Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘The darndest things’ Category

Srimp and Jritos at the Groshery Store

Posted by Neal on September 15, 2011

In my second post on the pronunciation of “tr” as [ʧr] (i.e. as “chr”), my question was this: If the /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ (that is, the “ch” and “j” sounds) are phonemes in English, then why don’t English speakers think of words like trick and drape as chrick and jrape? (At least, why don’t the English speakers who pronounce them that way think of them as chrick and jrape? Some speakers do pronounce /tr/ and /dr/ as [tʰr] and [dr].) To put it in phonological terms, why would someone who didn’t know the alphabet perceive [ʧrIk] as /trIk/ and not /ʧrIk/? Or [ʤreip] as /dreip/ and not /ʤreip/? In fact, children who are just learning to spell sometimes do spell [ʧr] as , and [ʤr] as . However, English speakers eventually come around to perceiving [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/. One reason is that as they learn the spelling system, they see that that’s how [ʧr] and [ʤr] are spelled. Another reason is that if English allowed the affricates /ʧ/ and /ʤ/ to form consonant clusters with /r/, we’d have a strange phonological system on our hands. In it, all the plosive consonants other than /t/ and /d/ could form clusters with /r/, while /t/ and /d/ for mysterious reasons could not. Meanwhile, we have /ʧ/ and /ʤ/, which do not normally form consonant clusters, able for some reason to form them with just the consonant /r/.

With that in mind, consider the consonant cluster [ʃr], in words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but comments from Herb Stahlke in some of the posts linked to this one have got me to thinking about it. Like the affricate /ʧ/, the sibilant /ʃ/ forms clusters only with one consonant: /r/. You do get [ʃt] if it’s followed by an /r/, as I discussed in a recent post, but speakers generally perceive that as /str/. And you don’t get words like shkop, shtame, or shpoonkle (oh, wait…). German or Yiddish borrowings like schlep, Schwinn, Schmidt, and schnitzel are acceptable, but you don’t find many new words created that begin with /ʃl/, /ʃw/, /ʃm/, or /ʃn/. On the other hand, the sibilant /s/ can form a cluster with several other consonants. It can form them with voiceless plosives: spit, stick, sky. It can form them with nasals: smack, snoot. It can form them with glides: swoop, and in some dialects, words like suit. (See this post on Dialect Blog for more on American English “yod-dropping”.) It can form them with liquids: slide and … Oops. It can form clusters with lateral liquids, i.e. /l/. It can’t form them with retroflex liquids, i.e. /r/. How many of you pronounce the Sri in Sri Lanka as [sri], and not [ʃri]? I try to, but it feels weird.

So by the same phonological reasoning that leads us to perceive [ʧr] and [ʤr] as /tr/ and /dr/, why don’t we perceive [ʃr] as /sr/? In other words, why don’t we have a system in which /s/ can form clusters with both kinds of lateral liquids, and note that before /r/, /s/ is realized as [ʃ], instead of having a mysterious gap where /sr/ should be? Well, in this case, the spelling points toward hearing it the way it actually sounds: Words like shrimp, shriek, shred, shroud, shrew, and shrike are actually spelled with . But if it weren’t for the spelling, how would speakers perceive it? (Stahlke observes that some Southern American English speakers actually do say “srimp”, but what about other words beginning with “shr”?)

There is at least one word where speakers may perceive something pronounced as [ʃ] as an /s/. Listen to this classic Sesame Street video:

Did you hear it? “Ten tiny turtles on the telephone, talking to the groshery men”? That’s how I heard it as a kid, but gradually wrote it off to my imagination, as I grew up in a family that pronounced it gro[s]ery. Years later, though, I learned that many speakers unquestionably do pronounce grocery with [ʃ]. On her blog, Jan Freeman wrote:

But ever since I started reading similar criticisms of my native Ohio speech oddities, I’ve been wary of ascribing motives to people’s pronunciations. I grew up with “mirror” pronounced MERE and grocery as GROSHERY. But my parents didn’t use those pronunciations because they were uneducated; they used them because everyone did.

