Post written by Jan H. Hulstijn, based on an article in Language Teaching
The second language acquisition (SLA) ﬁeld is characterized by a wide variety of issues and theoretical perspectives. Is this a bad thing? Are there signs of disintegration?
In applied linguistics in general, and in particular in the field of SLA, it is not uncommon to distinguish between quantitative and qualitative approaches or between cognitive and socio-cultural approaches. In my view, what is potentially more threatening to the ﬁeld than a split between quantitative and qualitative subﬁelds is the proportion of nonempirical theories. If an academic discipline is characterized by too many nonempirical ideas and too few empirical ideas, it runs the risk of losing credit in the scientiﬁc community at large (and in society).
In this paper, I propose to distinguish, instead, between theories formulated in a way that allows empirical testing and theories that are not, or not yet, empirical in this sense. I am not advocating banishing all nonempirical ideas from the SLA ﬁeld, but what would really make the ﬁeld more transparent for both SLA-ers and outsiders is if scholars who propose theories were to indicate to what extent their theory is ready for empirical scrutiny. It does not matter whether the field of SLA is inhabited by many theories. However, it would be a good thing if we viewed the field not only in terms of the ‘issues’, as do most of the textbooks, but also in terms of their empirical or nonempirical status. This would also help us gain a better view of the agenda of our discipline.
For this purpose, I provide a list of theory-classification criteria. Sticking out my neck, I categorize a number of theories as having a more or less falsfiable status. While welcoming theories not yet ready for empirical falsification, I also express my concern about the possibility that the non-empirical theories may outnumber the theories that lend themselves to falsification.
Access the full article without charge until January 31st 2014 here.
By Ronald Batchelor
A most dominant factor in the use of language is register, or variety or level of language determined by the communicative situation in which the speaker/writer finds herself/ himself. In other words, the level of language we resort to depends, to a very large extent, on whether we are speaking with friends, which would attract a colloquial style, writing a letter, delivering a lecture involving a standard style, or writing a book frequently entailing a formal, elevated style of expression. Levels of language may therefore differ over a range from informal to formal, and are determined by four factors: sex, age, professional or social status, and intimacy. All these features affect, in varying degrees, the way we use language in areas of vocabulary and grammar.
A simple formula for assigning register (henceforth called R) to vocabulary and grammar could be: R1* vulgar, possibly offensive; R1 colloquial, elliptical, casual; R2 standard, polite, educationally sound: R3 formal, literary, scholarly. Such subdivisions are arbitrary and there could be some movement between them, but they do seem to hold water for most linguists. What is clear, however, is that language-sensitive speakers would consider as “incorrect” many expressions in the R1 or R1* category. As they say in Spanish, “Está mal dicho” or “Es una palabra malsonante”.
Looking towards the future, it is possible that some of what are deemed incorrect usages assigned to R1 will end up in an R2 category. A simple illustration: the Mexican use of the x in México, once shunned in Iberian Spanish, is now accepted in Spain. In point of fact, it appears quite regularly in the Spanish press. It is manifestly obvious that the Spanish language, spoken over vast territories, from the Río Bravo (Río Grande) to Tierra del Fuego, will entail great diversity, and even uncertainty, in the light of which what is “correct” in one Spanish-speaking country may be considered “incorrect” in another.
The Real Academia Española (RAE) was once recognized as the guardian of the “correctness” and standard register of Spanish, but this can no longer be the case. There are as many Academias as there are Spanish-speaking countries. And they all enjoy linguistic parity. As a consequence, the judgment of correctness has become arbitrary in many cases. An Argentinian would find the juxtaposition of adverb and possessive pronoun (adelante mío=in front of me), (cerca tuyo=near you), perfectly admissible, and would classify these structures as R2, but these expressions would appear strange to a Colombian, a Mexican or a speaker from the Iberian Peninsula who would doubtless reject them. How many speakers of “standard” Spanish would admit delante mío as R2? Probably no one outside Argentinian. No disagreement, of course, on the acceptability of delante de mí/cerca de ti, everyone considering them as R2. All Spanish speakers would unanimously agree on the use of ante mí (before me) as an R3 expression. Yet, delante mío, delante de mí, ante mí all have validity in their own way, depending on circumstances, region, locality, and country.
