user knows best

Turns out I should interact with non-linguists more. Maybe many linguists my peers have argued themselves silly on the principle that all language varieties can be analysed on an equal footing – me, I was unprepared and somewhat flummoxed to discover so recently that this was a live issue and that such a principle required defending.

I’ll try and be more sensitive in the future.

“Many people hold strong beliefs on various issues having to do with language and are quite wiling to offer their judgments on issues (see Bauer and Trudgill 1998, Niedzielski and Preston 1999, and Wardhaugh 1999). They believe such things as certain languages lack grammar, that you can speak English without an accent, that French is more logical than English, that parents teach their children to speak, that primitive languages exist, that English is degenerating and language standards are slipping, that pronunciation should be based on spelling, and so on and so on. Much discussion of language matters in the media concerns such ‘issues’ and there are periodic attempts to ‘clean up’ various bits and pieces, attempts that Cameron (1995) calls ‘verbal hygiene’. Most linguists studiously avoid getting involved in such issues [alas, if only I’d known there was precedent], having witnessed the failure of various attempts to influence received opinions on such matters. As I have written elsewhere (1999, p viii), ‘Linguists … know that many popular beliefs about language are false and much that we are taught about language is misdirected. They also know how difficult it is to effect change.’ Language beliefs are well entrenched, as are language attitudes and language behaviours. Sociolinguists should strive for an understanding of all three because all affect how people behave toward others.” (Wardhaugh 2002: 52-53)

Application: so should phonologists.

3 thoughts on “user knows best

  1. I had rather the impression that two quite different discussions were attempting to have themselves had. I don’t think there were any hurt feelings:-) but I don’t think there was much light cast anywhere useful.

    I have a friend doing a doctorate on the perception of “roughness” in intervals. She is sticking to that one word. “which of these two sounds rougher to you” (okay, i have had the details of this a couple of times in cafes, so I may have it all wrong, but I don’t think so) Now she has a very tiny amount of acoustical material to deal with (I think she is using pure tones, so no overtones/harmonics, and only a few intervals). So it is looking at how people perceive the sounds.

    So I am wondering about phonetics as I am vaguely guessing you do. ? Do you deal entirely with the analysis of certain aspects of the sound itself that can be machine-read? What does one analyse the sounds for?


  2. Well another confusion i belatedly noticed was whether ‘perceive’ referred to impressions/opinions, or physical acoustic perception.

    It’s an interesting question in itself to establish what people’s opinions are and what qualities they associate with physical sounds. Read ages ago about a study of whether people thought “b” sounded “more metallic” than “g” – you can put any ajdective in there and see if people will agree with each other that one is more metallic than the other, and that’s very revealing about people’s opinions and what views can be elicited from them if you just ask. It doesn’t mean that what a physicist or engineer would understand by ‘metal’ has any connection with the acoustics of air bursting out of a blockage at your lips rather than your velum, or with the putative unit of linguistic structure which marks the difference in meaning between “boat” and “goat”. Apply the same principle to people’s impressions of how different pieces of linguistic form differ in terms of clarity, elegance, correctness, etc – that’s all the point i was trying to make, even if it was at cross-puproses

    Phonetics that i’ve done – not much – eg i got people to read aloud sentences such as “This is what a hotdog looks like” and “This is what a hot dog looks like” – measured the duration of the stressed syllable in msec and the height of its pitch peak in Hz – confirmed that there is a contrast between the compound reading and the phrasal reading in terms of stress, in Scottish English (useful since it was only previously demosntrated for american english and english english).

    Mainly i do phonology, with particular refernece to development [in childhood] and impairment. Look on my homepage for the brief version, save me writign out my thesis here


  3. from an earlier draft:

    >While phonology as an academic discipline is generally understood to involve the identification and explanation of the patterning of the sounds of speech, phonology as the subject matter of this discipline (its object of investigation) tends to be seen as consisting mainly of those aspects of the patterns of speech which are, firstly, subconscious, or only implicitly known to speakers of the language in question, and also, secondly, linguistically relevant, rather than either merely phonetic or physical. These two features characterise the grammars which are attributed to speakers on the basis of analysts’ hypotheses about the observed patterns: phonological grammars are cognitive structures dealing with abstract linguistic symbols.<


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