Thursday, February 7, 2013

I recommend Lexicon Valley

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about being a linguist is the enormous gap among educated people about how little they actually know about language, and how confident they are that they know a lot about language. If you keep up with this blog, I spend a lot of time venting this frustration here (etc. etc. etc.).

But I didn't start blogging in order to complain about how other people are getting it wrong. I started blogging to have an informal outlet for passion for linguistics! I've been a little concerned about the negative tone of a few of my recent posts, so here's a more positive one.

But... it does start off with a complaint. At the LSA this year, David Pesetsky's plenary focused on the failure of linguistics (and more specifically, generative linguistics) to penetrate the popular science press. Instead, stories about physicists discovering the most common English word is "the," and psychologists arguing that structure of language is really words like beads on a string get a lot more play. At the Q&A, Ray Jackendoff made the point that there is a folk linguistics that is intricately tied up in social politics that acts as a major roadblock to the popular advancement of real linguistic research. I've said similar things before.

What is to be done about this state of affairs is the topic of another blog post. Right now, I'd like to bring attention to a bright light of potential linguistics popularization.

Lexicon Valley

Lexicon Valley is a podcast hosted by Slate. I've been listening to it off and on since it started, and I have to say I've always enjoyed it. The hosts play two roles in a dialectic. Mike Vuolo is the patient intellectual, and I've always been impressed by the background research he's done. Bob Garfield is the voice of the untutored establishment, and, well, I think that description adequately sums up my opinion of what he brings to the show. It's actually an important role he plays, because without a vocal foil, Vuolo's research would lie rather flat. It's also important for the cause of linguists to have people hear brash knee jerk reactions rebuked by careful research.

They have covered a few topics I know a little bit about, and I've always started listening to each show bracing myself for frustration and disappointment. It's a learned reaction I have from every other discussion of language in popular media. But Lexicon Valley usually carries through for me. They've done great shows on African American English, grammatical gender, and the English epicene pronoun, speaking to actual linguists in each case, and most recently they've just done a really good portrayal of Labov's department store study (Part 1,Part 2).

They did catch a lot of flack recently for their show on creaky voice. I was so nervous when I started listening to it, because the recent coverage creaky voice has gotten has been worse than terrible. Per usual, though, Vuolo's research and discussion were excellent. Garfield, on the other hand, spouted some really negative attitudes, and I think he deserves every criticism of sexism that he got. Even within the dialectic of the show, Garfield brought a net negative contribution that time round. On the subsequent show, though, Vuolo read out some pretty harsh commentary about Garfield. Garfield offered a nonpology (something about how he can't be sexist, he has daughters), but it was good to have some of the criticism read out loud.

On average, modulo Garfield's frustrating attitudes, I would highly recommend the podcast, and would recommend recommending the podcast.

Could it be better?

While I think Lexicon Valley has done some great work so far, I don't think it has yet provided coverage of linguistics in quite the way Pesetsky dreams of. So far, they've mostly covered topics that are reactive to popular gripes or misconceptions about language. In some respect, it'd be hard for them to do otherwise, because the popular understanding of language science is far below that of almost any natural science, or so it seems from this angle.

I hope, though, that they might find a way to approach linguistic topics which are not just reactive. Just addressing the idea that there are functional elements which have no phonological realization would be enormous. Garfield could play the skeptic, believing that what you see is what you get.

So linguists, listen in, get a feel for the show, and maybe if you have a topic which could be nicely formatted into a 20 minute conversation, send it in to them!

1 comment:

  1. This sounds awesome. Although the love that I hold for Bob Garfield on On the Media knows no bounds so I'm not sure if I want to, I dunno, see him at his not-best.


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