Paradoxically, in the case of Mexico, and this point may be applied to Peru and Colombia, and even Argentina, Spanish, as imported from Peninsular Spain from the sixteenth century onwards, felt conservative constraints, doubtless on account of distance from the “mother” country, so that some vocabulary, as heard and seen in Mexico, has an archaic resonance, falling into an R3 category. It is the author’s experience that Mexican speakers prefer certain terms that are now high register, or of less or restricted use, in modern Spain: alberca instead of piscina, platicar instead of hablar, regresar instead of volver, caminar instead of andar, and even the apocopation of a before a feminine noun, once common in the Spain of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: la primer casa/página/vez, instead of la primera casa…
A compelling argument pleading for the rich diversity of register in the different Spanish-speaking countries lies in the more than well documented origin of Spanish itself, and of all Romance languages for that matter. They derive largely from Latin, which gradually and inevitably splintered into French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese and Spanish, as Roman administrators followed Roman legions. With distance in time and place from Rome and Lazio, the surrounding area, Latin speakers of Roman origin began to speak a different, and therefore, for many, a bastardized form of Latin. Vergil, Cicero, Horace and Ovid would have turned over in their grave on hearing a degenerate form of Latin in the Roman Empire of the third, fourth and fifth centuries AD. The fall of the Roman Empire was accompanied by the fall of the Latin language. The lesson is clear, and “Heresy” I hear some say. Spanish, like all Romance languages, is a deteriorated, low-register form of Latin. But, a type of expression generally considered faulty or “incorrect” in Latin generated a new standard, culturally exciting and linguistically exalting, and this linguistic “deterioration” resolved itself into the marvel of the languages of Cervantes, Racine, Manzoni and Camōens. A case of R1 usage finding its way into R2 and R3 usages over the succeeding centuries.
(Adapted from the Cambridge A Reference Grammar of Spanish (600pp). See pp 3-10 for chapter on Register)
3 examples of range of register, taken from Spain, A(rgentina) and M(exico):
R3 disturbar; R2 fastidiar, incordiar, molestar; R1 enchinchar M, hinchar A, chinchar;
R1* chingar M, dar el coñazo/la puñeta (a) (+many more)
R3 seno; R2 pecho; R1 lola(s) A, delantera; R1* chichis M, tetorras (+many more)
R3 recrearse; R2 pasarla bien A/M, pasarlo bien, disfrutar, divertirse, gozar; R1 pasarla mil puntos A, pasarlo bomba/la mar de bien; R1* pasarla a toda madre M (+many more)
(Taken from my Cambridge Using Span. Synonyms)
Find out more about Dr. Batchelor here
by Ronald Batchelor
To the English-speaking beginner, the notion of masculine and feminine gender for French nouns comes as a surprise. Perhaps it should not be so. For in most European languages of Indo-European origin, and this includes Arabic, Pashto, Hindi, among many others, but excludes Basque, Finnish, Hungarian or Turkish, gender distinction forms an integral part of grammatical discourse. But let’s play the devil’s advocate. For such a beginner, the concept of gender assigned to inanimate objects appears extraordinary, lacking all logic and convincing definition. So much for the logic of “Ce qui n’est pas logique n’est pas français.” It seems to make more sense that gender should find no place when applied to inanimate objects, as in English. One may quote she for a ship, but this is the limit.
However, the idea of gender in French is a presence to be reckoned with. One of the neo-Latin languages, French inherits the concept of M. and F. gender, just like Spanish, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. One may understand M. and F. nouns in the context of humans (male and female) and some animals (again male and female). But that a table in French should be F. (=la table), like the Italian tavola (la), (but M. tavolo (il) is also common in Italian!), and mesa (la) in Spanish, while couteau (le) in French, coltello (il) in Italian and cuchillo (el) in Spanish are M. defies rational explanation. Indeed, linguists agree that no rules may be established to justify this arbitrary application of gender to nouns, save for those pointing to persons and some animals. And even here, gender seems to go a bit transvestite. That a male should be F. as in French victime, Spanish víctima, or Italian vittima, or a female should be M. as in French membre, Spanish miembro or Italian membro merely dims our understanding even more.
Moreover, in many European languages, from Greek and Latin, through to Czech, German, Polish and Russian and the Scandinavian languages, for example, one has to confront a further gender applied to nouns: neuter. In Romance languages, fortunately this is not the case, although in Spanish, there exists the vigorous use of adjectives with a neuter value (=lo). The imagination is stretched beyond all reasonable bounds in Old Church Russian where a fourth gender occurs with a mixture of plural M. and F., the equivalent of they. However, for our purposes, we may safely concentrate on French M. and F. nouns which have repercussions throughout the French sentence since they require agreement of adjectives and past participles. Oddest of anomalies, here we come.
