commands and three names, and demonstrated that she understood the separate meanings of proper-noun names and commands. Chaser understood that names refer to objects, independent of the behavior directed toward those objects.

Experiment 3 demonstrated Chaser’s ability to learn three common nouns – words that represent categories. Chaser demonstrated one-to-many (common noun) and many-to-one (multiple-name) name–object mappings.

Experiment 4 demonstrated Chaser’s ability to learn words by inferential reasoning by exclusion – inferring the name of an object based on its novelty among familiar objects that already had names.

Together, these four experiments indicate that Chaser acquired referential understanding of nouns, an ability normally attributed to human children, which included: (a) awareness that words may refer to objects, (b) awareness of verbal cues that map words upon the object referent, and (c) awareness that names may refer to unique objects or categories of objects, independent of the behaviors directed toward those objects.

Pilley and Reid (2011)

Chaser has thus demonstrated not only that she is a very, very smart girl but also the referential understanding that was not conclusive in the earlier work with Rico. In other words, she has demonstrated that she understands the difference between a word that denotes an actual object and a command to go get the object.

Additionally and astonishingly, Chaser comprehends categories to which different objects belong. She knows that toy means any one of the 1,022 things she is allowed to play with (and has individual names for) but she also recognizes ball as a subcategory to which 116 of the toys belong (by virtue of their being spherical and bouncy), each also with its own individual and distinct name, and frisbee as another subcategory of 26 of the toys, each with “disk-like qualities” (Pilley and Reid 2011: 191) and an individual name. In other words, Chaser understands the 26 member-objects of the category frisbee as individual items with a certain level of distinction from one another but she also understands that all 26 frisbee objects are collectively distinct from all the other non-frisbee members of the category toys.

It is partly Chaser’s understanding of categories that got me thinking about whether dogs might be able to predict phonemic splits, which will be the topic of my next post, and partly my experience with Scarlett, my own adorable and astonishingly smart border collie, who responds to an array of verbal and non-verbal cues, most of which I am probably completely unaware although I am in awe of her just on the basis of the ones I am aware of.

And it is partly my recent exploration of The Phoneme, which we talk about in some ways as if it is a discrete unit of sound, except that it is complicated by the rest of its definition as “a class of speech sounds that a native speaker will identify as the same sound.” The multiplicity of different sounds that can belong to such a class and be close enough to one another so that speakers will mostly ignore the differences between them functions in some ways like the differences among the 26 objects that Chaser knows as members of the class frisbee. But sometimes a sound within a category actually sounds less like other members of its own class than like some sounds considered to be members of other classes, while it is unlikely that any but the most questionably labeled frisbee is going to be more like any ball than like any other frisbee. What I am saying, then, is that I think frisbee and ball are more discrete categories than, say, [Ι] and [i], the vowel sounds in the words sit and seat, respectively, but it’s still pretty awesome that dogs can understand such categories at all.

On that note, I am going to stop for now. But stay tuned for the gripping conclusion to what is going to have to be a trilogy because this post, part 2, is already up to 2,000 words, and there are still lingering questions about dogs, phonemes, and the arbitrariness of boundaries that have to be dealt with.

So join us next time for The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 3: Can Dogs Predict Phonemic Splits?

Chaser: brains and beauty.

Works Cited:

Bloom, Paul (2004). “Can a Dog Learn a Word?” Science 304, pp. 1605-06.

Kaminski, Juliane, Josep Call, and Julia Fischer (2004). “Word Learning in a Domestic Dog: Evidence for ‘Fast Mapping’.” Science 304, pp. 1682–83.

Markman, Ellen M., and Maxim Abelev (2004). “Word Learning in Dogs?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 8:11, pp. 479–480.

Pilley, John W., and Alliston K Reid (2011). “Border Collie Comprehends Object Names As Verbal Referents.” Behavioural Processes 86 (2011), pp. 184-95.


As always, the usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

The photo of Scarlett in this post is my original work and I own the copyright, so please do not use it without permission.

I hope National Geographic won’t mind the use of their cover photo of Betsy and that ABC News won’t mind the inclusion here of their picture of Chaser. The photo of Rico used here is all over the internet and I could not find its original source. I hope that none of these pictures will get me into trouble with the law and that if anyone knows the original source for the picture of Rico, they will let me know so that I can cite it.

The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 1:
What We Have to Pay Attention to and What We Can Ignore

We have to pay attention to these guys!
Edward “Sound Patterns” Sapir (1884-1939) and
Leonard “The Phoneme” Bloomfield (1887-1949).

A fun part of my job is to introduce beginning students to the joyous and inspiring world of linguistics. The courses I teach most frequently are Language Variation in American English and a course in the history of the English language. There are no prerequisites for these courses, which is an issue but not one I am going to get into now, except to say that it means most of the students have not taken any linguistics courses before, which further means that we have to spend the first few weeks of the semester on a general introduction to the discipline before we can get into anything really juicy.

The general intro involves, among other things, helping students learn how to talk about language. Like everything else, linguistics has a language of its own. Happily, the students usually have little difficulty in understanding the basic terminology, which most of them pick up quickly and can use comfortably to discuss fairly sophisticated topics in a matter of weeks.

But there is one concept that really messes with their heads, and that is The Phoneme.

And rightly so. Unlike a lot of general linguistic terminology, the idea of the phoneme does not necessarily make sense right away. For some linguists, it does not make sense at all. But even for those who find it a useful concept (which I do, and I will countenance no disrespect of my main men Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield), it takes time to understand the phoneme in all its mystery.

We start off talking about terminology and in the process, we use the terms as they learn them to help them think about other terms. So we start with what I call the lex terms, the words about words. Every time they see lex-, I tell them, it’s a good bet we’re talking about something vocabulary-related. There’s lexicon, lexical, lexeme. I point out the –eme in lexeme and mention that when they see –eme on the end of a word, a lot of times it will mean unit of, as in lexeme, a unit of vocabulary, or, you know, a word. So far, so good. Same with morpheme, a unit of meaning, the smallest meaningful unit in language, sort of the meaning-atom of the linguistic world. And we get into different kinds of morphemes, and this is usually OK too. But then there’s The Phoneme. That’s when the betrayal happens.

“Yes!” I respond enthusiastically to the students who suggest “unit of sound?” as the definition for phoneme. They have learned well that when they see a phon- word, it is going to have something to do with sound. I used to say that the phon- morpheme (see what I did there?) should be an easy one to remember, and I’d hold an imaginary phone to my ear to demonstrate why. “Get it? Phone? Sound?” But increasingly I am encountering students who never use their phones for anything that actually involves speech sounds. And while I am sympathetic to that – one time my phone malfunctioned to where I could not receive any incoming calls, and it turned out to have been going on for two weeks before I noticed it (and I only realized it because it was pointed out to me by irritated friends whose calls I kept missing and not returning because I didn’t know about them) – it is not a helpful development for the teaching of linguistic-terminology mnemonics.

But I digress. Which is really what this blog is for. So deal.

Anyway, yes, a phoneme is a unit of sound, specifically a unit of speech-sound, but…. And here’s where the story starts to fall apart.

As everyone who teaches knows, it is a sad thing to see the bright sunshine of understanding* on the faces of the students (“Hey, this really isn’t that bad!”) and then have to stand by and watch as it fades into storm clouds of dismay* as they begin to realize that you have pulled a fast one on them and are going to change the rules just as the other team is getting the hang of the game.*

* These metaphors are offered as evidence for why I am a linguist and not a poet.

Yes, I say, a phoneme is a unit of speech-sound, but there’s a little more to it than that. I say I will write down this ever so slightly more complex definition so that they can copy it down and everyone will have it in front of them and then I will explain it thoroughly. I mean the thoroughly part to be reassuring but instantly realize that this is a mistake. It just disheartens them further. (“This really requires ‘thorough’ explanation? Yikes.”)

I write on a clean sheet of paper placed on the doc cam, using a fresh new Sharpie in an extra special awesome color so that they will see that I am still on their side, but most of them are not convinced. They sit, grimly silent, as the definition appears in letters now twelve times the size of God (as the writer Hunter S. Thompson once described a similarly horrific scene) on the large screen in the front of the room:

phoneme = a class of speech sounds that a native speaker will identify as the same sound.

When I finish writing, there is an air of anticlimax and polite expectancy hanging over us throughout the room, but I also sense that it has a slight edge of annoyance to it as well. But I’ve been in front of much tougher audiences than this one.

So here I go.

“You know how different people pronounce words in different ways?”

A few nod warily. Others — especially in 4720 — look slightly irritated, since that is one of the exact things they are taking the class to learn more about. One or two more look discreetly but frantically at their watches. I am among this last group.

“Well, one thing that is part of what it means to ‘know’ a language is that you know which pronunciation differences you have to pay attention to and which ones you’re supposed to ignore. So like* if I say the word cat, and another native speaker of American English also says it but pronounces the vowel slightly differently from how I pronounce it, we can all still understand that we are both talking about the same kind of animal. More or less.”

*Yes, I say like in class sometimes. Deal.

Everyone laughs at the slightly-lowered, slightly-backed [æ] I have in my pronunciation of cat despite how awesomely normal it sounds compared to the crazy raised and tensed and diphthongized pronunciations of [æ] that many native Michiganders seems to favor. Oh, of course I kid, I kid. I mean about the “normal” and “crazy” parts. I’m dead serious about the raising and tensing and diphthongization of [æ].

At this point, I introduce the term minimal pair.

“Does this mean we’re done with phoneme?” someone asks.

“Aren’t you sweet,” I respond. I write a new definition:

minimal pair = two words that are phonemically identical except for a single sound in the same position in both words.

“How is that even remotely helpful?” At this point, the voices in the students’ heads are so loud that even I can hear them. Still, I press on and write down some examples of minimal pairs:

sit / seat

lock / rock

pat / bat

“What’s the difference between sit and seat,” I ask, “in terms of sound?”

