Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

In the Land of Parent-Linguists

Posted by Neal on January 10, 2010

I got a few language-related books for Christmas, including Patricia O’Conner’s Origins of the Specious, Sheila Finch’s The Guild of Xenolinguists, and Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages. As I was packing to come to the LSA conference, I decided to take one of my new books for reading on the plane, and more or less at random, grabbed the last one. The next day I arrived in Baltimore, checked in at the LSA registration table, and received my conference program. I already had some idea of the LSA talks I wanted to go to from the preliminary program that had been on the LSA website for a couple of months, but this was the first time I got a look at the talks for the smaller, “sister society” conferences going on at the same time: the American Dialect Society (which holds the Word of the Year selection that you’ve been reading about in the papers today), the American Name Society, the Society for the Study of Indigenous Languages of the Americas, the Society for Pidgin and Creole Linguistics, and the North American Association for the History of the Language Studies. As I looked at the abstracts for that last society, I was surprised to see that one of the speakers was none other than Arika Okrent. (Other speakers were people other than Okrent, but I wasn’t surprised to see that.) But what do invented languages have to do with the history of language studies?

Arika Okrent, linguist and parent

Nothing. Her talk was titled “The linguist as parent, parent as linguist”, a topic that you might not have realized I have some interest in. Okrent gave her talk at 2:30 this afternoon, and started off with a story about her son, Leo. As she drove him home from preschool one day, she had asked about his day. He told her that they’d talked about lasers. She said, “Lasers, huh?” in probably the same attempting-to-sound-interested tone that I absolutely never have to use with Doug and Adam. Leo continued:

Erica don’t like that.
Erica’s from art class.
Erica from art class don’t like guns.

Okrent was blown away. Leo had cleared the linguistic hurdle of taking two propositions (Erica doesn’t like guns, Erica’s from art class) and packaging them into one sentence: Erica (who is) from art class don’t like guns.

Her point: Although most parents are interested in their children’s language development, nonlinguists are only interested in the mistakes, the babyish pronunciations, the cute misunderstandings. Linguists, in contrast, are also interested in what the kids get right, the kind of thing that might go right by other parents because it just sounds normal.

From there, Okrent sketched the history of linguists who were also parents recording their own children’s linguistic data. The practice has been going on since before linguistics even existed in its own right, starting with a guy named Dietrich Tiedemann, who in 1787 published observations made on his own children.

Of course, not all linguists who have children publish books or papers about them. For the most part, Okrent believes that being a linguist has two main effects on parents. One is simply that they view their children’s language development through their own “theoretical lens”; the other is that when they write down in a journal things their kids say, some of their professional methodology is liable to creep in. For example, they’ll use IPA to record a child’s utterances. (I know I did when I was recording Doug’s /l/ productions when he was a toddler.)

However, with the birth of cognitive science in the late 1940s and 1950s, some linguist-parents went beyond passive observation and data collection to actually doing experiments with their own children. Evylyn Pike made a point of never using the rising intonation that’s characteristic of motherese when talking to her second daughter, and instead spoke to her only in falling intonations, which her daughter then used in her first words.

In the 1960s and 70s, though, unease at the idea of a parent doing any kind of experiment on their own children grew in response to public revulsion to “the excesses of psychology experiments”. (I’m surmising that Okrent was referring to things like Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments, or the great strides in lobotomization during that era.) Okrent even told of linguist Jerry Sadock expressing disgust at parents using their children as a source of data.

“But that,” Okrent continued, “was before he had kids.” In the 1970s, Sadock presented a paper at the Chicago Linguistic Society conference on the “Bennish optative”, regarding a verb form he was hearing in his son Ben’s speech.

“Parents can’t resist,” Okrent said, “and it’s been to the benefit of linguistics.” The extended, intimate contact that parents have with their children allow insights you just can’t get in a lab, including many slips of the tongue that would go unnoticed, and children’s rambling monologues as they drift to sleep in their cribs. Both of these topics resulted in books (one of them featured in Michael Erard’s Um), because both were things that non-parent linguists didn’t believe young children did. Non-linguist parents certainly knew, but didn’t know the significance. It took members of the intersection of the two sets to notice the data and make it available.

More importantly, though, has this kind of research been good for children? Okrent has found no evidence that it harms them, and most linguists think that if anything, it enriches their children’s language experience, in the same way that growing up bilingual might. (And amazingly, there are even people who think that’s a bad idea!) Shoot, Glen and I did stuff to Ellen when she was a baby for no purpose other than to mess with her mind, and we never answered to anybody for it. We’d sing her the alphabet backwards, or in QWERTY order. We’d tell her, “If you don’t give me a bite of your candy, I won’t give you a quarter,” leaving her to figure out that the converse might not be true. If she ever made the mistake of asking us to make her a peanut butter sandwich we’d say, “Poof! You’re a peanut butter sandwich!” (Asking us to make her a real sandwich didn’t help her, either.)

About the worst that’s happened is just embarrassment at having some portion of their lives exposed without their knowledge or consent. Okrent even told of one parent who tested the hypothesis that their child’s linguistic development was correlated with their success in learning to use the toilet, recording many data points in the process. As adults, though, the kids seem to have gotten over any embarrassment — except for the one woman who sued her mother for publishing stuff about her. Okrent didn’t tell about that case; I only learned about it from a linguist I talked to later in the day. (Anyone know more details on that?) And finally, Okrent observed, it’s worth considering the position that kids in experiments run by their parents have a kind of built-in protection that other kids in experiments don’t, assuming that the parent knows the child’s needs and limits the best, and presumably has the child’s best interest at heart.

In the question period, one audience member brought up a paper that was written by a linguist who was clearly a parent of the child subject, in light of the kinds of utterances that got recorded and the kind of detailed data that had been collected — but the author never admitted as much! I added that I’d wondered about the same thing in a paper I’d read two years ago. Did the linguists think this coyness gave the paper a more professional feel? Or were they embarrassed to admit they’d used their own children as data sources, and if so, who did they think they were fooling?

Overall, this was one of the more interesting talks I heard at this conference, and it’s the only one where I’ve gotten a book signed!

6 Responses to “In the Land of Parent-Linguists”

  1. Glen said

    We’d tell her, “If you don’t give me a bite of your candy, I won’t give you a quarter,” leaving her to figure out that the converse might not be true.

    Ooh, I’d forgotten about that one!

  2. Dad said

    Hi, Neal,

    Elaine & I used to do that kind of stuff to you and Glen all the time just for fun and to make you smart. I think it does good and does no harm.


  3. Arika’s book is a terrific read.

    Personally I think that the choice of a future of a new global language lies between Esperanto and English, rather than an untried project.

    Your readers may be interested the following video

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  4. As a parent, I experimented with not using real words, but keeping inflection and rhythm while my children were learning to talk. They responded appropriately. It was fascinating to learn how much of language is not words.

    Your readers may be interested in my description of this process.

  5. […] happy for her. (You know, the one whose father read to her when she was young, who was subjected to stupid linguistic humor from her brothers as a girl, who graduated from UTexas, earned her MD, and is now doing her residency?) One thing […]

  6. […] on his own children. (Wait, what about this blogpost? Oh, well.) I learned about this fact in a blogpost by Neal Whitman. He writes about a paper he heard given by Arika Okrent presented at the LSA […]

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