The gender of numerous French nouns has never been stable over the centuries, which explains serious hesitation felt, at one time or another, by practically all French speakers. The same comment applies to other Romance languages. This variability is partly due to the diverse origins of words, changes based on analogy with other words in the same language, and the constant requirements of adapting to new circumstances, as with the accession of females to what was once an exclusive male precinct. Three simple examples of the variability of genders over the centuries is the French M. noun le miel which is also M. in Italian (il miele) but F. in Spanish (la miel); fleur is F. in French and Spanish (la flor) but M. in Italian (il fiore); opéra is M. in French but ópera is F. in Spanish, and opera is also F. in Italian. Little wonder that perplexity reigns here since opus/operis is neuter in Latin. In short, the study of gender is a testing minefield, requiring meticulous attention. Indeed, our Cambridge Reference Grammar of French devotes thirty-six pages to the subject in the light of current French usage.
The common expression “discuter sur le sexe des anges” (“to indulge in Byzantine quibbling”) says it all. Such a discussion points to an interminable and seemingly fruitless wrangling over the sex, and therefore gender, of angels, although sex and gender are not the same thing. Whether angels can be exclusively male or female, and whether their gender in French is M. or F. are unresolved issues. Of course, only the gender of ange concerns us here. Consensus of opinion suggests that ange is only M, witness the entry in the admirable Canadian MULTI Dictionnaire of de Villers which states unequivocally that “ange est toujours masculin” (our underlining). This opinion finds support in the Belgians Hanse and Blampain’s excellent Nouveau dictionnaire des difficultés du français moderne. Yet, this trenchant assertion flies in the face of evidence adduced by Grevisse’s Le bon usage which quotes such prestigious authors as Vigny, Flaubert, Nerval, Zola and Saint-Exupéry, who also assign a F. gender to it. The simple fact is that French, as with other Romance languages, finds itself unavoidably caught up in gender issues that remain adamantly blurred by virtue of the relationship of the nature of gender and the constantly shifting sands of nouns. To conclude the matter of ange, nearly all contemporary French speakers view it as M. For further confusion on the sex of possible supernatural beings, démon/démone is merely another illustration of this labyrinth, although the F. form is little used these days. This said, Chateaubriand uses the F. form in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (near the beginning of chapter 12, book 3).
(Adapted from the Cambridge A Reference Grammar of French)
Find out more about Dr. Ron Batchelor here
by Louise Cummings
Nottingham Trent University, UK
As academic researchers, linguists are increasingly being asked to demonstrate the impact of their work on the lives of individuals and on the growth of national economies. There is one field within linguistics where impact is more readily demonstrated than in any other. This is the study of the many ways in which language and communication can break down or fail to develop normally in children and adults with communication disorders. These disorders are the focus of a recently published handbook, the Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders, which brings together 30 chapters on all aspects of the classification, assessment and treatment of communication disorders. The chapters in this volume will speak for themselves. My purpose in this short extract is to demonstrate how, in an age of impact, the case for the academic study and clinical management of communication disorders could not be more persuasive.
I begin by revisiting a quotation which I included in the preface to the handbook. It is a comment which was made in 2006 by Lord Ramsbotham, the then Chief Inspector of Prisons in the UK. He remarked: ‘When I went to the young offender establishment at Polmont, I was walking with the governor, who told me that if, by some mischance, he had to get rid of all his staff, the last one out of the gate would be his speech and language therapist’. This statement focuses attention quite forcefully on an issue which clinicians and educationalists have known for years: the remediation of impoverished language and communication skills can have a significant, positive impact on one’s life chances and experiences in a range of areas. These areas include social integration, psychological well-being and occupational and educational success. Conversely, the neglect of language and communication impairments presents a significant barrier to academic achievement, vocational functioning and social participation. The area of professional practice which aims to mitigate these harmful consequences of communication disorders – speech and language therapy (UK) or speech-language pathology (US) – has played an increasingly important role in recent years in raising awareness of these disorders. That increased awareness has been felt not just among members of the public in the form of greater tolerance and understanding of communication disorders, but also in policy areas which have the power to transform the provision and delivery of speech and language therapy services.
“It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm“.