“The vowels,” they answer.

“Yes,” I reply, “so sit and seat are phonemically identical” (insert meaningful eyebrow raise). “They sound exactly the same – except for the vowel in the middle of the word, which is a single sound in the same position in both words. All the other sounds in both words, meaning the /s/ and the /t/, are exactly the same, in the same order.”

“Ohhhh,” a few murmur.

“Do sit and seat have different meanings?” I ask.

“Well, their meanings are related,” they reply.

“Yes, but are they synonymous?” I demand.

“No. Sit is a verb; seat is a noun,” they say. (Reason #892 that I love English majors: They are all down with the parts of speech, they can always be counted on to know what synonymous means, and they don’t care who knows it.)

“OK, good, yes!”

I write down [Ι] and [i], the phonetic symbols that represent the vowel sounds in sit and seat, respectively.

“So, if changing the vowel sound changes the meaning, the two vowel sounds in sit” – I point to [Ι] — “and seat” – I point to [i] — “are therefore phonemically distinct from each other. Another way to say this is to say that for [Ι] and [i], each one is a member of a class of speech sounds that a native speaker will identify as the same sound but that they are not members of the same class.”

There is some murmuring, but it does not sound overtly mutinous, so I go on.

“And we know [Ι] and [i] are not members of the same class of speech sounds because native speakers will not identify them as the same sound. We know that because all y’all native speakers just said that sit and seat are two different words with different meanings. That means you identified these two vowel sounds as members of two different classes. You just proved that they are. And that means that the difference between [Ι] and [i] is phonemic.”

“Ahhh,” a few more murmur. “Oh crap,” a few others mutter. The ratio is satisfactory.

“So, can we say that [Ι] is a phoneme and [i] is another phoneme?” asks a student.

“Yes,” I respond. “That’s it exactly!” I pause in a way I think probably appears to be thoughtful. “At least in English.”

I see a horrified flash of “Oh, no, what now?” ripple across many faces.

Because I can’t leave well enough alone, and they know it. I have to go and “ruin everything, always!” (according to a student comment in a course evaluation a few years ago, and I quote).

“You know, I should probably mention that just because [Ι] and [i] are phonemic in English doesn’t mean they are in every language,” I say gently.

They wait, withholding judgment. But I know it won’t last. I take a deep breath.

“Any of you studying Spanish?”

Some hands go up.

“Yes? Thank God. Well, in Spanish, for example, [Ι] and [i] are not phonemically distinct. That means that the difference between [Ι] and [i] is a difference you have to pay attention to in English, but it’s a difference you can ignore in Spanish. In Spanish, it’s just an innocuous little pronunciation variant that no one pays any attention to. So you can imagine how hard it must be for native speakers of Spanish to get their heads around the distinction between words like sit and seat when they’re learning English because, you know, [Ι] and [i] are not phonemically distinct in Spanish. They’ve spent their whole lives ignoring the distinction and then all of a sudden they have to start actually noticing it. The sentence ‘Sit in the seat‘ must be particularly infuriating.”

When we get back from our break (we take 10 halfway through the hour+fifty class meeting), I ask how everyone is feeling about everything we’ve gone over so far. They mostly nod encouragingly. WMU students tend to be very stoic and determined people. They also possess what I believe is a higher-than-average level of empathy.

I casually* ask whether they have ever noticed that native speakers of Japanese who are learning English sometimes seem to mix up /l/ and /r/ in English words. Yes, many of them have noticed this. Well, I point out, native speakers of Japanese are used to ignoring the differences between /l/ and /r/ in their native language, but in English, it’s a difference that speakers have to pay attention to. I write down lock and rock. 

*The students are not fooled.

Lock and rock are two completely different words in English” I observe. “Why?”

“Because in English /l/ and /r/ are members of different classes of speech sounds?” offers a student.

“Yes! That is it exactly. Anyone else have another way to say that?”

“The difference between /l/ and /r/ is phonemic in English,” like twelve students say, most of them sighing and rolling their eyes but also a little bit pleased with themselves, you can tell.

Huzzah! My heart sings. Who doesn’t love a happy ending?

Except it is not the end. We will continue to have variations on this conversation for the Next. Three. Months. We will have those conversations because we have to. What a phoneme is will be forgotten. It will be relearned and forgotten again. Quizzes will be failed. Tears will be shed, occasionally even by a student. But it does get easier after this. It is slow going at times, but it does get easier. For all of us.

Don’t hate me because I have
many, many awesome Sharpies.

Next up: The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 2: Dog Linguistics and the Perception of Categories


The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are in the public domain, except for the Sharpies photo, which I hope will not get me into any trouble with the law.

Posted by: lcm | January 10, 2012

From Marburg to Miami

From Marburg to Miami:
Putting language variation on the map

So far on the blog, I’ve focused a lot of attention on the pre-history of the language and on the mostly 19th-century and mostly European scholars who conceptualized the study of historical linguistics into the approaches that many researchers in the discipline still accept and use even today. I’ve also alluded now and again to the relationship between language change and language variation, although these really have been only allusions rather than any kind of exploration of what I think is an interesting topic in its own right, one that I am looking forward to exploring in a future post. But what’s on my mind today is language variation as it occurs at a (relative) moment in time, how linguists have come to approach it as an object for analysis, and particularly how an approach known as linguistic geography came into being. This is a topic close to my heart for several reasons, all of which I think I will get to eventually in this post.

The idea of language variation as a thing to study is a fairly recent development, although the dates of some of the earlier work overlap with the heyday of German(ic) enthusiasm for historical linguistics discussed in previous posts. And the guy who usually gets the credit for pioneering research in language variation is yet another German linguist, a fellow by the name of Georg Wenker (1852-1911), who worked at the University of Marburg, which was the alma mater of one Jacob Grimm, also a major player in the development of modern linguistics, as discussed in more detail here. (Note: ‘Wenker’ is pronounced the German way, so just accept that it is not as funny as it could be.)

Beginning in 1876, Wenker sent out questionnaires with 40 or so sample sentences to 50,000 teachers throughout Germany and asked them to collaborate with their students to rewrite the sentences in the local vernacular. Wolfgang Näser, Wenker’s much younger colleague at Marburg (much younger in that Näser is still an active scholar today while Wenker went on to his reward a hundred years ago), has claimed that Wenker’s sentences contained “all relevant phenomena regarding phonation and morphology where variation of any kind could be expected.”

Some 45,000 of Wenker’s questionnaires were eventually completed and returned to him, a rate of response that I probably don’t need to point out would be pretty much impossible to replicate. It also made it impossible for Wenker to analyze all the data during his lifetime. But he was able to publish some of his findings and is usually credited for creating the first modern linguistic atlas, literally documenting Who Said What Where, with the publication of his first Sprachatlas in 1881.

In collaboration with Ferdinand Wrede (Wenke’s successor as Sprachatlas project director) and Emil Maurmann (about whom I could find out practically nothing), Wenker also used the data to create original hand-drawn maps, thereby putting the ‘atlas’ in Sprachatlas and illustrating the locations where particular linguistic features had been attested. The pioneering linguistic geographer and his colleagues eventually created over 1,600 such maps, a phenomenal feat of cartography, not to mention an equally impressive artistic achievement.

Wenker map of ‘ald’/’al’ variants (English ‘old’).

Wenker’s reliance on the self-reports and observations of the research participants rather than first-hand observations by trained linguists open the data to challenges from later researchers, but his project was an influential model for linguistic geography into the 20th century.

Another key figure in modern language variation studies is Jules Gilliéron (1854-1926), a Swiss linguist who hiked around the southern Rhône valley region to study the speech of the locals in this French-German-Italian contact area for his 1880 Petit Atlas phonétique du Valais roman (sud du Rhône) and later trained Edmond Edmont (1849-1926) to collect linguistic data in France. The lucky Edmont’s job combined two of the best things in life – biking and linguistics – and he cycled around France from 1896 to 1900 in the process of interviewing 700 speakers using a 1,500-item questionnaire. He and Gilliéron published the results along with nearly 2,000 maps in the 13-volume Atlas Linguistique de la France (1902-10).

Gilliéron and Edmont “dispense with lengthy explanations.”

The work of Gilliéron and Edmont was influential, especially their methods of direct observation (versus Wenker’s reliance on indirect reporting). Several more European projects were soon underway, most notably the Sprachatlas Italiens und der Südschweiz (Linguistic Atlas of Italy and Southern Switzerland), published in 8 volumes (1928-40), by Karl Jaberg and Jakob Jud, who had both been students of Gilliéron’s. In 1931, Jud traveled to the U.S. with Paul Scheuermaier, who had also worked on Jaberg and Jud’s Sprachatlas, to train American students in linguistic field methods.

The Americans who trained with Jud and Scheuermaier would soon head out to begin fieldwork (1931-33) for the Linguistic Atlas of New England (LANE), under the direction of Hans Kurath (1891-1992). Kurath, then a professor of linguistics at Ohio State (later Brown and finally the University of Michigan) had been appointed in 1930 to head up a new project, the Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada. LANE was to serve as the pilot study and was published in three volumes (1939-43), none of them available online. Linguistic Atlases of the Middle and South Atlantic States (LAMSAS), North Central States (LANCS), Pacific Northwest (LAPNW), Gulf States (LAGS, directed by one of my all-time favorite people, Lee Pederson), and other regional Atlas projects would follow.

Raven I. McDavid, Jr. (1911-84), then a graduate student at the University of Michigan, joined the Atlas as a fieldworker in 1940 and proceeded to conduct interviews of 278 LAMSAS participants, most of them in his native South Carolina. When Kurath retired in 1964, McDavid, by then a professor at the University of Chicago, assumed the directorship of LAMSAS and LANCS. Fieldwork continued on both projects through 1978, which was just around the time that a young doctoral student at Chicago, Bill Kretzschmar, joined the project. When McDavid died in 1984, Kretzschmar, who had recently joined the faculty at the University of Georgia, was appointed to succeed him as project director.

