Friday, June 01, 2007

Standards of linguistic inquiry

The little red-penned devil won't leave me alone. And sometimes it's worse than the tired and baffling arguments against split infinitives and final prepositions. I'm am learning to leave those behind even as style issues. But I'm ashamed to say that sometimes even phonology trips me up.

In a recent ADS-L message thread a contributor offered examples of what he classified as "an attempt at speech sophistication." He claimed this was what was happening when "the adolescent girl (and occasional guy) characteristically distorts the vowel sounds."

I had no idea what further claim he was going to make so I offered a couple of media examples of vowel backing that might be part of the same "attempt." We were immediately pounced upon by learned linguists who called these characterizations "strange" warned against "psychoanalyzing".

It was a fair assessment considering the large amount of recent and well-known research on some of the vowel alternations mentioned. Just look for Northern Cities Shift and you'll find it.

I stepped down from my claim, did a little searching and found that at least one of the speakers I mentioned was raised in a region that would be expected to show the vowel change. Oops.

Why are claims like "she's trying to sound smart" or "he's trying to sound fancy" so vigilantly shot down? Because linguistics has established a method of conclusions based on measurable and observable data. There is certainly theory involved but that theory addresses the data that has been collected and its relevance. Good theory does not seek to introduce new unobserved data or suggestions of possible factors that could explain the collected facts. Good theory may argue about organization and interpretation, but it doesn't add unaccounted-for variables into an equation.

Consider the following skeleton:

- Some people say [Q].
- Who says [Q]?
- In what phonological environment do some people say [Q]?
- Now we know that [people$] say Q when it falls between [x] and [y].
- The phonology of [people$] has undergone change of a type just as we have found in the phonology of every other group of [people] that has ever been studied.

Now imagine that a dolt like me comes in and makes glib comments like "I think [people$] are just trying to..." without any data; without any theory to support the data-less claim. What happens to the value of a field of inquiry if its practitioners do not hold their claims to a higher standard than an impression? "Because that's what I've always thought" is not reliable data.


  1. But, haven't you ever made a conscious change to part of your speech pattern? -- maybe not quite phonology (though it wouldn't surprise me)... but certainly grammar?

    When I was a kid (or should I say, "where I was a kid"), people in my neighborhood and at school always said "lay" when they meant "lie," and "laid" when they meant "lay," and so on... but my mom, a grade-A grammar-nut, kept correcting me until I finally realized it might be fun to "sound smarter." So that can't be dismissed as geographical, can it? Of course, sounding smart can also make you sound incredibly vain to trained ears, and in an English department, I worry more about that faux pas than I do about poor grammar.

    It's hot -- I'm going to lie out now for an hour by my new pool. Haha...

    (**Second thought: in other words, what about anamolous speakers who do not accept the speech patterns of their community?)

  2. Absolutely. People make conscious choices about their language all the time.

    But it takes a specific body of data to support any claims that we know something about the reasons for these choices.

    Someone with a well-trained ear can listen to a speaker and identify which patterns are natural and which are stylized or affected; but that's still not saying much about the speakers intentions.

    And it's even fine to try an figure it out. But that's creeping outside the mien of phonology.

  3. I wouldn't say impressions are inherently out of place, but simply that claims without known backing should be referenced as such.

    There is value in these impressions because areas of research and lines of investigation have to be established at some point in time; after all, many hypothesis start start by being someone's impression, one day leading somebody in some field to ask the right questions to finally give a statistical probability of how likely it was said subjects were trying to sound smart. (Such, 2007)

  4. That's fine. But it's not phonology.

  5. LOL -- you have an "it's" error in this post. ;-)


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