Saturday, May 05, 2012

Of physics and philatelism: Erin McKean at the DARE conference

In the last post on this blog, Mr. Verb announced the Dictionary of American Regional English events associated with the publication of the final volume of the dictionary proper. (Indexes, maps, data, etc. are yet to come, as is an on-line version.)

The Thursday conference and last night's shindy were both just great.  The latter featured regional foods from squeaky cheese to lefse, the current and a former chancellor, a ton of campus power houses. The former consisted of three amazing talks by luminaries coming from completely different perspectives with virtually every leading light in the field in the audience. (See a photo of a few of the stars here. Ben Zimmer was one of the few I noticed who didn't make it.) Simon Winchester, the journalist who has written on the history of the OED talked about big dictionary projects, general ones like OED, slang dictionaries and dialect dictionaries.  It was pure entertainment to hear the perspective of someone who openly declares his lack of any background in linguistics or philology talk about lexicography to an audience of the best specialists in the field. Michael Paul Adams, subject of various posts on this blog, provided precisely the opposite perspective, namely that of someone who is master of essentially every relevant angle of linguistics and philology needed for lexicography. He drew clean and compelling connections between DARE and regional literature, using DARE's rich data and a full set of theoretical notions like enregisterment. Most of us who do linguistics in departments that are primarily focused on literary studies can't bridge that divide and I don't think anybody else can do it as well as he did.

What inspired me to post for the first time in months was the third talk, Erin McKean's "Wealth of Words". She used Rutherford's old adage (I guess we can call it that) that "In science, there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting." Theoretical linguists often consider themselves to be the physicists of language and lexicographers can be thought of as the philatelists. She gave a rousing and at times hilarious defense of stamp collecting, including the contested meme that "the plural of anecdote is data", with the addendum that an anecdote is a "piece of data that hasn't found a friend yet".

But kidding aside, how can anybody diss the dictionary makers here? Central to science is gathering and organizing data. Dictionaries don't do that for all subfields — syntax research doesn't rely much on lexical resources, I suppose — but the list of fields where you have to use dictionaries constantly is long. A lot of historical work or work in lexical semantics obviously does, while research in morphology is made much easier by dictionaries (check a German dictionary for monosyllabic nouns beginning with K and look at the gender pattern you see), and I've spent plenty of time looking at phonotactic patterns in numerous languages by checking dictionaries.  In other words, lexicographers do a huge amount of important work on the empirical foundations for linguistics and this kind of data is particularly slippery and in need of careful preparation.  Scientists who don't value high-quality empirical foundations are probably pretty bad scientists.

Image from here.

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