Kretzschmar brought the Atlas into the 21st century by digitizing substantial portions of LAMSAS data, including the linguistic data of speakers of Sea Island Creole, or Gullah, an endangered contact language spoken on islands off the coast of the southeastern United States, collected and transcribed by the legendary scholar and linguist Lorenzo Turner (1890-1972). Kretzschmar has also launched new community language projects and continues to work on new ways to make more Linguistic Atlas data available online.

*          *          *          *          *

It was 1989 when I first ventured into 317 Park Hall at the University of Georgia. I was looking for a professor I hadn’t met before whose name contained an astonishing six consecutive consonants. I was trying to put together a committee for my master’s thesis on how speaker gender is perceived to influence linguistic behavior. I had a thesis director and was now looking for a few other interesting linguistics professors to work with.

The sign on the door of 317 read “Linguistic Atlas of the United States and Canada,” and when I peeked in, I saw a large room divided up into a maze of file cabinets and bookcases, loaded down with books, journals, folders, and box after box of what appeared to be (and were) reel-to-reel tapes. We sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by 60 years’ worth of linguistic data in every imaginable format, although I had no idea at the time what it was. We talked about linguistics, my thesis idea, and whether he might consider serving on the committee. After about 20 minutes of conversation, Dr. Kretzschmar said, “I’ll do it.”

The rest isn’t quite history. I finished my thesis and my master’s degree only after some fairly insane departmental drama that makes a lot more sense to me now, was completely horrifying at the time, and resulted in Dr. K’s having to take over as director of my thesis, which he did more graciously than I probably deserved and more competently than I had previously had reason to imagine possible since I had only my former director’s example to go on. When I wrote to him years later to tell him that I was planning to go back to school to pursue a PhD, Dr. K did not hesitate: “You should come back here,” his email said.

In 1998, I returned to the University of Georgia to begin my doctoral work and start a job in 317 Park Hall. Thanks to Dr. K, I got a university-wide research fellowship that funded an editorial position with LAMSAS. My job was to compile and edit headnotes, train undergraduate researchers, and especially work on getting the data of African American and Gullah interviewees online. This meant that I got to work with the handwritten field transcripts, the pages of phonetic transcriptions that the fieldworkers had made on the fly, documenting pronunciations, lexical variants, and grammatical forms as they interviewed LAMSAS participants. Lorenzo Turner’s were clear and beautiful, sometimes including notes about cultural customs and drawings of local plants; Raven McDavid’s were lightly pencilled and impossibly meticulous, sometimes nearly impossible to interpret, the phonetic symbols often marked up with diacritics to within inches of their lives, attesting to the slightest of pronunciation differences among speakers.

*          *          *          *          *

I have never been a believer in destiny. It makes more sense to me to look back after the fact and see what patterns might have emerged as things more or less worked themselves out. And that might actually be part of what is appealing to me about the study of language, especially variation and change: the interesting designs you can see when you look back over things that happened over the history of a linguistic feature or of a language, the opportunity for interpretation, for the analytical and creative acts of developing a narrative to explain how whatever it is got that way. Unlike the Neogrammarians, though, I don’t believe in a systematicity or regularity to the processes of change or the patterns of variation. I can understand the appeal of that idea — it has an almost spiritual awesomeness (in the traditional sense of the word) about it that is very compelling — but I just can’t believe that it really works that way. And even if it does, I imagine that the design, the system, will never be within human comprehension, although that isn’t a good enough reason to stop looking for it, if you believe it is there and can be found. But I like the idea of there not being one, or of it being so incomprehensible to us that there might as well not be one. That’s almost as good.

Anyway, I don’t believe that I was destined to become a linguist. I’ve always been fascinated with the way people talk, the way words sound, and how we make meanings out of collections of sounds. In that respect, I always wanted to be a linguist. Even before I ever knew there was such a thing. But I could have always wanted to be any number of other things, too, and had a few things gone even just a little differently, this would be a completely different story. When I look back now, after the fact, over the patterns that are there now for me to interpret, to analyze, and to create a narrative to explain, I do see kind of a design, an irregular one, not a logical one, that zig-zags and curlicues between the work that has become so important to me and my first language variation research project.

It was linguistic geography, a project in which — at age 7 — I attempted to determine Who Says What Where in classic Atlas fashion. And so now, in celebration of my 40 years as a linguist, I present that study here in print for the first time:

Miami Bathroom Announcements (1972)

The author on a break from linguistic fieldwork (Miami 1972).

When I was in second grade, a family from New Jersey moved into my neighborhood in South Miami. I noticed a lot of differences in the ways that they talked from what I was used to hearing, but I was particularly taken aback by their bathroom announcements, that is, what they said when they were going to use the restroom. The main feature I noticed was that while I was used to speakers focusing more on the going, the members of this family included disturbing information about what they were going to do when they got there. This startled and perplexed me.

So I started paying attention to what people said when they said they were “going to the bathroom.” I listened to friends, family members, strangers I was lucky enough to overhear (I had to try to guess where they came from). I had family members in New Jersey, too, so I also got to listen to how my cousins talked when I was with them. I wrote down what I heard on a chart I kept in my notebook for school, keeping track of who said what where. This project went on for months. I discussed it with no one.

In the table below, I reconstruct my findings to the best of my recollection. You will probably need to click to enlarge it in order to see it clearly. I make no claims as to the validity of the study’s methodology or findings.

Miami Bathroom Announcements (1972)


The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are in the public domain, except for the Miami Bathroom Announcements data chart, which is my original work, and the photo of me, for which I own the copyright. Neither may be used without permission.

Posted by: lcm | October 28, 2011

Let them eat metaphors, Part 2

Let them eat metaphors, Part 2:
Darwin and Schleicher sitting in a tree 

 

Darwin's "I think" tree (1837)

Darwin’s “I think” tree (1837)

In my previous post, I wrote about coming to terms with the metaphorical nature of Proto-Indo-European (PIE), a language that may or may not ever have existed as an actual language spoken by actual people at an actual moment in time but that is posited to be the common ancestor of most of the languages of Europe and many in western and central Asia. To recap, the gist of that post is that the Indo-European (IE) hypothesis is large and contains multitudes and that the options seem to be to accept the astonishing inexactness of the metaphors or submit to the paralyzing mind-blowingness of what we use them to try to explain. I also suggested that the latter option could be inconvenient if you’re trying to discuss historical linguistics and language relatedness in a class that meets for an hour and fifty minutes twice a week.

Anyway, continuing on the topic of the metaphors that we use to try to create some kind of manageable order out of the chaos that is the story of human language and how it got this way, we turn now to a fellow name of August Schleicher (1821-1868), a German linguist by training and profession who specialized in classical and Slavic languages. Schleicher, who may have had some of the same concerns that I have about how we can possibly even try to conceptualize an unattested 5,000 to 7,000-year-old super-ancestor Ur-language that might not even have actually existed, decided that it was time someone got around to the task of trying to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European. That means recreating (creating?) more or less an entire language — vocabulary, phonology, grammar — by working backwards from existing linguistic data found in the oldest surviving texts in languages believed to be descended from PIE.

Despite the seeming complete and utter impossibility of such a task, Schleicher actually did it. I can’t believe no one tried to talk him out of it (“Gus, dude, that is völlig bekloppt!”), or if anyone did try, that he resisted and did it anyway. And he did it. He actually reconstructed Proto-Indo-European, a language that left no direct evidence, if it had ever even really existed, and if it had existed, it had been dead for something to the tune of 5,000 years. Let that sink in for a minute. And if you’re not blown away at the thought of the kind of brain Herr Doktor Schleicher must have had to pull this off, go back and read my previous post, especially the parts about using the comparative method for reconstructing languages with no living speakers and no direct textual evidence. It’s important to me that everyone understand that this was a feat of extraordinary intellectual bad-assery. (That it was also a feat of extraordinary nuttiness is not necessarily beside the point.)

Anyway, in 1861, Schleicher published his reconstruction of PIE in a book called Compendium der Vergleichenden Grammatik der Indogermanischen Sprachen, known in English (and available in translation here) as A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European LanguagesRevisions and reissues appeared well into the 1870s, although Schleicher himself died in 1868 at age 47.

“What does all this have to do with metaphors?” you might be thinking. Everything. It has everything to do with metaphors. For one thing, even as Schleicher published his reconstruction of a 5- to 7,000-year-old dead language that might not have existed in the first place, he also made it clear that he knew all along that he was dealing in metaphors, and particularly in a big PIE-shaped metaphor, one that made it possible for him to reconstruct what was quite possibly a mythical language. “A form traced back to the sound-grade of the Indo-European original language, we call a fundamental form,” he wrote in his extremely compendious Compendium in 1861, although of course he actually wrote it in German. “When we bring forward these fundamental forms, we do not assert that they really were once in existence.” I mean, duh.

But that’s not all. As if the actual reconstruction of a possibly metaphorical language is not enough to guarantee Schleicher’s place in history, or at least his place in historical linguistics, or at least in the history of metaphors to explain historical linguistics, there is also this: August Schleicher generated some of the most influential and enduring metaphors to which we have recourse today for making sense of the development of human language over time, including the single most influential and enduring metaphor of all: the phylogenetic tree for mapping language descent and relatedness. (That his tree metaphor has been criticized and challenged from practically day one and continues to be qualified to within inches of its life even today ought to take nothing away from the fact that it is actually still used today.) This was and still is the family tree theory, which Schleicher devised to explain relationships among languages and thereby to classify them, although he actually called it Stammbaumtheorie, which is German for ‘family tree theory’ (sort of), because he was, you know, German.