If the human impact of communication disorders does not persuade the reader of the merits of this area of academic and clinical work, then perhaps the economic implications of these disorders will make the case even more convincingly. A report1 commissioned by the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists in the UK and published in 2010 found that speech and language therapy across aphasia, specific language impairment and autism delivers an estimated net benefit of £765 million to the British economy each year. In 2000, the economic cost of communication disorders in the US was estimated to be between $154 billion and $186 billion per year, which is equal to 2.5% to 3% of the Gross National Product.2 It is clear that a society which neglects communication disorders among its citizens can expect to sustain significant economic harm. This is in addition to the abdication of any type of social responsibility to the welfare of its people.
1 Marsh, K., Bertranou, E., Suominen, H. and Venkatachalam, M. (2010) An Economic Evaluation of Speech and Language Therapy. Matrix Evidence.
2 Ruben, R.J. (2000) ‘Redefining the survival of the fittest: Communication disorders in the 21st century’, Laryngoscope, 110 (2 Pt 1): 241-245.
The Cambridge Handbook of Communication Disorders, is now available from Cambridge University Press.
Posted on behalf of Editors William Labov and Dennis Preston
Cambridge University Press is pleased to announce the launch of the new online-only Journal of Linguistic Geography (JLG). The journal’s goal is to open the flow of linguistic analysis using electronic formats (such as scalable maps and figures, searchable data sets, and embedded audio files) in a field that has long been blocked by technical factors. For all new subscribers, a comprehensive User Experience Guide provides an overview of the journal’s interactive capacities. Submissions to the journal are welcome and may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Queries are welcome, too.
The journal is an official publication of the International Conference on Methods in Dialectology. Editors Bill Labov (University of Pennsylvania) and Dennis R. Preston (Oklahoma State University) are supported by Technical Editor Bartłomiej Plichta (University of Minnesota). The full editorial board can be viewed here.
The Journal of Linguistic Geography: From Concept to Creation
The stacks of our libraries are filled with magnificent atlases of linguistic geography. File cabinets throughout the world are filled with papers that have never appeared, faced with the problem of reducing maps to small black-and-white versions that convey only a small part of the information in the original.
There will be no limit on the size of maps submitted to the Journal of Linguistic Geography; they will be viewed in their entirety with the panning and zooming options that are second nature to users of the internet. Color is as fundamental as size in cartography, and in electronic publication, color is no more difficult or expensive than black-and-white.
Even more crucial to analytical reading is the relation between map and text, which in print may require a back-and-forth paging operation that challenges memory and even lead to accepting (or rejecting) the author’s statement without making a point-by-point inspection. In the Journal of Linguistic Geography, maps and figures open in a new window, allowing the reader to make a direct comparison between what is said and what is shown.
A further advantage of the journal’s format is that of sound samples in the electronic page. They will not replace IPA notation, but rather serve to refine and encourage the use of phonetic notation.
Reading the Journal of Linguistic Geography will also show that technical innovations are not confined to modes of display. New developments in mathematical analysis of spatial patterns are represented and may include substantial appendices, since the space limitations of print journals do not apply.
So much for form. But what about content?
To put it simply, linguistic geography is concerned with the spatial differentiation of linguistic forms. Teachers of introductory linguistics find that students are fascinated with the fact there are regions nearby where speakers use ‘X’ to refer to what is (“rightly”) called ‘Y.’ This fascination with the facts of the matter impedes rather than encourages the development of our field as a branch of linguistic science. JLG hopes to mobilize those facts in pursuit of a better understanding of the nature of language structure and language change. Our interest is focused on those connections within language that reflect the impact of a given change on other members of the system. A submission that traces distribution of isolated forms or sounds will receive our full attention when it is woven into the fabric of relations that turn words into language.
We do not disprefer studies of the lexicon, but we encourage authors to display the use of a form against the background of competing and complimentary forms, showing what meanings are found for a given form as well as what forms are found for a given meaning.
Fields of structural relationships are most clearly delineated in phonology, and we would be surprised not to receive submissions dealing with the geography of chain shifts, splits and mergers, but we hope to deal with the geography of the full range of linguistic structures.
We invite studies of the perception of speech as well as production. We are interested in both how linguistic varieties across and within regions are heard and processed and how non-linguists perceive the spatial distribution of varieties, particularly when such studies shed light on the characteristics of language variation and change.
