Monday, June 23, 2008

Undercover at a Sociolinguistics Conference

A while ago Meaghan Fowlie made a post about linguistic ecumenism and the lack of communication between two distinct areas of linguistic study: theoretical linguistics (Chomsky-style) and sociolinguistics (Labov-style). As someone educated in linguistics at the University of British Columbia, where there is a serious dearth of sociolinguistics [1] I had very little understanding of this issue. Coming to the University of Toronto for my MA year definitely increased my awareness of sociolinguistics - several of the other students in my MA year are writing their forum papers with a sociolinguistic perspective, and there is an active group dedicated to studying variation and change.

Since I plan to return the land of no sociolinguists for my Ph.D., I decided that while living out here in eastern Canada, I should make an effort to absorb what knowledge I can about the ‘other side’ – I decided to hop in a car to Ottawa and attend the second CVC (Change and Variation in Canada). As it is, now I feel like I can contribute a little to the issue that Meaghan brought up, and give my impressions of the conference.

So, of course, it’s true – there is quite lack of communication between the socio- and theoretical linguistics, and where I noticed this lack the most is with respect to formal semantics. While (most of) the variationist studies presented at the conference coded for linguistic factors (as well as social factors), the majority of these factors are phonological or morphosyntactic. If there is reference to semantics, it is always to lexical semantics as opposed to formal semantics. For instance, there was a great presentation by Tanya Romaniuk on the variation between the future temporal reference markers will and be going to, which used the first season of Friends as its corpus. While syntactic features like sentence mode (and other things) were coded for, as well as notions of lexical semantics (like whether a lexical meaning of ‘motion’ was significant) no notions of formal semantics were coded for. This was surprising to me since I believe that any current paper referring to will and be going to, if written from a theoretical point of view, would cite Copley 2002. Copley 2002 posits that the difference between will and be going to is a difference of aspect. She defines three different aspectual readings – bare, generic and progressive, and posits that while will can be interpreted as either bare or generic, while be going to can only be interpreted as progressive. According to Copley’s definitions, the generic and progressive readings of the future can be characterized by a formal semantic property - the Sub-interval Property (SIP) – while the bare reading cannot. I was curious as to whether the results of Tanya’s variationist study would differ if these three different aspectual contexts, and this formal semantic property, was coded for as well.

Another thing that has always popped out at me whenever sociolinguistics was concerned was the fact that the majority if sociolinguistic study is done on dialects of well-studied languages like English and French. As far as I know, there is no sociolinguistic research that takes, for example, a First Nation’s language as the object of study. The most common response I received when voicing this observation during the “Speed-date a Variationist” session (more on that later!) was that in order for someone to do research on variation (i.e., the coding part at least), it is difficult/impossible to do unless one is a native speaker of the language, and it is especially difficult/impossible if the language is understudied and few linguists have a good understanding of the grammar of the language. Although there’s really no great way of solving this problem (short of finding native speakers of these languages who are interested in social identity and statistics?), I thought it was a bit of a shame for at least two reasons. One, from a social perspective, it would be interesting to do variationist research on reserves, in that I think reserves might represent a unique kind of social situation. Second, from a linguistic perspective, languages with different grammatical structures should offer different patterns of change. To clarify that last part, I’ll bring up another example. One of the students from U of T (Derek Denis) presented about deontic modality in English, and one of the comments afterwards was that the rising usage of have to as representing deontic modality, as opposed to the older form must, might be triggered by the rising usage of must as an epistemic modal (cf. Thibault 1983, for this analysis for French). As is well known, in English, modals are lexically encoded with their strength of quantification (existential or universal), while they may vary with respect to their modal bases such that the same lexical item can act as a deontic modal, an epistemic modal, a circumstantial modal, a dispositional modal, etc. Now, Matthewson et. al (2006) [3] have argued that in St’at’imcets, modals arrange themselves in a different way such that the same lexical item is encoded with a modal base, but may vary with respect to the strength of quantification [4]. Because of this, I thought it would be really interesting if it was possible to do a study on how the usage of modals in Salish change over time. If we take Matthewson et. al (2006)’s proposal as an initial assumption [5], then we would expect a different pattern of language change in St’at’imcets as compared to English, as ambiguity with respect to one’s modal base could not act as a trigger for change. Whether ambiguity in the strength of quantification could trigger change in another direction would be really interesting.

Abstracting away from the content of the conference, I want to say that there were a lot of aspects about the organization of the conference that I thought were really cool – the two aspects that impressed me most were the two sessions not dedicated to presentations. There was one tour of the sociolinguistics lab at uOttawa, where I thought I was going to die in organizational, colour-coded bliss. Everything was so pretty and well-organized – so inspiring! (I desperately want a colour-coded Blackfoot lab.) The second session, which at first horrified me, but in hindsight was quite cool, was the session titled “Speed-date a Variationist.” In this session all participants in the conference (including me, the covert theoretical linguist) sat in 16 four-minute speed-dates with one of the other participants. Although some parts were very awkward (i.e., the 16 times I had to explain why I was at the conference even though I’m not a variationist…), it was also an excellent chance for nearly everyone to learn a little bit about people that you would otherwise only know by sight, and ask questions that you might not have gotten the chance to ask otherwise. This kind of session is probably only feasible for small conferences, but it was a good ice-breaker for the party afterwards. In the end, after attending the conference I haven't been converted to becoming a sociolinguist, but I am quite fond of their conferences : D

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[1] Such that I viewed the sociolinguist as akin to a rare, mythical creature, somewhat like the unicorn.

[2] Thibault, Pierrette. 1991. «Semantic overlaps of French modal expressions», Language Variation and Change 3-2 : 191-222.

[3] Matthewson, Lisa, Hotze Rullmann and Henry Davis. 2006. “Modality in St'├ít'imcets.” MITWPL Salish volume.

[4] Although see Rullmann et al. “Modals as Indefinite Distributives”, where they argue that the modals are uniformly existential, where the universal reading comes from pragmatic strengthening.

[5] Although I suppose we might not even need to, since the modals in question, whether formally represented as ambiguous with respect to quantificational force, in practical usage will appear ambiguous with respect to quantificational force.

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