Friday, September 28, 2012

prescriptive grammar

One question on the test had to do with linguists' attitude toward prescriptive grammar. As an answer on the test, many students said that linguists don't care for it. It constrains us or keeps us from saying what we want, one student said. No, finally I stomped my foot and said, linguists have been maligned on this issue and I won't tolerate it.

In fact the mainstream media got the idea a little while back, and they were right about this, that linguists as a class disdain prescriptive grammar and the people who would try to impose rules on a language, and tell us all what's grammatical and what's not. This is hypocritical, critics said, because linguists are educated and write in good grammar, and can afford to make an argument that prescriptive grammar is useless. To the rest of us, it's a power-laden world where bad grammar is judged poorly.

This is why they miss the point. Linguists try to explain human behavior. Prescriptive rules sometimes help us explain what we try to do, say, when we write a paper. But they don't explain what we do the rest of the time. I gave as an example, the rules of "y'all" (which I am studying)...these are not prescriptive. Yet there are rules, and we follow them, and learning the rules will help linguists understand and explain human behavior.

Finally I told the story of the three girls with three violins in the monsoon in Korea. Three girls, three violins, one umbrella, and nobody got wet. I saw that and said, Americans could never do this; they can't work in such close harmony with anyone. Then one day, on Lake Shore Drive, in Chicago, I saw six lanes of traffic, all going 75 MPH, all bumper-to-bumper, for sixty miles into the city. My knuckles turned white while I stuck with them and stayed bumper-to-bumper the whole way. So, finally, I wanted to know how people could be in such incredible harmony; I decided we were acting like the girls with the violins.

But I also realized that the speed limit was 55. It had nothing to do with the speed limit. It happened at 7 am, and I don't think anyone seriously thought they'd be pulled over. Every single driver was acting in his/her own best interest, including me. and pushing it to the max, which was about 75. And not budging from that maximal rate. The law, like prescriptive grammar, can explain some of our behavior some of the time, and it can attempt to enforce what we all recognize as "the rules"...but other times, what happens follows its own rules.

In the end, linguists consider prescriptive grammar to be an interesting player in the game, but we can't confuse "the rules" with "everyone's rules" or "the reason you just did what you did". In short, prescriptive grammar doesn't explain human behavior as much as it tries to control it, and linguists will be the first to tell y'all, control doesn't always work.

sound change

The return of the test today caused a bit of a stir. It came down to what really causes great sound changes like the Great Vowel Shift. I told the truth as I knew it - that nobody really knows why all English's vowels shifted sometime between 1400 - 1700. There are dozens of theories.

Several things are notable about the era. People moved to southeast England from all over the country, to escape the black plague. There was a lot of social mobility for the same reason. The aristocracy who had spoken French for years started speaking English again. But people who wanted to move up spoke like them. During one of the many wars between France and England, it became a bad idea to sound too French, and people tried to sound more British. etc. etc.

The question comes up because of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, and whether that is an entire language shift, or just the creation of a dialect. In the case of the NCVS, which is happening now, almost nobody is even aware of it; it is surely not happening for social reasons. I can see people changing their vowels to be similar to those around them (I am doing it as we speak), but, there is no social prestige involved in this particular shift, that I know of. I presented it to my class. Why do people do it? I don't know.

This is the story I present to them. We as linguists try to explain human behavior, and humans are indeed doing things that surprise us, defy explanation. The introduction of a new language would seem to tax people, give them too many rules to remember, stretch their possible number of vowels, etc. But why would this happen in the North before it happened in Texas? Or, why would Canadians refuse to budge or change anything? Because these are geographical questions, my interest is piqued. But I don't really have answers. More about this later, I hope.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

my friend Jessi

Jessi spent days up in this little office in our linguistics hallway (this was back before I retired from Southern Illinois University) listening to people make the sound -l. L as in little. Now little has two l's, the first one being what you'd call light, and the last one being what you'd call dark. My present linguistics book, by the way, ignores this distinction. Maybe it's because it doesn't matter any more, I'm not sure. What Jessi found was that people make all kinds. Some make all light, some make all dark, some have their own kind. I find this interesting and I look forward to hearing more about it (she will send me her paper, she's promised).

She found out a lot of things. It's kind of like court reporting. Once you train your ear, and by discipline or whatever, try to become very objective, you'll notice that you become better at just recording what exactly you heard, as opposed to what you expected, or what somebody said you'd hear, or whatever. And there really is an incredible variety out there in what people say and do.