As I wrote this post, I realized that I had an explanation for this pronunciation: If you elide the unstressed schwa in the middle syllable, you’re left with an /s/ right next to an /r/. (Linguists call such a deletion syncope.) Looking at it that way, I see that gro[ʃ]ry is no more unusual than C’lumbus, Ohio, or Web’los. But if you keep the unstressed syllable, then both gro[ʃ]ry and C’lumbus may strike you as a bit odd.

Now Freeman may or may not have recognized that her pronunciation of grocery contained a [ʃ] (feel free to chime in, Jan), but here’s a speaker for whom [ʃ] is just how you pronounce /s/ before an /r/. A commenter going by the handle embolini9 responded to a query on, “How do you pronounce ‘grocery’?” , writing, “I’m from New England, and I’ve never heard the ‘sh’ sound. I’ve always said ‘gross-ree.'” But a few comments later, embolini9 returned to write, “Oh wait! I just said it out loud, and I guess sometimes I do say ‘groh-shree.’ Maybe more often than not… yup, I definitely say ‘sh.’ Now I’m the crazy girl sitting at her desk saying ‘grocery’ to herself.” (The rest of the comments are fun,too, ranging over a lot of regional pronunciations, an dsurprisingly little peeving.)

This case of syncope feeding a phonetic alteration brings me back to the posts on “shtr” and “chr/jr” that got me onto this subject. I was listening to the Sept. 7, 2011 “Radium Girls” episode of the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, and one of the hosts pretty consistently pronounced str as [ʃtr]. There were one or two occasions when she didn’t, but one of the words that got a [ʃtr] was history. She pronounced the word historic with an [s], but history with a [ʃ]. Why? In historic, the middle syllable is stressed, so the /st/ is separated from the /r/ by a vowel. But in history, the host syncopated the unstressed medial vowel, leaving the /st/ right next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʃtr] pronunciation. As for “chr” and “jr”, I remembered way back to when Doug was three or four years old, and his favorite lunch was a turkey sandwich with Doritos. He tended to syncopate that initial unstressed syllable, leaving the /d/ next to the /r/, eligible for the [ʤr] affrication. As a result, he would ask for a turkey sandwich and “Jritos”.

Posted in Consonants, Food-related, The darndest things, Variation | 14 Comments »

When We Get Married

Posted by Neal on July 9, 2011

It’s been light blogging during the past week, since my parents were visiting. Pretty much all I did was check in on the Grammar Girl giveaway a few times and put links to relevant GG podcasts or blog posts (here or elsewhere) for topics people asked about that I probably won’t choose because they’ve already been covered. The puzzling entries are the ones that say something like, “I’d love to win one of these books!” and nothing else. I don’t think they read the post as closely as they should have.

Anyway, one night while Mom and Dad were here, we went out to eat to celebrate their 45th anniversary (from a few days earlier) and my wife’s and my 15th anniversary (that day). Dad made a comment about our anniversaries being 30 years apart but so close to the same day. Adam spoke up.

“Maybe someday when Doug and I get married, we’ll get married in July, too!”

“Oh, you couldn’t do that!” I said. “He’s your brother! And you’re both boys!” (OK, so that last part might not be a problem in Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Washington, D.C., or who knows where else in a dozen years.)

“Adam, these guys are really literal!” my wife said.

Yes, to interpret Doug and Adam get married to mean that they’re marrying each other is a literal interpretation. But it’s also a literal interpretation to interpret it the way Adam meant it: that Doug is getting married to some woman (or man, I suppose), and Adam is getting married to some other woman (or man, yes, OK). The ambiguity isn’t a matter of literal vs. figurative; it’s just that marry (or more commonly, get married) participates in the understood reciprocal object alternation. So do the verbs kiss and fight, but not hit or kick,. (I realize I’ve written enough posts about these kinds of verbal diathesis alternations to give them their own category, which I have now done.)

