Friday, May 04, 2007

Getting it right and making assumptions

Wisconsin has a glorious tradition in theoretical linguistics. While people don't talk about him in linguistic theory much any more, W. Freeman Twaddell was here in the early 20th c. and a central figure in phonemic theory. In that same field of phonology, our latest hire is an assistant professor in English (yes, English — where are those extra-slanty italics when you need them?), Eric Raimy, who walked in the door with a string of papers in places like Linguistic Inquiry and a co-edited book coming out with MIT Press. (In time, it'd be worth a post or two to start exploring some of the UW's history in the field, in fact.)

But when I look around campus today, a lot of our strength comes from people with a profound commitment to building a solid empirical base for their linguistic analyses. Frederic Cassidy's Dictionary of American Regional English reminds us of that, but we have a set of important reference works from here, like Rand Valentine's massive Nishnaabemwin Reference Grammar (University of Toronto Press), the ongoing Spanish medieval dictionary project, the probably now equally large Menominee dictionary project, the German dialect archives of the Max Kade Institute, and on and on. You see this burning bright in our current students: One group has adopted the motto "data's nice". These guys are serious linguists — doing theoretical work, fully committed to making big generalizations — but they've grasped the importance of making sure you have the data right.

That preamble is just to say that I'm shaken by the uncritical assumptions I made in reading a book somebody happened to give me the other day: I see something in the book and start writing about it, just assuming it's right. It turns out, I learn thanks to detailed comments from Alma and the Ridger on that post, that this book isn't very reliable on its subject. Indeed, the key point — that some Mormon fundamentalists use archaic pronouns in some contexts — probably isn't right.

I'm still not entirely sure the particular example given is impossible: It was one guy imagining a really abject apology to Rulon Jeffs, leader of one particular separatist (if that's the right word) group on the Utah-Arizona border. It's possible that their usage differs and/or that this usage would be regarded among them as appropriate in a very serious situation, like the one portrayed. I'm much farther into the book now, and don't see a clear pattern of such usage in ordinary speech, and at the time I didn't think clearly about how marked that situation was, and so didn't lay that out clearly in the post.

Anyway, the generalization I was trying to mold looks clearly wrong, and it sprang from an uncritical assumption. If you're a serious person working on the science of language at the University of Wisconsin, that stings. In the end, a blog post is hardly a scholarly paper, but you want to get it right. An email exchange with a regular reader underscored this week that I have no coherent notion of what the ground rules of blogging are or should be. It's not journalism, not scholarship, not like any other kind of communication I engage in. What's odd is that this is starting to feel like writing, something I recognize only from having read books like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird and blogs like Rosina Lippi's Storytelling.

The Rutgers Optimality Archive says in its guidelines under 'publication status' that posting there "is the equivalent of mailing out a typescript, pre-print, or off-print to colleagues." (I vaguely recall that it said 'moral equivalent' in the early days.) Posting here is, I suppose, the moral equivalent of talking during coffee breaks at a conference: You try to raise real issues, try hard to not say stupid stuff (unless it's a bad joke — like the end of this post), feel free to be snarky or worse about certain clearly deserving subjects (Safire's status as Commander of the Maven Army, a bloated and bubble-dwelling university administration, self-important plagiarists) but try harder to be decent to honest people (of different theoretical persuasions, religious convictions, etc.), like you would in real life.

But once more, typing ill-organized thoughts into this weird little box on a laptop screen has brought in points of view I wouldn't otherwise have easy access to, and a chance to learn stuff that matters. That's truly a fine thing. As the increasingly tattered shreds of my thin veil of pseudonymity flap in the spring breeze, it's time to get it right.

Image from here. It's an inside cover of Lucinda Williams' Essence, which includes a song called "Get right with God" …
I would burn [the] soles of my feet
burn the palms of both my hands
if I could learn and be complete
if I could walk righteously again.

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