The fact that we are named the Journal of Linguistic Geography is not without significance, but the linguistics we appeal to is not just that of the internal relations of linguistic forms. It is also outwardly defined to include the social, historical and economic contexts in which language is formed and used. Thus we expect to find maps reflecting population growth and movement, out- and in-migration, political trends and voting records as well as highway and railroad networks.
Our Editorial Board comprises a group of distinguished linguists from throughout the world. Learn more about these board members and how their own published work illustrates research of the scope and quality we hope to feature in the journal.
by Julie Tetel Andresen
Duke University, North Carolina
My favorite words in Romanian are those of Turkish origin. Because parts of present-day Romania were under Ottoman rule for a long time, it’s natural that Romanian would have lexical borrowings from Turkish. One is the word for tulip. Now, tulips are not native to Holland. They are native to Central Asia, and in the eighteenth century there was a craze for tulips at the Ottoman court, and images of tulips could be found on clothing and furniture, while real tulips flourished in gardens and parks. Still today the tulip is a symbol for Turkey. The English word ‘tulip’ comes from the Turkish word tulbend ‘turban’ because the flower resembles the shape of a turban. However, the Turkish word is lâle, and the Romanian word is lalea.
Why do I like this word? Because it’s fun to say, especially in the plural: ‘tulips’ is lalele and ‘the tulips’ is lalelele. There’s ‘coffee’ cafea, ‘coffees’ cafele, and ‘coffees’ cafelele. Same goes for ‘hinge’ balama, plural ‘hinges’ balamale and ‘the hinges’ balamalele and for ‘crane (piece of construction equipment)’ macara, ‘cranes’ macarale and ‘cranes’ macaralele. Not all Turkish borrowings have the phonetic form that generates these plurals, and not all words in Romanian with this plural type come from Turkish, but most of them do.
The other reason I like Turkish borrowings in Romanian is they often come with nice semantic twists. The word belea is usually used in the plural belele and means ‘troubles,’ which is tinged almost, but not quite, with a sense of the ridiculous. When I think of ‘my troubles’ as belelele mele, they don’t seem so bad. And what could be better than the word beizadea ‘son of a bei, a high ranking Turkish official’? It would never be used in Romanian as a compliment, and we need such a word in English, because entitled spoiled brat doesn’t quite cover it.
Finally, there’s the Romanian word for ‘neighborhood, suburb’ mahala, and it, too, is freighted with negative connotations. The politică de mahala, which includes personal attacks and reckless speech, would characterize much of what’s gone on in Washington DC is recent years. Those readers with knowledge of Arabic will recognize the root halla ‘to lodge’ with the place prefix ma-, making a word that means something like ‘building.’ So, the Turkish borrowing is itself a borrowing from Arabic. This word was also borrowed into Persian and is immortalized in the name Taj Mahal, which means in Persian ‘best of buildings.’ So, in the western extent of this etymon, we have a down-market usage, while in the eastern extent, we find something beautiful. Romania has its beauties, too. They’re found in the language.
Written by John Edwards
Based on an article in the July 2013 issue of Language Teaching.
In the popular mind, constructing a language has always been seen as an odd activity, one that seems to fly in the face of ‘natural’ language dynamics. After all, languages evolve; they do not emerge from some sacred forehead, much less from a mortal brain. And yet interest in a divine – and therefore immediately fully-formed – language was once important (and, even today, remains significant in some rather curious religious quarters). Attention to this, and to later and more mundane projects aimed at improving upon natural languages in some way, is a neglected but important aspect of linguistic history – and, indeed, of modern scientific development.
The first stage here involved attempts (highly speculative, of course) to recapture the original lingua humana, as spoken in the Garden of Eden. Adam, we are told, named all the birds and beasts of the earth in this original language, a variety that – unlike all languages since – encapsulated a perfect correspondence between spoken words and the things they represented. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, Adam named the animals ‘as they pass’d, and understood their nature.’ Could this first language have been Hebrew – or perhaps Aramaic, or Arabic? If so, then speakers of those languages (or even of their post-Adamic descendants) might surely claim some higher moral ground than others.
By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, these early speculations were set aside as essentially pointless. But the notion of a language more perfect than existing natural varieties still appealed, and, in a second part of our story, we find scholars trying to create entire languages ab ovo, motivated by the desire for a more logical and regular variety that would better reflect and channel scientific classification. It eventually became clear, however, that attempts to make a language that owed nothing to existing varieties were as fruitless as efforts to discover the language of Eden. So, in a third and still-existing stage, ‘artificial’ languages have been assembled from pre-existing rules and components; the most well-known example is Esperanto. This work has been underpinned by hopes for a more practical medium, but there have also been expectations that a language that was both regular and widely shared would contribute to international harmony and understanding.