According to Richards (2002: 34), Schleicher “suggested (but did not yet graphically illustrate) that the developmental history of the European languages could best be portrayed in a Stammbaum, a stem-tree or developmental tree” as early as 1850. His first “graphic representation of a Stammbaum” appeared in two publications in 1853. Unfortunately, neither of the two 1853 articles in which Schleicher’s proto-tree proto-drawings (see what I did there?) first appeared is readily available, so I had no choice but to copy — as in reproduce by trying to draw it myself — an image of one of them that is conveniently reprinted in Richards’s article, which is itself actually Printed in a Book that is Protected by Copyright. Even though Schleicher’s original work is of course in the public domain, reprinting it in a book in 2002 might give a publisher a sense that they are entitled to righteous indignation as well as legal recourse were someone to, say, scan the image and put it on the internet. Hence my original interpretation.

(Disclaimer: I’m pretty sure Schleicher’s original drawings were not done with a red Sharpie, so please forgive this gauche anachronism, not to mention the obvious lack of artistic talent and aesthetic value. I think it does kind of look like Schleicher’s earliest trees, though, or enough so you get the idea.)

My attempt to reproduce 1853 Schleicher proto-tree

By 1860, Schleicher “had begun to use Stämmbaume rather frequently to illustrate language descent,” according to Richards (34). And his designs get more sophisticated as well in the 1860s, meaning that he seems to have used a ruler this time, as you can see in the illustrations below, which appeared in the extremely compendious Compendium, in the original German version (1861) and the English translation (1874), respectively.

Schleicher’s tree in 1861

English translation by Herbert Bendall, 1874

Schleicher’s family-tree theory includes two key hypotheses, and both are pretty Neogrammarian (as in kind of obsessed with the idea that language change, particularly sound change, is regular, systematic, and predictable). He is not technically identified with that movement, although there is no question but that he influenced its proponents. Anyway, the first was the regularity hypothesis, which assumed that speech sounds change in systematic (regular, predictable) ways, as Rasmus Rask had originally suggested. (There’s more about Rask in the previous post.) The second hypothesis was the relatedness hypothesis: Because of this (assumed) regularity, sound similarities among particular languages were therefore likely to be the products (and evidence) of family relationships (genetic relationships, to use another biological metaphor) among those languages. This was pretty innovative thinking, and the best part is that had Schleicher not had an actual life outside his work at the university (now there’s an idea), he might never have come up with any of it.

In addition to his completely understandable passion for linguistics, Schleicher was also an enthusiastic gardener and avid reader of scientific literature on the topic. In an 1863 essay, “Darwinian Theory and the Science of Language” (which is essentially an open letter to his close friend and colleague at the University of Jena, the zoologist Ernst Haeckel), Schleicher outlines his thoughts in response to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), which Haeckel recommended to him when it was translated into German in 1860. Schleicher notes in the essay that Haeckel had recommended Darwin’s book to him because he thought it would appeal to his linguist friend’s love of gardening (which is translated adorably in the English version of the essay as “botanizing”), but he writes that upon reading it, the British naturalist’s “views and theory struck me in a much higher degree, when I applied them to the science of language.”

As he explains in the essay, by this point in his career, Schleicher had come to conceptualize languages in the context of the natural sciences, about which he read avidly and which developments he had followed with great interest for most of his life. In the essay, he maintains that human languages are essentially living organisms that are born, grow into maturity, and eventually die. This is a reasonable enough metaphor, even a pretty good one, but interestingly, and despite the apparent predisposition for metaphor that his reconstruction of PIE and invention of the Stammbaumtheorie might indicate, Schleicher does not appear to treat the language-as-organism metaphor as, you know, metaphorical. He had once suggested as much, in a book he published in 1853, Die Sprachen Europas in systematischer Uebersicht (The Languages of Europe in Systematic Perspective), but by 1863, he was no longer saying merely that languages are like living organisms but rather that languages actually share biological characteristics with plants and animals, at least in the evolutionary sense.

Lest readers misunderstand this, he assures them that he does not mean to limit his claim for the biological, evolutionary nature of language to what was then becoming a fairly uncontroversial application of language development in the context of human physiological evolution (i.e. the role that evolution plays in the development of the physical apparatus that human beings use to produce speech). He takes a much more radical position than that, one that classifies language itself as living organism and proposes classifying all of human life according to its linguistic systems:

I do not here exclusively refer to a physiological investigation of the various sounds of speech, a study which has made considerable progress of late, but also to the observation and application of linguistic varieties in their significance for the natural history of man. What if those linguistic varieties were to form the basis of a natural system concerning the unique genus homo? Is not the history of the formation and progress of speech the main aspect of that of the development of mankind? This much is certain, that a knowledge of linguistic relationship is absolutely requisite for anybody who wishes to obtain sound notions about the nature and being of man. (“Darwinian Theory,” 15)

A few pages later, he takes the claim of language-as-organism even farther:

Languages are organisms of nature; they have never been directed by the will of man; they rose, and developed themselves according to definite laws; they grew old, and died out. They, too, are subject to that series of phenomena which we embrace under the name of “life.” The science of language is consequently a natural science; its method is generally altogether the same as that of any other natural science. (“Darwinian Theory,” 20-21.)

Richards (2002: 47) maintains that Schleicher and Darwin, who corresponded, were mutually influential and that Schleicher’s tree designs impressed the naturalist, who cited Schleicher in The Descent of Man (1871: 56) as a source for his exposition on the “origin of articulate language.” However, it turned out that Schleicher’s position, that “The rules now, which Darwin lays down with regard to the species of animals and plants, are equally applicable to the organisms of languages” (Schleicher 1863: 30), which he seems to have meant literally, did not prove to be very persuasive to other historical linguists, although it has enjoyed some considerable success as — you guessed it — a metaphor.

So here we still are, still talking about the Indo-European hypothesis, and still using Schleicher’s models of language relatedness and descendancy, still applying the language-as-organism metaphor and the family-tree model as ways of conceptualizing the otherwise unimaginable. Like Indo-European languages themselves, Schleicher’s metaphors, the ones he intended as metaphors as well as the ones that just turned out to work better that way, have ended up having pretty serious staying power. And despite its limitations and imperfections (it is not well suited to account for internal variation and contact between the branches that represent sub-families, for example) the central symbol of all his metaphors — the tree — has thrived beyond what even the dedicated botanizer-linguist could ever have hoped or imagined.

You want to see some evidence of that? Click here to see a selection of the infinite visual representations of the Indo-European language family, all of which are in the debt of one August Schleicher.

August Schleicher


The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are in the public domain, except for my rendition of Schleicher’s 1853 proto-tree, which is my original, um, artwork(-ish).

Posted by: lcm | October 9, 2011

Let them eat metaphors, Part 1

Let them eat metaphors, Part 1:
Order from Chaos and the Indo-European Hypothesis

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the idea of language relatedness in my English 3720 class, the topic of which is the history of the English language. I have been teaching this course once or twice a year for the past seven years, and one thing strikes me every time, especially at this point in the semester: the nature of the metaphors we use to talk about language, especially (although not exclusively) in the context of historical linguistic development and language relatedness.

An English guy named William Jones (1746-1794) usually gets the credit for suggesting that similarities among languages in Europe and in western and central Asia – Sanskrit, ancient Greek, and Latin were Jones’s particular interests – could be explained by a common linguistic ancestor. As the story generally goes, Jones, who spent much of his professional life in India as a supreme court justice, presented the common-ancestor hypothesis at a 1786 meeting of the Asiatic Society, a scholarly society that he founded in 1784. The theory has since become known as the Indo-European (IE) hypothesis and the posited common-ancestor language as Proto-Indo-European (PIE), although Jones’s role in the development of the Indo-European hypothesis is not universally accepted and has been disputed by some scholars.

Sir William “Jonesy” Jones

Researchers find evidence for the relatedness of the various Proto-Indo-European descendant languages by exploring words common among them and by comparing other structural features, namely phonology (pronunciation) and grammar (how it all fits together to make meaning and sense). They do this by working backwards from existing linguistic data in the form of surviving texts in PIE descendant languages. Some of these texts are quite old but none date anywhere near as far back as PIE, which according to various theories would have been spoken from around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. There are no surviving PIE speakers, and they left no written records themselves, hence the need to work backwards from the oldest surviving texts in languages believed to be related to PIE try to reconstruct what PIE itself might have been like. The phonologies – speech-sound systems – of languages that no one speaks anymore (and that no one has spoken in hundreds of years) have to be theorized on the basis of orthography, i.e. the writing systems of the descendant languages. This can actually work pretty well for languages with alphabetic writing systems that function effectively as visual representations of sound. This is not the case for present-day English, which is well known for the nonphonetic spelling system it has developed over the past several hundred years. (More about this comparative method below.)

In the 19th century, research in historical linguistics took a Germanic turn (in several senses) when German and Scandinavian philologists took up the topic of language relatedness. The interest of German(ic) linguists in the Indo-European hypothesis was a lucky turn for anyone who might have been hoping for a lot of new knowledge about the English language because these fellows had a tendency, not surprisingly, to focus on Germanic languages, of which English – as I think I might have mentioned in a previous post – is one.

The awesomely named Franz Bopp (1791-1867), a German linguist, further developed the Indo-European hypothesis by considering Indo-Iranian (Persian) and Germanic languages along with Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin in an 1816 monograph that may or may not have been as long as its title, which was Über das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache in Vergleichung mit jenem der Griechischen, Lateinischen, Persischen und Germanischen Sprache (“On the Conjugation System of Sanskrit in Comparison with that of Greek, Latin, Persian, and Germanic”).