As I wrote in 2007 about Amelia Bedelia, it’s not about going for the unintended literal meaning of something; it’s about choosing, in the face of ambiguity, the maximally funny reading, be it literal or not. I remember a time about sixteen years ago when the “married to someone else” interpretation was the funnier one. It was around the time of my wife’s and my negative-first anniversary. I was introducing her to Mom and Dad, and telling them that we were going to get married. Then I added, “To each other!”

Posted in Adam, Lexical semantics, The darndest things, Verbal diathesis alternations | 7 Comments »

It Was Made Today!

Posted by Neal on April 25, 2011

When I was in kindergarten, Dad bought me The Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Reptiles. I liked it so much that when we were going to take a road trip from El Paso, Texas to Kentucky to visit my cousins that summer, Dad read the whole book (all 60 pages of it) aloud onto cassette tapes for me to listen to in the car.

Mostly I remember the illustrations from the book: Giant dragonflies from the Carboniferous Period, the Brachiosaurus standing in the swamp, a Gorgosaurus grabbing a duckbilled dinosaur in its jaws without even breaking its stride. But there was one turn of phrase that stuck with me. It was in the last chapter, where the author talked about the process of fossilization and the means of recovering them. Here’s the passage:

There it is: “You may say, ‘Why can’t we go dinosaur-hunting today?'”, and the elliptical response, “You can!” Literal-minded though I may have been, I didn’t take the sentence You can [go dinosaur-hunting today] to mean literally the very day on which I was reading it or hearing it. Maybe it was because I realized today would refer to different days depending when I was reading it, or when the author wrote it. Instead, I made a mental note that today could have a more general meaning of “these days”.

One day during the following school year I was walking around on the playground with a classmate, who found a penny. He showed it to me, and I saw that the year 1976 was stamped on it: the current year!

“Wow!” I said. “This penny was made today!” Even before I’d finished the sentence, I could tell it didn’t sound right. My classmate did, too. He was looking at me as if he hadn’t realized until just then exactly what an idiot I was.

“It wasn’t made today!” he said in a disgusted tone.

Um, right. I got that, and I wondered how I could have arrived at such a silly meaning for today. Looking back, I think what messed me up is that today in the sentence about fossils really did mean “on this day” after all. It’s true: You can go dinosaur-hunting this very day if you want to and you’re in the right place. (I’m not. There are no dinosaur fossils in Ohio, except those that were found somewhere else and then brought here.) The crucial difference was that the sentence in the book had the modal can. It’s the possibility of dinosaur-hunting that exists today, not necessarily the actual doing of it. But when I talked about the penny, I was talking about actualities, not possibilities.

Posted in Semantics, The darndest things | 8 Comments »

Backformation Collection

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2011

Longtime family friends Jim and Mary paid us a visit last week to deliver some cookies and a Christmas present for Doug and Adam. Mary does a lot of crafts, particularly those involving sewing. Doug and Adam still use the hand-sewn trick-or-treat bags that she gave them almost ten years ago, and we still use the white felt Christmas tree apron she gave us at around the same time. It’s nice, with felt holly leaves and berries decorating the outer circumference, snap buttons to close the apron after you put it around the base of the tree, and a drawstring sewn into the inner circumference to allow adjustment for different trunk thicknesses. The white felt is somewhat dimmed by an accumulation of cat hairs that are effectively impossible to remove, and we have to make do with just the buttons, because cats exploring under the tree have chewed off both ends of the drawstring over last several Christmases. But we put it under the tree every year because it’s just that well made, not just because we know Mary will be coming by sometime while the tree’s still up.

Jim and Mary gave Doug and Adam each a decorative, hand-sewn bag this year, with a miniature version of the kind of drawstring that the Christmas tree apron used to have. Doug and Adam opened their bags to find a smaller drawstring bag inside. A still smaller drawstring bag was inside that one, and inside that, a gift card to a book store. Doug and Adam said thank you, and Doug went on to express appreciation for the bags, too. They would be useful, he said, because

I coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect.

