Functional Shift is about the English language, where it came from, how it works, and why it matters. A lot of what interests me about English has to do with its origins, its eventual export to the United States and around the world, its continuing development, and how and why it changes over time. To earn my living, I work as a professor of English linguistics. In that capacity, I teach and conduct research into language variation and change, the history of the language, linguistic applications to literature, and language and gender.
In addition to my interest in the development and structure of the language itself, I also like to think and write about how speakers use language as ways of being, i.e. as discursive practices that take place within and in relation to particular social and cultural contexts. For example, the development of American English (one of my favorite topics) has as much to do with the development of social norms — and therefore customs, ideologies, and cultural discourses — as with the actual linguistic features that today distinguish American English, even in its own infinite variety, from other national varieties around the world.
My idea of discourse is primarily linguistic, meaning that I come at it with a set of assumptions developed over the course of my education and training in linguistics and by way of my ongoing research as a professor of English language and linguistics. For some linguists, discourse in its most basic sense is a particular kind of unit of language. It’s more than a sound, more than a word, bigger than a phrase or sentence. It could be a speaking turn in the context of a conversation or it could be the conversation itself. In the linguistic sense, I like to think of discourse as units of language that are deployed in the context of interaction and in the service of accomplishing various communicative and other goals.
This brings us closer to the ways that some theorists outside the field of linguistics think about discourse, i.e. as cultural practices that include those associated with language, only not in terms of actual features (sounds, words, units of meaning, grammatical structures) of the kind that linguists traffic in. I am interested in that kind of discourse too and prefer a definition of discourse that includes a world of meanings, cultural influences and ideals, social relations, practices, customs, conventions, institutions, and bodies of knowledge, as well as specific interactional contexts (which are themselves informed by everything else on the list preceding).
But I am still predisposed to see discourse as primarily a linguistic phenomenon, something that people use in spoken, written, and/or other forms to do things, including, of course, to communicate messages, but also to make things happen, to participate in social worlds, to create, reinforce, or resist cultural ideals and conventions, and even simply to be. I am interested in the ways language in general but also specific linguistic features can be deployed to accomplish these functions.
In other words, because I am a linguist, my idea of what constitutes a discursive practice includes attention to structural features of language, like speech sounds, syntactic and morphological constructions and processes, and lexical features. I am interested in thinking about linguistic features — their distribution, their social markings and valuations, variation in their deployment among speakers and within the language of a single speaker — in relation to the cultural/social/institutional contexts within which they occur.
Additionally, the content herein is likely to reflect my position that written texts, including literary texts, are useful and interesting sources for information not only about the language itself and its development over time but also about prevailing cultural discourses. For example, my current research explores the role of 19th-century American dialect fiction in the development of ideologies about American English and in the authorization of a preferred standard thereof, both of which turn out to be mixed up in interesting ways with developing beliefs about what might constitute American identity.
What does all this have to do with the history of the English language? Everything. No language comes into being out of nowhere and no language has a meaningful existence apart from its speakers. Language is intimately involved in the development of culture and vice versa. And so in the blog, as in my work as a researcher and teacher, I consider the English language — its origins, development, structure, and use — in the context of its users, who — in their creativity and inventiveness in the development and deployment of linguistic possibilities — never disappoint.
My name is Lisa Minnick, and I am an Associate Professor of English Linguistics and Affiliated Faculty in Gender and Women’s Studies at Western Michigan University. In addition to my fascination with all things linguistic, I also enjoy mountain biking, cross-country skiing, yoga, and hanging out with family, friends, and dogs.
All material in this blog, including text and images, may be reproduced only by permission of the author, who holds the copyright for all material except where otherwise noted. All rights reserved.
Header photo of Scarborough Castle by the author