Franz “Big Bopper” Bopp

Rasmus Rask (1787-1832), a Danish brainiac and polyglot (although ‘polyglot’ isn’t really a strong enough word for a guy who was proficient in over 20 languages and by some accounts had a working knowledge of as many as 50), was instrumental in advancing and legitimizing the comparative method for analyzing the historical development of languages, determining ancestry and relatedness, and reconstructing old languages with little or no primary-source data, advocating an approach that assumes that language change, particularly sound change, is regular and systematic. His work anticipated as well as influenced the thinking of a number of influential linguists, mostly German, who came along later in the 19th century and who were known as the Neogrammarians. More on them later.

Rask published his first book, Introduction to the Grammar of the Icelandic and other Ancient Northern Languages (1811), at age 23 and wrote at least a dozen more during a short life that ended about a week before his 45th birthday. He wrote on a wide variety of linguistic and literary topics, especially on Germanic languages like Old EnglishModern EnglishFrisianOld NorseFaroese, and his native Danish, but he also wrote books on SpanishItalianSinhalese (spoken widely in Sri Lanka), Avestan (an ancient member of the Indo-Iranian branch of the IE family), and North Saami, a non-Indo-European language spoken today by about 25,000 people in northern areas of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, among others.

Rasmus “Razzmatazz” Rask

Rask was also instrumental to the process of identifying Germanic languages as members of the Indo-European language family and, incidentally, of classifying English as structurally Germanic. He did this by noticing and demonstrating in 1818 a set of interconnected consonant changes that occurred about 2,000 years ago and distinguished Germanic languages from others in the Indo-European family, although another guy gets most of the credit for it today.

That guy, Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), was a German linguist and collector of folktales (yes, it’s that Jacob Grimm). He elaborated on the sound shift that Rask had previously articulated and described it in the second (1822) edition of Grimm’s Deutsche Grammatik (German Grammar). The shift is known today as Grimm’s Law. I won’t bore you with the details – I’ve spent the past week visiting that upon my poor English 3720 students – but the short version is that it explains why Germanic languages (including English) tend to pronounce certain sounds in words inherited from PIE differently from how they are pronounced in other (non-Germanic) Indo-European languages. For example, where other IE languages have voiceless stops [p,t,k], retained from PIE, Germanic languages are likely to have voiceless fricatives [f, θ, h]:

Latin pater –> English father

Latin tres –> English three

Latin centum –> English hundred

The same kind of (mostly) system-wide shift seems also to have happened with the voiced stops [b, d, g], which in Germanic languages have shifted to voiceless stops [p, t, k]:

Latin baculum –> English peg

Latin dentis –> English tooth (also demonstrates PIE /t/ –> Germanic /θ/)

Latin gelū –> English cold

Jacob “The Reaper” Grimm

There’s a little more to it than that, as well as some exceptions that had to be accounted for, but I did say that I would spare you the long version of the story. So I will keep it short except to note that those exceptions did have to be accounted for, because the Neogrammarian philosophy flowering among linguists at the University of Leipzig in the late 19th century could “admit no exception,” as one hardliner put it, to what they asserted was the absolute regularity of sound change. It was another Neogrammarian, Karl Verner (1846-1896), who accounted in 1875 for the apparent exceptions to Grimm’s Law and revised the “no exceptions” position to say that there could be “no exception without a rule” to explain it.

Karl “LaVerne” Verner

So, fast-forward 136 years from the establishment of Verner’s Law, and we have a ton of good information now about the history and relatedness of Indo-European languages and the place of Germanic languages, including English, in the IE family. But the idea of PIE itself still remains mostly a metaphoric prop. It is more a way to try to make sense of something that so far remains firmly in the ‘unknowable’ column (although it sees plenty of action in the ‘theorizable’ column) than an actual unified language that was actually spoken by actual people at some actual point in time.

As a language variationist by training, meaning as someone who conceptualizes variation and change as constant and defining features of living languages, I sometimes find it hard to justify (to myself, even) some of the compromises I have to make in order to teach concepts that can otherwise be difficult for students (and for me) to get their heads around. I do try to be up front about it, though, and explain to the students that I am asking them to join me in suspending our disbelief, that I think it’s important for us to be conscious that we are in fact having to suspend disbelief and also for us to talk about why we have to, and that I haven’t yet been able to figure out a way for us not to have to. When we talk about PIE, we are going for convenience, for the short version, using a word (PIE) or a phrase (Proto-Indo-European) that refers not to a single, discrete language (if there even is such a thing) but to a multitude of meanings — overlapping, complementary, contradictory — to save us the time and trouble of stopping and pondering what all is contained within that word or phrase because if we did stop to ponder it, there’s a good chance that we would never have time for anything else.

So PIE is a relief, a tool, a technological development that saves us the trouble of risking a time-consuming mind-blow every time we need to refer to what were probably a lot of different ways of speaking that varied across space, probably to the tune of thousands of miles, and over time, possibly even thousands of years, but that still are somehow, at least metaphorically, one. And not just any one, but for us the one: Proto-Indo-European, the one that gave rise to so many other ones: Greek, Bengali, Portuguese, Czech, Kurdish, Icelandic, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Armenian, Yiddish, Latin, Afrikaans, Welsh, Catalan, Pashto, French, and English, to name a few. Some of them are still living and some are lost to the past, but even many of those lost languages have traces remaining somewhere in the approximately 440 Indo-European languages spoken in the 21st century by literally half the population of the planet Earth.

I think about this metaphor and ask the students to think about it (and about others we use in class) as a kind of “rounding off,” roughly analogous to the way that we can do quick mathematical calculations of large numbers by rounding them off, trading off precision for speed and getting somewhere that probably isn’t anywhere near close enough but we pretend it is because we have no choice. (One metaphor explains another.) There had to have been variation during the millenia that PIE is hypothesized to have been extant because there is always variation. Even in a classroom with 30 people in it, of whom 25 have lived their whole lives so far within a few hundred miles of one another, there is always significant variation. The students usually don’t notice that much of it at first; like all speakers of all languages, they have spent their whole lives becoming proficient at instantaneously distinguishing between differences they need to pay attention to and the ones they can ignore. But most of them eventually become very, very good at noticing and describing even relatively slight differences among speakers.

On the other hand, the variation within what we conceptualize as ‘PIE’ was probably over time and across locations so great as to have meant mutual unintelligibility among its (possibly imaginary) speakers. So in essence, in teaching the Indo-European hypothesis, I am asking the students to imagine and accept as a kind of reality an idealized version of a language that nobody ever really spoke, to make a deal with me to treat the abstract as absolute, even though we know it isn’t. Not even close. And yet.

Our metaphoric treatment of the Indo-European hypothesis does not end here, although I am going to end the post here because as usual I have no answers. Historically, the mysterious metaphorical magic of the Indo-European hypothesis is just getting started. So look for Part 2 of Let Them Eat MetaphorsDarwin and Schleicher Sitting in a Tree, in which we consider August Schleicher’s 1861 reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European and the enduring power of biological metaphors for language.


The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are in the public domain.


Posted by: lcm | September 19, 2011

So Appropriate to Our America

So Appropriate to Our America
and the Genius of Its Inhabitants

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, my current research project explores vernacular speech in American literature and considers how it functions in relation to the development of language attitudes in American culture. For such a young country, we’ve got some pretty deeply entrenched language ideologies, and the literary arts seem to have both informed and been informed by the development of a specifically American language consciousness.

And really, I’m thinking that American literature and the literary dialect that shows up in it, especially in the 19th century, are part of the story of how American English came into being. By “American English,” I don’t mean a distinct language variety but an idealization, a cultural discourse generated in the context of a developing language consciousness that was itself a product of a post-Revolutionary political consciousness about what it means to be American. (Spoiler alert: I don’t know what it means to be American.) As I discussed in an earlier post, public conversation about what “American English” ought to be – starting with the idea that in fact it ought to be – was well underway by the 1780s. Part of what I am doing with this research project is looking at the way language consciousness informs literary and other public discourse from the early years of the republic and embeds itself in the process of defining distinctly American political, linguistic, and cultural traditions. The notion of what constitutes a “national identity” is part of my research question, which is to say that I haven’t got an answer to that one yet, but I am pretty sure that work can be done (and was done) to try to create and project a national identity without anyone knowing or agreeing on exactly what that might mean and even without anyone necessarily realizing that’s what they’re doing.

For the moment, for this post, a question I am thinking about is how “vernacular” or “dialectal” varieties of language acquire that status, which I guess is really to say how “standards,” i.e. the preferred varieties of language, get their status. In some ways, the answer to this question is fairly obvious, as I will discuss below. But for the larger project, I am interested in specific things that got said and written and done in the early days of the republic and into the 19th century, overtly as well as subtextually, to establish the relative and differential statuses of language varieties, and that’s where the analysis of literary dialect and other writing, especially about language, comes in.

For right now, though, meaning today, I am thinking big-picture with respect to the establishment of a preferred standard for American English. As I wrote in the earlier post that I keep mentioning, several influential 18th-century advocates for American independence maintained that it could not be fully achieved without the establishment of a national language. As the lexicographer and patriot Noah Webster (1758-1843) put it in 1789, “Our honor requires us to have a system of our own.” As I also noted in that post, developing a new linguistic system for exclusively American use would have been a challenging task in a new nation whose ruling class consisted primarily of English-speakers trying to establish their independence from a bunch of other English speakers, and I suggested that therefore their best alternative was to find ways to differentiate American English from British English.

I also suggested that one way of doing so would have been to identify and institutionalize a standard for American English on the basis of linguistic features (pronunciation, vocabulary, orthography) that were beginning to be associated with speakers in the US, features that by the late 18th century already encoded some of the inevitable differences that would arise between the Englishes of the two nations because of their lack of geographical proximity. For example, Webster advocated a complete overhaul of the English spelling system for American English, which in his view would not only help differentiate American English from British but would also in the process solve the messy problem of the idiosyncratic and non-phonetic spelling system for which English is still dubiously renowned. And as we’ll consider below, he was also keen on the idea of actual usage as the appropriate source for standard forms.