There’s no way his rock collection would fit into any of those bags, or even all three together, but the thought was nice. And the coins or bottlecaps might just fit. We just need to make sure the cats don’t chew those little drawstrings off and us end up having to take them to the animal clinic. But if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that what caught my ear was Doug’s compound verbs coin-collect, bottlecap-collect, and rock-collect. They’re three more additions to the list of compound verbs formed via reanalysis and backformation from compound verbal nouns. To recap with just one of them: The compound noun coin-collecting (or maybe coin collection) is reanalyzed as the suffix -ing attaching to a putative verb coin-collect. Remove the suffix and you’re left with that newly formed verb.

By now, this process is old hat to regular readers (and if it’s not, it will be by the time you finish reading the other posts in the Backformation category). What especially struck me about Doug’s phrasing was that this backformation process is so strong in his grammar that not only do compound verbs like coin-collect prevail over verb phrases like collect coins, but they do so even when using the regular VP syntax would save him two repetitions of a word. He could have just said,

I collect coins, bottlecaps, and rocks.

You know what would be even more unusual than that? If the verb-compounding became so much the norm that Doug could say this:

I coin-, bottlecap-, and rock-collect.

Maybe there are even speakers out there now who can do that. If you’re reading, make yourselves known in the comments!

Posted in Backformation, Cats, Christmas-related, Compound words, The darndest things | 8 Comments »

De Dicto and De Re

Posted by Neal on August 10, 2010

Doug and his friend Grant were standing in the kitchen yesterday, trying to figure out what they wanted to do.

“So, what do you want to do?” Doug asked.

“Something Adam doesn’t want to do,” Grant answered. “Wait, that sounded bad! I meant, I wanted to play Hide-and-Seek, but Adam never wants to play that.”

I looked up from my computer. “Oh, you got caught in a de dicto / de re ambiguity!”

It seems Grant had never heard of de dicto / de re ambiguities. I enlightened him. “What you meant was, you wanted to play Hide-and-Seek; Adam never wants to play that; so you want to play something Adam didn’t want to play.”


“That’s called the de re meaning. But it sounded like you were saying, ‘I don’t care what we do, just as long as it’s something Adam doesn’t want to do.’ That’s the de dicto meaning.”

“Oh, uh, OK,” Grant said.

The ambiguity comes down to a difference in whether or not the something takes wide scope over the (unstated) want in his elliptical statement (I want to do) something Adam doesn’t want to do. If it does, we get Grant’s intended de re meaning: “There exists an activity X that Adam doesn’t want to do, and Grant wants to do X.” If it doesn’t, we get the exclusionary de dicto meaning: “Grant wants it to be the case that there exists an activity X such that Adam doesn’t want to do it and Grant does.”

Of course, I didn’t get into that with Grant. I could tell he was happy enough just to have this useful new vocabulary!

Posted in De dicto / de re, The darndest things | Leave a Comment »

Stool School

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2010

Over the weekend, Adam and I went on his Cub Scout pack’s summer camping trip. The highlight of the trip was a visit to the Wilds, an exotic-animal preserve operated by the Columbus Zoo in eastern Ohio, on lands reclaimed from strip-mining operations. Riding on the safari bus, we saw Bactrian camels, giraffes and rhinoceroses, and something I’d never seen before called the Sichuan takin. The tour guide said that there were also some North American animals there; in particular, they knew that bobcats were starting to recolonize the area, but they were very hard to observe.

“So,” our guide Alex told us, “they use specially trained dogs to look for bobcat scat. Do you know what scat is?”

The scouts knew: “Poop!”

“That’s right!” Alex continued with details about how you teach dogs to sniff out bobcat poop: “You put a piece of it under one of several cups, and reward them when they knock over the right one. So now, they can go out in the field and find where the bobcats have been, because if bobcat poop is there, then a bobcat has been there. And you know what else they can do? They can put that poop under a microscope to find out what kind of things the bobcats have been eating.”

“Wow, smart dogs,” I said to my seatmate Ron, the father of one of Adam’s fellow scouts. “I didn’t know dogs could use microscopes.”