You can read the entire article here without charge until 30th September 2013.
Published on behalf of Aline Godfroid, Paula Winke and Susan Gass
Understanding how languages are learned involves investigating the cognitive processes that underlie acquisition. Many methodologies have been used over the years to comprehend these processes, but one of recent prominence is eye-movement recording, colloquially referred to as eye-tracking. Eye-tracking consists of the registration, in real time, of what an individual looks at and for how long. Thus, eye-trackers provide information about the duration and location of an individual’s eye movements on a computer screen as he or she reads text or listens to audio. Because eye-tracking is still a relatively novel technique in research on adult second language learning, we put together a thematic issue on this topic. The special issue brings together an international group of eye-tracking experts who use eye-movement data to study a variety of language-related questions. The issue also contains important methodological recommendations for colleagues who are interested in using eye-trackers for their own research.
Following an introductory chapter by Leah Roberts and Anna Siyanova-Chanturia, we have organized the empirical articles in this volume into two broad categories: (a) the processing of verbs and verb parts (morphology) and (b) the processing of grammatical gender. Eva Van Assche, Wouter Duyck, and Marc Brysbaert report findings from an empirical study about the organization of the bilingual lexicon. They investigated whether bilingual speakers process cognates (e.g., English win – Dutch winnen) faster, even if the cognate words are embedded in a unilingual sentence context, which presumably constrains which language is to be activated in the brain. Nuria Sagarra and Nick Ellis investigated the effect of participants’ native language and second language proficiency on their second language processing strategies. They compared what linguistic cue (an adverb or a verb ending) learners of Spanish preferred, depending on whether their native language was, like Spanish, a morphologically rich language (i.e., Romanian) or, unlike Spanish, a morphologically poor language (i.e., English). Aline Godfroid and Maren Uggen examined whether beginning learners of German notice irregular features in German verbs during sentence reading and, if they do, whether this helps them reproduce the verbs correctly afterwards. Paula Winke studied the effects of underlining and printing grammatical constructions in a text in red—a technique known as input enhancement—on second language learners’ attention to and learning of these grammar forms. Whereas all other research in this volume concerns written sentence processing, Paola Dussias, Jorge Valdés Kroff, Rosa Guzzardo Tamargo, and Chip Gerfen used eye-tracking to investigate language learners’ use of grammatical gender in auditory sentence processing. Finally, Patti Spinner, Susan Gass, and Jennifer Behney took a step back and considered the technical constraints that eye-tracking imposes on reading research and what this means for the relationship between eye-tracking studies and natural reading. They make the point that as more and more researchers turn to eye-tracking technology, there is a need for published guidelines about what font size and font type to use and how to define regions of interest on the screen.
All in all, this special issue affords an opportunity to pause and evaluate how some applied linguists are utilizing this novel data-collection method. We hope that this volume will be viewed as an invitation to continue and expand this exciting new line of research. (531 words)
By Iris Berent
Northeastern University, Boston
Humans weave phonological patterns instinctively. We contrast dogs and gods, favour blogs to lbogs; we begin forming patterns at birth; and like songbirds, we do so spontaneously, even in the absence of an adult model. In fact, we impose phonological design not only on our natural linguistic communication but also on invented cultural technologies—reading and writing. Why are humans compelled to generate phonological patterns? And why do different phonological systems—signed and spoken—share aspects of their design?
In The Phonological Mind, I outline a novel answer to these questions. The answer encompasses two claims. The first is that phonology is an algebraic system—it comprises powerful rules, akin to syntactic generalizations. For example, speakers whose language bans identical consonants (e.g., the identical b in bibeg) will freely extend this restriction across the board, even to consonants that do not occur in their language (e.g., thitheg). Algebraic rules are important because they support the productivity of the phonological system.
But algebraic rules are not sufficient to explain the intricate design of phonological patterns. Indeed, distinct phonological systems share not only the capacity to encode rules but potentially also the type of rules that are attested. To explain this possibly, I further suggest that phonology is a specialized system of core knowledge.