As I am generally fond of pointing out, authorization of a Standard American English (SAE) resulted from the institutional privileging of the language varieties spoken by people endowed with power and authority, although that’s probably not how its most enthusiastic proponents would have explained it then or understand it now. And of course, that is pretty much how it always goes down when standard varieties are institutionalized. It’s not like American English has the market cornered on this one; far from it, in fact. Webster made the case in Dissertations on the English Language (1789) for a standard based on “all the certainty and uniformity which any living tongue is capable of receiving,” which I don’t think he intended as a joke even though that sounds kind of hilarious to anyone with knowledge of historical linguistics, because they know that the sum of uniformity and especially certainty is only slightly greater than zero in any living language (and, it may go without saying, they also obviously have fairly low standards for humor, but this is only because there aren’t nearly as many good linguistics jokes as you might think). Webster also seems to have anticipated the kind of linguistic anxiety that still prevails among his countrymen and women in the 21st century; early in the Dissertations, he warns that a national failure to standardize American English could result in “inaccuracies” which could then “corrupt the national language” (18-19).

But to be fair to Webster, I have to point out that his language attitudes were complicated and interesting, that he wasn’t a pedant or a snob or an authoritarian prescriptivist who thought he owned the language and that he could therefore just make up whatever idiotic rules he liked regardless of how linguistically indefensible they might be and then try to force everyone else to go along with his own quirky preferences. Dissertations is a collection of really smart, interesting, well-informed essays about English pronunciation and grammatical structure, orthography, the history of the English language, the origins of language in general, and theories of language relatedness, among other topics. The guy knew a lot about linguistics and about the English language, and he was also a pretty damn good writer.

But it’s not easy to characterize Webster’s language attitudes, at least not in any categorical way, because they are sometimes inconsistent and even contradictory. Of course, that’s a selling point as far as I’m concerned, because I like how despite his astonishing expertise, he is thoughtful, judicious, and reasonable and rarely gives in to the dogma that tempted so many of his colleagues (and continues to torment English speakers and learners today). I like even more how he works as an unselfconscious and dynamic character in the story of American English, which he tells in a way that holds up even after 200+ years. He’s a guy who’s OK with nuance and doesn’t back down from paradox. He would have been a man after Walt Whitman’s heart, an explorer of his own contradictions. Webster is large—he contains multitudes. Like his dictionaries.

Slight (but in my defense, awesome) digression here: Webster really was a guy after Whitman’s heart, or because Webster had about 60 years on Whitman, maybe it would make more sense to say it the other way around, that Whitman was a guy after Webster’s heart. Whitman was a student of historical linguistics and the English language, and according to a terrific book by Ed Folsom, Walt Whitman’s Native Representations (Cambridge UP, 1994), he also loved dictionaries and especially Webster’s and shared the lexicographer’s affection and admiration for American English. As Folsom observes (1994:15), “Whitman believed that the American language, which would evolve as English became expressed in the American way, would become ‘the medium that shall well nigh express the inexpressible’ (Leaves of Grass (727-28).”

So, pretty awesome, I know. Anyway, about Webster and his multitudes. For one, his calls for standardization are unmistakable and a key theme throughout the 432-page Dissertations:

[T]here are . . . important reasons, why the language of this country should be reduced to such fixed principles, as may give its pronunciation and construction all the certainty and uniformity which any living tongue is capable of receiving. . . . Nothing but the establishment of schools and some uniformity in the use of books can annihilate differences in speaking and preserve the purity of the American tongue. A sameness of pronunciation is of considerable consequence in a political view; for provincial accents are disagreeable to strangers and sometimes have an unhappy effect upon the social affections. (19-20)

And this founding father of American English suggests a less than democratic approach to the project of standardization:

To cultivate and adorn [the language] is a task reserved for men who shall understand the connection between language and logic, and form an adequate idea of the influence which a uniformity of speech may have on national attachments. (18)

But his position seems to be complicated if not contradicted by an openness to the realities of language change that is uncharacteristic of his time (and of ours) as well as a similarly forward-thinking sense that standards ought to be determined by observing the way real speakers actually use language:

No man, whatever may be his rank and abilities, has a right to reject a mode of speech, established by immemorial usage and universal consent. Grammars should be formed on practice; for practice determines what a language is. . . . The business of a grammarian is not to examine whether or not national practice is founded on philosophical principles; but to ascertain the national practice. (204)

But Webster credits this idealistic-sounding position to a more practical reality, namely that “the general practice of a nation is not easily changed” (205), that constructing new norms at odds with how most people actually talk and then trying to impose them on a nation of speakers is clearly a fool’s errand. He was certainly right about that, the persistence over hundreds of years of some pretty astonishingly stupid prescriptive rules notwithstanding. We need only look at the continued existence and even flourishing of stigmatized linguistic features and language varieties for evidence that total reform is impossible, regardless of where you might stand on its desirability. As Webster also said,

the only effect that an attempt to reform it can produce, is, to make many people doubtful, cautious, and consequently uneasy; to render a few ridiculous and pedantic by following nice criticisms in the face of customary propriety; and to introduce a distinction between the learned and unlearned, which serves only to create difficulties for both. (205)

If only the ridiculous and pedantic could have been as few as he predicted.

Anyway, to some extent, Webster’s own beliefs about standardness, as well as the developing cultural discourses and language ideologies to which he gives voice are inherently contradictory. But then, so much about standard-language ideology is contradictory. For one thing, despite its socially privileged position, Standard American English has no real identity of its own. Its existence depends entirely on the existence other ways of speaking that are not standard. It is identifiable not by any characteristics of its own but only by what it lacks: stigmatized features, the existence of which it depends on for its own value and status. This is ironic given the resources spent on the teaching of SAE and the perpetuation of its ideology, i.e. that it has intrinsic value above all other varieties of American English, that therefore its speakers have greater value as well, that everyone should speak SAE or at least want to, and that all other varieties should be eradicated. Apparently it is terribly distressing to some people who value SAE to have to be subjected to the use of nonstandard features. It must be distressing because why else would some defenders of SAE seem to feel that they have no choice but to be unkind in response? (See the links above and below for evidence if you doubt this.) But if the efforts to eradicate nonstandard varieties were to succeed, there would no longer be any status at all attached to SAE, which could be a disappointing turn of events for some of its champions, for whom feeling superior to others is apparently part of the charm.

I think Webster was better than that, though. For one thing, he overtly rejects the ideology that certain speakers have ownership rights to the language that are not shared by other speakers. But on the other hand, he also seems to assume that some speakers are better qualified (and perhaps have a greater right?) than others to do the work of ascertaining if not determining the prevailing usage norms of American English. In addition to commentary like the example above (i.e. that standardization is “a task reserved for men who shall understand the connection between language and logic, and form an adequate idea of the influence which a uniformity of speech may have on national attachments”), this assumption is also indicated by his frequent use of literary examples that would have been inaccessible to most Americans in 1789 to illustrate linguistic features and especially to exemplify what he considered correct and appropriate usage. These examples are in his own words appeals to “the authority of…good writer[s] in the language” (201) and generally exclude usage norms of rural, nonwhite, and non- or semi-literate speakers. Ironically, most of these examples are taken from British-authored texts.

So while I continue to ponder Webster, the process of standardization in American English and American history, and the zeal of self-appointed guardians of the language, I’ll leave it to Whitman to take us home.

These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands—they are not original with me;

If they are not yours as much as mine, they are nothing, or next to nothing;

If they are not the riddle, and the untying of the riddle, they are nothing;

If they are not just as close as they are distant, they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is, and the water is;

This is the common air that bathes the globe.

(Leaves of Grass, 347-52)

Note: The title of this post, “So Appropriate to Our America and the Genius of Its Inhabitants,” is borrowed from Walt Whitman’s 1856 essay “America’s Mightiest Inheritance,” in which he celebrates the English language.


The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are in the public domain.

Posted by: lcm | August 30, 2011

Getting meta all the time

It’s getting meta all the time:

The history of the English language
and the linguist in the English department

I am getting ready to teach English 3720: Development of Modern English this fall, a course in the history of the English language, for what will be the 12th or 13th time, and I am thinking about the first course I ever took in linguistics as an undergraduate English major. It was a course a lot like the one I’ll be starting again next week, only it had a different number and a different name: LIN 4100: History of the English Language. The course was taught by Dr. Marie Nelson, one of only two female professors I had as an undergraduate, which will give you some idea of how long ago this was but probably the wrong idea, because it wasn’t long enough ago to make sense of the appalling lack of female faculty members at my otherwise much-loved alma mater.

Like many English majors, I majored in English because I liked books, reading them and writing about them and talking about them. Also like many English majors, I discovered early on that having to read Othello, Last of the Mohicans, and Vanity Fair in the same week and write papers on two of them could kind of take the fun out of pretty much everything I thought I’d like about majoring in English. So after a few semesters of frantically reading everything as fast as I could in time to write the papers and get on to the next ones, I noticed in the course offerings for the coming semester this thing called History of the English Language and thought, well, that sounds interesting and also like there won’t be a 400-page book to read for it every week. I signed up, and it turned out I was right on both counts.

Of course, it also turned out that this was the hardest English class I had taken to date, and it was to retain that crown through the rest of my undergraduate career. It was also the gateway drug that led me to linguistics.

A few years ago, I got to wondering about how the history of the language came to its place in the curricula of undergraduate English programs, which is to say it is often the only linguistics course offered to English majors, if there is even one offered at all. What lucky accidents of history had there been that led to the lucky accident of my happening upon and signing up for LIN 4100? Had I not taken that single course 25 years ago, I don’t know what direction my life might have taken. Had I not received credit toward my major, I probably would not have taken the class. Today I am doing the only thing I have ever really wanted to do, which is teaching and doing research in linguistics. It’s because of that class that I am doing it. Language is on my mind all the time, every day. I started writing down interesting things I noticed about the way people talk when I was seven. I didn’t know that was linguistics. I didn’t know there was such a thing.