Our guide had switched without warning from anaphoric they (which referred back to the dogs she was already talking about) to generic they to talk about what anyone with the skills and curiosity could find out from bobcat excrement. It had taken me a second to make the switch along with her.

All the talk about dogs and stool samples reminded Ron of a favorite family story involving both. When his daughter Jenny was about four or five years old, he told me, he and his wife Pauline had had to collect a stool sample from their dog to take to the vet. Jenny wanted to know why.

Ron and Pauline explained that the vets were going to send the poop to a lab to find out what was wrong with their dog.

Jenny just couldn’t get this. “But I don’t understand!” she kept protesting. Ron and Pauline tried to explain that labs had microscopes they could use to examine the stool sample and get clues about the dog’s condition.

“But I don’t understand! How can they do that?” Jenny asked. At one point she was almost in tears, Rick recalled.

Finally she burst out, “But how do they teach those dogs to do that!?”, and Ron and Pauline finally realized that all the time they’d been saying “labs,” Jenny had been hearing “Labs”.

And, I might add, when her parents were using generic they to refer to whoever worked at the labs, Jenny was taking it as an anaphoric they, with Labs as its antecedent. It made sense, in a four-year-old kind of way, Ron admitted: Who more appropriate to send your dog’s stool sample to than another dog? Dogs sniff other dogs’ stool samples all the time!

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Morphology, Ohioana, The darndest things | 5 Comments »

The Walking Trail

Posted by Neal on May 25, 2010

Another place we went on our trip two weekends ago was to Magee Marsh, on the shore of Lake Erie in northwestern Ohio, for the tail end of the Biggest Week in American Birding. Yes, there is a biggest week in American birding, Doug and his mother have learned during this past year. It’s the week of the peak of the warblers’ northern migration, as they stop to rest and feed at the shore of Lake Erie before continuing on to Canada. Doug and his mom actually went there the week before, and spent two days looking for birds and listening to talks about birds! Adam and I opted out of that trip. But now, a week later, Doug had read that a Kirtland’s warbler had been sighted at Magee Marsh after his visit, and he was hoping he could see it himself if he took another walk along the boardwalk there. At the trailhead there was this sign:

It reminded me of an error I’ve seen a few times in grammar books or discussions; for example this one. The question is: What part of speech is the word walking in the nominal walking trail? Some (like the author of the book I linked to above) seem to be following this line of reasoning:

  1. Adjectives modify nouns.
  2. Walking modifies the noun trail.
  3. (Invalid conclusion) Therefore, walking is an adjective.

This is like saying, “Dogs dig holes. The guy who’s putting in my swimming pool digs holes. Therefore, the guy who’s putting in my swimming pool is a dog.” The missing piece of information here is that nouns can modify nouns, too. Of course, there is crossover sometimes, when a noun modifier is reinterpreted as an adjective and treated accordingly (see fun and key).

So why not just say that anything that modifies a noun is an adjective? For one thing, you’ve just made it harder on yourself to distinguish between adjectives that can do things like have comparative and superlative forms or be modified by adverbs, and adjectives like walking, which can’t. (Well, you might be able to say “walkingest,” but it would have to refer to something that walks the most. You couldn’t say “the walkingest trail” to mean the trail that is best for walking.) For another, that leads to further reasoning like this:

  1. Verbal adjectives are participles.
  2. (Invalid premise) Walking is a verbal adjective.
  3. Therefore, walking is a participle.

So why is this conclusion bad? Well, now how are you going to explain the difference between a trail that walks and a trail for walking? How will you explain why walking trail in its intended, non-ridiculous meaning means the same thing as trail for walking, where walking is a noun (i.e. gerund)? Calling walking a gerund instead of a participle here is sloppy analysis.