I've been pressing Jessi on a single question that is on my mind, and it's possible she won't be able to answer it based on the work she's done, which really focused on -l, and not the vowels. The question is this: there is no doubt that there is a vowel shift happening in the northern cities (called the Northern Cities Vowel Shift), and that young people, women first, are changing and moving a whole set of vowels around in their mouths. My primary example is thank you which is coming out more and more sounding like think you or at least thenk you. In other words, it's moving way up. Now Wikipedia does not consider this a dialect, although it is a whole system of shifts that are happening and have been happening since the 60's. They maintain that Canadians are not taking it up, and that though it has moved down to St. Louis, it hasn't gone much further west than say Cedar Rapids or central Minnesota. So what's up? Is it a dialect? Is it a great change that's happening in our midst like the great vowel shift of the 1600's?

Some research has been done about the reasons for the Great Vowel Shift in the 1600's. Actually it happened any time between 1300 and maybe 1650, who knows? And all kinds of things were happening then: plague was wiping out all classes; people were moving around; the aristocracy was returning to English after speaking French for a while; people were practicing social mobility for the first time ever. Also, they were beginning to solidify and standardize the writing system, which meant that words that didn't make the shift got left behind in a very visible way; their spelling became irregular.

Now my questions may be obvious. Are all sound changes dictated by social movement? (If so what is up with those northern girls?....) Is it possible that whole populations change their vowels without being aware of it? What role does hypercorrection play in this picture?

All good questions, which I will return to later, I'm sure.

linguistics report

I'm surprised by how much linguistics has changed in the years since I studied it most intently, namely the early eighties. I should not be surprised that Chomsky still dominates the field. The Anthropological Linguistics text I'm using was actually written in the late nineties and has Chomsky all over it, but my impression has been that the last twenty years have been a kind of contest, in which Chomsky still maintains what is left of linguistic universals, and language hunters go out and steadily, one by one, prove them wrong.

Finally, he was backed into a corner: recursion, or reflexivity, the last of linguistic universals; but, someone proved that wrong...or at least, thought they did.

Now, I'll admit, I'm sure my version of this story is somewhat cloudy, and that's why I get it out, to help me sort it out in my own mind. For one thing, I notice recursion and reflexivity being used interchangeably, and I'm not totally comfortable with that. It's my understanding that reflexivity is when an object refers back to a subject (he washed himself) whereas recursion is a little wider, and deals with all self reference, from he gave his horse and car to John and Paul, respectively to he is the man whom I saw yesterday. I'll admit that I have no idea what Chomsky actually claimed in his final theory, or whether the language hunters of the Piraha actually proved that there is a language that does not do this. I base my knowledge on a single article, The Interpreter, that caught my fancy and proved to me that Chomsky was not really, in fact, indestructible. Yet he has totally dominated the field for what, sixty years now.

The way our book describes and distributes sounds is somewhat different from the way we used to. Some features, such as fricative, labial, dental-fricative, etc. seem to be gone. Are they unnecessary? I find myself impatient with the binary nature of features, also. If the entire universe is binary, then it's necessary to label an -h- as either sonorant or non-sonorant, whereas that probably doesn't matter to the person who is actually picking up or interpreting the sound. I'd like to develop my thinking on this topic a bit, but it seems that a lot of the work that has gone into describing sounds distinguishes them by how they are made, and I can see why; that's what we have, and in many cases that's the most salient thing: they're either voiced or non voiced, continuant or stop, etc. But it's at the receiving end that we must pick up the differences between them and then use them to calculate what we've heard. And our minds are not entirely binary. Our computers are, but our minds aren't. Koreans distinguish three kinds of p, for example: plain, tight, and aspirated. We can describe these in a binary way but it might be simpler if we described them in another way. Once again, it's the receiver, the listener, who has to tell them apart. Our hearing/listening must be as simple, as salient, as possible. Why should we tolerate complexity? We don't have time for it.

The book leads us through an exercise on the scientific analysis of the sound makeup of English plurals. Words end in -s, -z, or -Iz as in books, dogs/dogz, churches/churchiz. We want to make a rule that explains what native English speakers do based on the sound construction of every word. The book posits a base form. Should that be -s? How about -z? or -Iz? Since we're always spelling it with an -s, that might be a good place to start. But is it? Good question.

The rule of Occam's razor says, make your explanation as simple as possible. Clean, pure, simple, don't bog down the native speaker with too many rules. OK, I'll buy that. I'll even force it on my students. I'll be happy to. It's tomorrow's lecture.