So much in life depends on the ways that we categorize and classify things, how we name them and organize them and attach value to them. I work at a university, so the accidents of curricula and boundaries of academic discipline are categories of particular interest to me.

About five years ago, I started collecting books on the history of the English language. Today I have about 40 in hard copy and another 15 or so in electronic format. Some of these are completely awesome, although not all for the same reasons. It turns out that the genre is a fairly recent development, at least when you consider it in relation to how long the English language has been around. The first books to resemble in content and structure the ones I use in my courses today appeared in the mid-19th century. I take this to mean that the establishment of the history of the English language as an object of academic inquiry dates to the mid-19th century as well.

Some of the first people who held the kind of job that I have now, the job of professor of English, once that became a thing that people could be, thought it was important for their students to learn something about the history of the language, as an end in itself or for the purposes of literary studies, i.e. so that they could read literary texts written in Old or Middle English. This belief seems to have followed from the European scholarly tradition of philology, which encompassed the study of literature and comparative linguistics (the historical study of languages to determine ancestry and relatedness). English departments today are direct descendants of the philological tradition that evolved into “English” as an academic discipline, and the respective statuses of literature and linguistics were actively negotiated from the earliest establishment of the new discipline. Over time, literature assumed primacy in most departments.

But the centralization of literature was not a natural evolution. When I started looking into this topic, I noticed a tendency in the historiography of English studies to focus primarily if not exclusively on the origins of the literary strand, which the authors and editors of these volumes apparently consider to comprise the actual discipline. For example, D. J. Palmer’s The Rise of English Studies: An Account of the Study of English Language and Literature from Its Origins to the Making of the Oxford English School (1965), is largely a discourse on the development of English literature as an academic subject, the “language” in the title notwithstanding. Similarly, prominent disciplinary histories such as Richard Ohmann’s English in America (1976), Jo McMurtry’s English Language, English Literature (1985), Alan Bacon’s The Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies (1998), and Robert Scholes’s The Rise and Fall of English (1998) appear to be histories of English studies in general but they are mostly about literature too. The titles of Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature (1987) and Franklin E. Court’s Institutionalizing English Literature (1992) are rather more transparent about it. (All of these are still in copyright, so there is nothing substantial to link to here, but full citations are included below.)

Taking another perspective, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition (1990), Allen Frantzen’s analysis of the history of Anglo-Saxon studies, challenges the marginalization of Anglo-Saxon studies in the twentieth century and its subordination to the kind of literary study that does not require dealing with any difficult old languages. And it turns out that Frantzen beat me to the punch by about 20 years with his observation in this 1990 book that most of the major works on the history of English studies — he cites Ohlmann, Graff, and Scholes and also Eagleton’s Literary Theory (1983) — are actually histories of English literary studies. “None of these works analyzes the place of English linguistic history,” Frantzen observes. “Apart from a few pages in Graff’s Professing Literature, the topic is untouched” (7). So it’s not just me.

The growing primacy of literature as the focus of English studies programs seems to have had the effect of recasting philology as something primarily associated with linguistics and as something other than (and subordinate to) literary study, although prior to the establishment of English literature as a legitimate academic pursuit, when it was still considered insufficiently rigorous (Graff 1987, 28), there already was a literary component for many philologists. This literary orientation is encoded in some of the definitions that are out there for philology, historical as well as more recent definitions, although in trying to figure out exactly WTF philology was and is, I have not exactly found consensus. This has led me to believe that either (a.) there is no agreement among scholars on what philology actually is, (b.) the definition has changed over time, or (c.) nobody else really knows WTF it is either. Does philology mean comparative linguistics, or did it mean that at some time in the past? Is it the same thing as historical linguistics? Is it linguistics in the service of literature?

In the introduction to Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language (2007), Seth Lerer offers a linguistic definition: “Philology means ‘love of language,’ but for scholars it connotes the discipline of historical linguistic study” (2). The Oxford English Dictionary makes room for literary study: “Love of learning and literature; the branch of knowledge that deals with the historical, linguistic, interpretive, and critical aspects of literature; literary or classical scholarship.” But the OED also offers a sense that is specifically linguistic: “The branch of knowledge that deals with the structure, historical development, and relationships of languages or language families; the historical study of the phonology and morphology of languages; historical linguistics.” The former is labeled obsolete; a note on the latter observes its increasing rarity: “Linguistics is now the more usual term for the study of the structure of language and . . . has generally replaced philology” (italics in original).

So, an etymological argument about philology could be made by those who want to claim for the history of the English language — and for English linguistics more generally — a supporting role in the study of literature. If you’re a linguist in an English department (or in any department named for a language or family of languages), certainly this is better than no role. But as Frantzen argues (rightly, in my view), this perspective can be cause for concern: “Professionals in the academy are not today necessarily less conscious of language than they were in previous eras. But they have, by and large, stopped valuing linguistic history. . . . [and] what the many do not value, their students will not learn about” (Frantzen 1990, 2-3).

By the late 19th century and into the 20th, the challenge was coming from those whom Graff (1987) describes as “the generalists” (81-97), literature-oriented scholars who charged philology, with its emphasis on linguistics, with being too difficult, uninteresting, and as having “no end but itself,” as one late nineteenth century literary scholar put it (qtd. in Frantzen 1990, 76). Attention to language for its own sake risked the consequence of “divert[ing] attention from thought,” according to one influential professor of political science at Princeton, Woodrow Wilson (qtd. in Frantzen, 76).

The trend toward literary study as the central focus of departments of English in the United States continued through the first quarter of the twentieth century and beyond, bolstered in the 1930s by the rise of the New Criticism, which emphasized study of the literary text apart from any external context. And later in the twentieth century, the rise of literary theory, which Robert Scholes (1998) argues in The Rise and Fall of English ought to “[constitute] the disciplinary core” of English studies today (147), continued the trend of treating literary pursuits as central to English studies. In his proposal to reconstruct English studies “as a discipline of textuality” (146), Scholes emphasizes history, production, and consumption, along with theory, as the bases for organizing the discipline (146-184). There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of space for linguistic study in this model, and Scholes’s emphasis on “history” as he outlines it in Rise and Fall does not include the history of the language. He does mention it in passing, though, in reference to disciplinary origins: “As a field of study in the United States, English has been organized around the literary history of England and America. . . . And somewhere near the center, but almost obscured now, lies a philological organization of the field in terms of the history of the English language” (145).

The term philology is rarely used in twenty-first century English departments, although a few years ago a visiting candidate for the chairship of my department said to me (jokingly I presume), “Oh, you’re a philologist!” When I attempted to correct him, he interrupted laughingly to say, “Linguists hate being called philologists!” I did not get the joke, maybe because of the multiple meanings embedded in the term or maybe because of my consciousness of the way those long-ago struggles for disciplinary self-definition and conflicting meanings still reflect the day-to-day realities in my experience as a linguist in an English department. Or maybe it just wasn’t funny.

Further complicating all this is that English departments today, including mine, are still trying to define English studies, to our own satisfaction and to that of our students, in the context of shifting academic and intellectual trends and priorities within and around the discipline. Our work on this project is further complicated by fiscal and political pressures that don’t always (or really ever) prioritize intellectual value, quality, and rigor as highly as we do, which is of course all the more reason for us to insist on these priorities. I guess I don’t really have any answers here, just a lot of questions and hope that a collegial spirit within which a diversity of “English studies” can thrive and a wider intellectual culture in which knowledge is automatically assumed to have intrinsic value will prevail.

Works Cited

Bacon, Alan, ed. (1998). The Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate.

Court, Franklin E. (1992). Institutionalizing English Literature: The Culture and Politics of Literary Study, 1750-1900. Stanford: Stanford UP.

Eagleton, Terry (1983). Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.

Frantzen, Allen J. (1990). Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP.

Graff, Gerald (1987). Professing Literature: An Institutional History. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Lerer, Seth (2007). Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. New York: Columbia UP.

McMurtry, Jo (1985). English Language, English Literature: The Creation of an Academic Discipline. Hamden, CT: Archon Press.

Ohmann, Richard (1976). English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. New York: Oxford UP.

Palmer, D. J. (1965). The Rise of English Studies: An Account of the Study of English Language and Literature from Its Origins to the Making of the Oxford English School. London: Oxford UP.

Scholes, Robert (1998). The Rise and Fall of English: Reconstructing English as a Discipline. New Haven: Yale UP.


The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are original photos for which I hold the copyright. Please do not use without permission.

Posted by: lcm | August 24, 2011

Tool with a soul

The face that launched a thousand lunchboxes:
Davy Crockett was kind of a tool


In the midst of a recent dialect-literature reading binge, focusing primarily on American frontier literature of the “Old Southwestern” variety, I ended up spending more time than I intended on The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee, Written by Himself (1834). It is available for free online, and although I am linking to it, I do not want it to be interpreted that I necessarily recommend this book. As its title announces, it was (ostensibly) authored by the celebrated frontiersman-turned-congressman David “Davy” Crockett (1786-1836) but in actuality it was probably written by Thomas Chilton, Crockett’s friend, roommate, and fellow member of Congress. Artistically, it doesn’t have much to recommend it, although if you enjoy tall tales with frontier settings, and you don’t mind some politics mixed up with your entertainment, you might like it.