Now lest you think I went all the way to Magee Marsh with my family, only to get carried away by grammar issues that the trail sign reminded me of, let me say that I did learn something about birds, and warblers in particular. I pronounce warble like this: [warbL]. (I’m using [L] to represent syllabic /l/, that is, /l/ that functions as a syllable.) But when I attach the –er suffix, the [L] stops being syllabic, and turns back into a true consonant, so that I pronounce warbler as two syllables: [warb.lR]. (Now I’m using [R] to represent syllabic /r/.) In more ordinary English spelling, I guess it’d be warb-ler. But when Doug says warbler, I was surprised to learn, he doesn’t un-syllabify that [L]. He pronounces it with three syllables: [warb.L.R]. In somewhat regular spelling, that would be warble-er. However, he did cop to shortening it to two syllables, the way I pronounce it, when he’s talking fast. How about that?

Posted in Gerunds and participles, Ohioana, Semantics, Syntax, The darndest things | 2 Comments »

Imma Update

Posted by Neal on May 16, 2010

In my post and Visual Thesaurus column about I’ma a few weeks ago, I speculated a bit about how long it had been around, even if it didn’t make it into print until recently. The earliest I had was a Tom and Jerry cartoon from the 1960s that Doug brought to my attention. We now have an attestation from a decade earlier. Brett Reynolds of English, Jack wrote to Ben Zimmer and Mark Liberman at Language Log to say, “I just noticed [Imma] in the patter on the end of track 4, ‘Now’s The Time’, from the Art Blakey Quintet’s A Night At Birdland, Vol. 2 [Live].” If I can trust the Wikipedia entry on Art Blakey, this recording is from the mid-1950s. The quotation goes:

Yes, sir, I’mma stay with the youngsters. When these get too old, I’m (n?)a get some younger ones.

The above transcription is from Reynolds, and I agree that it’s hard to hear exactly what’s going on with the second possible Imma, but the first one is quite clear. Mark wrote a post on Reynolds’s find, and included the clip that Reynolds had so helpfully provided, along with spectrograms he made of both possible I’mmas.

I, meanwhile, was on a road trip with my wife and the boys. In the car, we listened to an audiobook version of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. I’ve never read this book, but I remembered the TV miniseries of it that I saw years ago was pretty good, and I know it’s been popular for more than 100 years. I also figured that, based just on the title, Doug and Adam were unlikely to ever read it on their own, or even be seen with it, but we could all enjoy it in the car, and no one would be the wiser.

So as we were driving back today, we were listening to Chapter 10, in which the protagonist Anne Shirley has to apologize to a neighbor, Mrs. Lynde, for an outburst of temper when Mrs. Lynde had insulted Anne’s red hair. On the way to Mrs. Lynde’s house, Anne’s adoptive mother Marilla wonders what Anne seems so cheerful about, and asks her. The text that follows:

“I’m imagining out what I must say to Mrs. Lynde,” answered Anne dreamily.

“Pause!” Doug said. “Did you hear that, Dad?” he asked after my wife had paused the audio. “Imma. When was this book published?”

“No, she said, ‘I’m i-MAGining’,” I replied. Then it hit me what Doug had really heard: I must say! Phonetically, the [t] between the two [s]s just dropped out. The only phonetic clue that Anne was saying I must say instead of Imma say was the geminated [s] (i.e. pronounced for longer than a single [s]): We heard [aImɘsːeI] instead of [aImɘseI].

Ha! For one brief moment, Doug thought we’d found an Imma in print to precede the earliest spoken attestation by half a century! Wouldn’t that have been something?

Posted in Books, Diachronic, Morphology, The darndest things, Variation | 2 Comments »

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!

Posted in LSA, The darndest things | 6 Comments »

You Better Not Shout

Posted by Neal on December 11, 2009

Yesterday I heard a first-grade boy singing

You better not shout,
You better not cry,
You better not pout,
I’m tellin’ you why. . . .

He got distracted before he could get to “Santa Claus is coming to town”, but he already had me humming the song to myself, trying to remember what the real words were. It was hard after hearing the ones he sang, which were so close that they were interfering with my recall, but after a few seconds I managed to pull them up:

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Posted in Christmas songs, Phonetics and phonology, The darndest things | 7 Comments »