Core knowledge systems are shaped by innate universal principles that are evident already in early infancy. Whether phonological principles are in fact fully universal and innate remains an open empirical question, but there is a wide range of linguistic and experimental evidence that is consistent with this possibility. The core phonology hypothesis also explains the early onset of phonological knowledge and its spontaneous regenesis in emerging signed phonological systems. Another feature of core knowledge is that it shapes both our early instinctive understanding of the world as well as mature cultural inventions. And indeed, just as our mature theories of mathematics are based on very early knowledge of number, found in infants and adults, so is the cultural invention of reading and writing typically based on phonological principles.
The design of the phonological grammar is not only specialized but also special in the animal kingdom. This is not because the capacity to learn rules is unique to humans—such rules have been repeatedly demonstrated in many species (albeit not in apes). Phonology is also not special in its tendency to generate rules that are adaptive—ones that fit the properties of their phonetic channel, either vocal or manual (for spoken and signed languages, respectively). Such adaptive capacities are clearly seen in the design of birdsong, for example. Rather, what might be special to phonology is the capacity to marry those two abilities—to use algebraic rules to optimize phonetic pressures. Remarkably, this combination (“algebraic optimization”) has not been shown even in species that possess its two ingredients. While this possibility requires further evaluation, it absence would suggest that this capacity might be a uniquely human adaptation.
The Phonological Mind, is now available from Cambridge University Press at £22.95
Michael Billig has been Professor of Social Sciences at Loughborough University for more than 25 years. In 2011 he received the Distinguished Contribution to Social Psychology Award from the Social Section of the British Psychological Society.
1. What were the greatest challenges you faced in writing Learn to Write Badly?
The most obvious and difficult challenge was to write clearly. Anyone, who criticises the way that other academics write, inevitably sets themselves up as a potential target. So, I had to try to avoid the faults that I was identifying in others. I am criticising a style of writing, which is currently ingrained within the social sciences and which young postgraduates are being taught to use routinely. Therefore, I am sure that readers will be able to find passages where my own writing falls into this style. But, at least I have tried to escape, drafting and re-drafting in order to say things as simply and clearly as I can.
The other big challenge was to avoid just making a rant. I wanted to analyse the language used by social scientists and to say why the current, economic conditions of university life, with the constant pressure to publish, are encouraging bad writing. At root, I am analysing the linguistic features of much social science writing: abstracted, unpopulated prose, with heavy use of big nouns and verbs in the passive voice. I argue that, when it comes to describing human actions, this way of writing is far more imprecise and contains far less information than simpler, ordinary language. Because I did not want to be accused of selecting extreme examples just to fit my case, I tried to take examples where I found them. In analysing academic writing, I needed to cite studies from linguistics, educational research, sociology etc. And then I would turn on these studies to show how their authors were using language, sometimes to inflate their own claims or to conceal ambiguities or just to sound impressively technical. Normally academics like it when someone else cites their work. Some of those, whom I cite in ‘Learn to Write Badly’, will not be so glad.
2. Where do you like to write?
At home, in a small room which I use as a study and where I keep my books. My wife complains that, when my writing is going well, I make insufficient use of the room’s window – and, consequently, I fail to notice matters of interest about the neighbours. It is not good for a social scientist to be more interested in bits of paper than people.
3. What one piece of advice would you give to social science scholars?
This is a more complicated, less innocent question than it might seem. If I was advising young scholars about how to have a successful career, I would advise them to join networks, to use the long words favoured by those networks and to promote their work within and beyond those networks. But if was to advise young scholars how to be genuinely scholarly, I would tell them the opposite: they should try to stand apart from established networks and to try to translate the currently favoured big words into as simple a language as possible. I would warn them that, in the current climate of instant publication and constant academic self-promotion, this scholarly way is not the way to conventional success.
4. What is your favourite example of the wording used by academics/students who ‘write badly’?
It would be invidious to give an example here – especially an example from the writings of a student. In ‘Learn to Write Badly’, I suggest that there are reasons why current academic writing can resemble the language used by administrators, managers and even advertising executives. My favourite example comes from my own university’s official title for the system that we teachers are told to use for recording information about our tutees. The system is grandly called: ‘Co-Tutor Student Relationship Management System’. The five nouns are strung together without the aid of pronouns, let alone verbs. It’s not a precise term: if you asked an outsider to say what sort of system it was and what it was supposedly managing, they would probably get it wrong. Unfortunately, the social sciences today are full of terms like this.
5. Have you got plans for more books in the future?
Only vague ideas, not definite plans. I am seldom in control of the directions which my interests take me. But at present, I’m looking out of the window more than I hope to be.