Crockett fought under the command of then-General Andrew Jackson in the Creek War (1813-14) and ran for Congress in 1824 (he lost) and again in 1826 (successfully) as a Jacksonian Democrat. To oversimplify this ridiculously, Jacksonian Democrats professed to favor working people over the wealthy, the separation of church and state, and the popular vote. Later, however, he broke with Jackson, a split usually attributed primarily to Crockett’s opposition to Jackson’s draconian policies toward Native Americans, and joined the Whig party. The Whigs hoped that Crockett’s humble beginnings and romantic frontiersman image would make him a serious challenger to the powerful and iconic Jackson, who was seen by his supporters as a champion of the “common man” against the powerful and moneyed elite. Jackson had received minimal education, fought in the Revolutionary War at age 13, and was orphaned at 14, and his subsequent rise to power and legendary bad-assery made him an extraordinarily popular if also a controversial and highly polarizing figure.

The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is a campaign autobiography and a pretty early representative of the genre. Published in 1834, it precedes by a year Augustus Baldwin Longstreet‘s Georgia Scenes (1835), an early and highly influential contribution to the 19th-century American literary subgenre known as Old Southwestern humor. Georgia Scenes is widely acknowledged as a prototypical text in that tradition as well as in the trend toward realistic fiction that emerged later in the century. The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett is not necessarily the first thing I would think of when I’m on the topic of Old Southwestern humor (which I am quite often), but it turns out to be a fair (and early) example of the genre, except that it’s pretty short on the humor part.

But then, being short on humor is apparently no disqualification. Just as the setting for Old Southwestern humor is not what anyone would consider “Southwestern” these days, I have my doubts as to whether anyone would actually consider it humor. Most of it ranges from the “uh, OK” level of humor to the pretty horribly offensive kind: racism, violence, cruelty to animals, etc. But it is at least sort of old, enjoying a decent run of popularity from the early 1830s to the 1860s.

Anyway, in the mid-19th century, the “Old Southwest” referred to inland regions of what is now the southeastern U.S., including Alabama, Tennessee, and the western parts of Georgia and the Carolinas, as well as a few then-new Southern states further west that were more recently settled, i.e. Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri. The map below from about 1800 shows U.S. territory as of 1783, per the Treaty of Paris, the agreement between the U.S. and Britain that officially ended the Revolutionary War. What would have comprised the Old Southwest in the 1830s-60s is (crudely) marked in orange. (Don’t worry; the marks are on the digital image, not the original map.)

US map (1783)

The addition of these new states, part of a long-term project of westward expansion that began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, redefined what constituted “the West” in the United States, hence the “old” modifier in “Old Southwestern,” meaning that Old Southwestern humor was already a nostalgia genre as early as the 1830s. Featuring frontier settings, exaggerated folk-heroic characters, and vernacular speech, Old Southwestern humor is a minor genre in the overall scheme of American literature, although it was popular in its day, and as I mentioned earlier, was influential on some rather more significant literary trends and genres, as well as on the work of several major American authors.

The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett shares with the Old Southwestern tradition its frontier backdrop, attempts at representing dialectal speech visually, a larger-than-life backwoodsman protagonist, and as Mark Twain might have put it, some “stretchers.” For example, in a lengthy exposition on how he spent his time off during a congressional term for which he was not re-elected, Crockett describes having killed 105 bears in a single winter. However, the Narrative‘s deployment of vernacular speech does not incorporate many of the techniques that became conventional in the genre, largely popularized if not actually pioneered by Longstreet in Georgia Scenes, although it does incorporate some nonstandard linguistic features, most of them grammatical (for example, regularized past-tense knowed appears 57 times in the Narrative compared to 16 occurrences of knew).

Later writers tended to rely on more overtly visual cues to signal a vernacular speaker’s otherness, linguistic and otherwise, especially by respelling words to represent nonstandard pronunciations. In The Conjure Woman (1899), for example, Charles W. Chesnutt writes befo’ to indicate a character’s pronunciation of before with postvocalic /r/ deletion. Some authors in the 19th century, including Chesnutt, used literary dialect — that is, visual/textual representations that attempt to capture the qualities of real speech, especially stigmatized varieties and features — as a device to portray language realistically, although that reality was usually articulated from a white, middle class vantage point (as evidenced by the rarity of white, middle- and upper-class characters represented as speaking anything but the standard). But as the example of Chesnutt — who was African American — indicates, the deployment of literary dialect was not limited to white authors, especially toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, although a white reading audience was generally considered a requirement for commercial success.

In other cases, some authors have been known to respell words even when the respellings signal no pronunciation difference, simply as a device to make visible a character’s low social status, lack of education, prestige, material resources, preferred ethnicity, etc. An example is William Faulkner’s spelling of what as whut in the speech of a lower-class African American character, Louis Hatcher, in The Sound and the Fury. It’s worth pointing out, though, that although in many of his works Faulkner does represent African American and lower-class white speech by using respellings and nonstandard grammatical constructions, his respellings most often do correspond to actual phonological — that is, pronunciation — variation. Respellings to mark otherness without signaling any actual linguistic variation is not typical in his work, and — as I have discussed elsewhere – when it does occur, it seems to be doing a different kind of work from simply marking a speaker as other. (Of course, the question of why Faulkner — or any author — would elect to represent the speech of African American speakers and lower-class whites — and only those speakers — as dialectal at all is a perfectly legitimate one.)

Because of the association of vernacular speech with low-status speakers, the application of literary dialect, and especially the kind of other-marking associated with nonphonetic respellings, does not generally function to enhance the stature of characters whose speech is rendered dialectally. So it might seem strange for the Narrative to traffic in this particular device when enhancing Crockett’s stature is precisely the goal, although the nonphonetic respellings are relatively infrequent and perhaps innocent. By “innocent,” I mean if Crockett actually penned parts of the Narrative himself, claims to which effect have been made despite his extremely limited schooling and, consequently, what had to be limited facility in writing, these examples might be his own original spellings. They include choaked for choked, did’ent for didn’t, harricane for hurricane, and mockasin for moccasin.

The OED contains no evidence of the harricane spelling as a common variant at any time, although it documents numerous variant spellings for moccasin, including mockasin, until around 1800, from which point the present-day standard moccasin variant seems to have prevailed. My guess is that the mockasin spelling in the Narrative is either a pronunciation spelling of Crockett’s or a deliberate reminder (in the service of his challenge to the Jacksonian archetype) of his limited education, designed to show how far he has come. Harricane may similarly be a pronunciation spelling, but if it is, it functions somewhat differently from the mockasin spelling in that it indicates a stigmatized pronunciation, lowering to [ɑr] in the first syllable where [ər] is standard, at least as of later Early Modern English, anyway, and especially in American English. Renderings of [ɑr]-lowering are a common — if stereotyped feature — in written representations of Appalachian English, and therefore it is not surprising to find it in a representation of Crockett’s speech given his East Tennessee provenance, and it may have been a pronunciation he actually used. In other words, if these spellings are original to Crockett himself and not artistically licensed inventions, either they slipped by Chilton uncorrected, or they were deliberately left in as a way to try to bolster a public image of Crockett as an icon of the “common man” archetype, in this case by highlighting his own minimal education.

This is a tricky position for the author(s) to have been in, especially since the goal of the Narrative as articulated in the preface was to promote Crockett’s public image and particularly to counter the perception that he was something of an illiterate bumpkin. And in fact, in the preface to the Narrative, Crockett reveals his outrage over what he considers misrepresentations of his character as well as an acute language consciousness that seems to contradict the way his speech is represented in the text that follows. His indignation, expressed completely without irony and in a rhetorical style that is almost certainly Chilton’s and not his own, reveals fairly typical mainstream (e.g. racist, classist) language attitudes of his time (although, sadly, they haven’t evolved a whole lot in the ensuing 175-plus years). The preface makes clear that the Narrative means to counter a public image problem deriving from literary caricatures of Crockett that had recently appeared, with his most likely provocateur the 1833 volume Sketches and Eccentricities of Colonel David Crockett of West Tennessee, published anonymously but most likely written by Mathew St. Clair Clarke (although authorship has also been attributed to James Strange French). In the preface to the Narrative, Crockett (that is, Chilton) writes:

If the author had been content to have written his opinions about me, however contemptuous they might have been, I should have had less reason to complain. But when he professes to give my narrative (as he often does) in my own language, and then puts into my mouth such language as would disgrace even an outlandish African, he must himself be sensible of the injustice he has done me, and the trick he has played off on the publick. I have met with hundreds, if not with thousands of people, who have formed their opinions of my appearance, habits, language, and every thing else from that deceptive work.

Now, I haven’t yet conducted a comparative analysis of the ways that Crockett’s speech is represented in the two texts, but I am looking forward to that project and to seeing whether there are any substantial differences between the ways his speech is represented in Sketches and Eccentricities versus the Narrative. But at this point — and I should qualify this by saying that so far I have done only an abbreviated, impressionistic eyeballing of the texts — I am not feeling particularly sympathetic, since he seems to have no reservations whatsoever about presenting himself (or authorizing Chilton to do so) as using stigmatized features — especially grammatical features — when it suits his purposes, which is seems to do in the Narrative.

It has been nearly two months since I started working on what has turned into my Davy Crockett problem, and part of what has been so difficult about trying to figure this guy out is dealing with the astonishing amount of propaganda that is still out there, still mythologizing and aggrandizing Crockett to the point that he probably wouldn’t even recognize himself. When I first read the Narrative back in early July, I wrote about it in a Facebook conversation with my friend Gwen, which opened thusly:

Davy Crockett was such an unbelievable tool that he almost makes you feel a little sympathy for Andrew Jackson.

I have since had time to take a more nuanced approach.

However, I stand by my initial claim that Rep. Crockett was in fact a tool, but I will now acknowledge that he was also more complicated than that, that even a tool can have a soul. Crockett’s surfaces in the evolution of his position on the treatment of Native Americans. I don’t think that lets him off the hook for atrocities he almost certainly committed during the Creek War, but after spending the last nearly two months now trying to figure out what to do with this guy, I am releasing this post into the wild and wishing the myth of David “Davy” Crockett all the best.


You know the drill by now: The usual disclaimer applies. I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are in the public domain.

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