Saturday, July 21, 2018

Why does Labov have such weird transcriptions?

It is the experience of many linguists, when they crack open something written by Bill Labov, or his students, that they suddenly realize they are using a transcriptional system that they are probably not used to. Sure, the symbols <i> and <e> look familiar, but when you realize they correspond to the IPA symbols <ɪ> and <ɛ>, you might start to feel uneasy. The worst offender, though is <oh>, which is the vowel that appears (in some dialects) in thought, lost, law. What is that? Why is there an <h>in there? Why isn't he just using IPA??

What are these symbols?

The Labovian transcriptions has the following symbols, (presented with the corresponding Wells' Lexical Set).

These symbols were largely adopted from Trager & Bloch, and as they outline in the ANAE, apparently had some widespread usage in American dialectology & phonology in the early 20th century. Trager & Bloch developed this system largely to make a phonological argument about English: Contrary to commonly held belief, English only has 6 vowel phonemes! The details of that analysis isn't too important, but what does matter is that each "subsystem" forms a natural class of sorts. 

Why not use IPA?

Well, I think there's a good reason. To begin with the simplest answer, in sociolinguistics, we often need to make reference to categories more abstract than phonemes. The Labovian notation is actually a diaphonemic one, and the use of IPA symbols, as they're conventionally understood, wouldn't be quite accurate. For example, what's the IPA symbol for the vowel that appears in cat? The obvious answer would probably be /æ/. But let's look how that vowel is distributed in the Atlas of North American English.

The proper IPA transcription for the word that appears in cat seems to vary between [a̠~a~æ~æ̝~ɛ̞]. Ok, well, that's in the narrow transcription, you say. In the broad transcription, it would be /æ/. But still, I say it's not so clear cut. Looking at the relationship between vowels in the Inland North, I don't really think it would be correct to give the vowel in cat the broad transcription /æ/.

We could give the Inland North its own phonemic analysis, and give cat something like /ɛː/ in broad transcription, but we would start to seriously befuddle ourselves doing cross dialectal comparisons. Or even intra-dialectal comparisons, if you're doing a study like Monica Nesbitt, tracking the reversal of the Northern Cities Shift.

Why not use Lexical Sets?

So, there is a system of denoting "word classes" in a way that could avoid diaphonemic confusion: Wells' Lexical Sets. Using Wells' Lexical Sets, we could say that across North America, the word cat has the Trap vowel. This label, Trap, denotes a class of words that have a common linguistic history such that they often have a common phonemic incidence in contemporary dialects. So, regardless of what the phonemic analysis of the Inland North really is,  cat has the same vowel as hat as sad as mask, etc.

If we could use a lexical set system this way, why don't we? The answer from the Atlas of North American English is that lexical sets are insufficiently structural. For example, what is the phonological relationship between Fleece, Kit, Face and Dress?  Well, as far as the transcription system goes, these are just lists of word classes, with no particular phonological relationship implied except that they're not the same vowel.

In the Labov/Trager/Bloch system, these vowels are represented as /iy/, /i/, /ey/, and /e/. The transcriptional system is now encoding a phonological analysis. Because /i/ and /e/ are single characters, they are short vowels. Because /i/ and /iy/ share a character, they share a height and backness specification.

Essentially the system constructs a systems of analogous contrasts. As /iy/ is to /i/, so /ey/ is to /e/. And as /iy/ is to /ey/, so /i/ is to /e/.  In a sense it's a very stripped down feature system encoded in the transcription.

Ok by WHY is <oh> that way!?

Well, ok. This part was inherited from Trager & Bloch, and was then kind of screwed up by the push to eliminate special characters from the system. It makes enough sense to transcribe the Lot class as <o> . First off, in British English and some North American dialects this vowel is rounded. Secondly, most words in the class are spelled orthographically with <o>.

Next, Trager/Bloch/Labov decided to represent a long and ingliding vowel as ending in <h>. That's because they were trying to define all non-short vowels as ending in a glide, and with /y/ and /w/ already claimed, /h/ remained.

In the phonological analysis of Lot and Thought, Thought minimally contrasts with Lot in terms of this /h/ glide, so it gets <oh>.

The real problem is <ow>! In the phonological analysis, /ow/ does not share height and backness with /o/. The low back vowel with a /w/ glide is /aw/. If the Labovian system hew more closely to the Trager & Bloch system, it would represent the Goat vowel as /ʌw/ (they represented it as /əw/). But, one principle Labov strove for was "minimum deviation from Roman typography" (Labov et al 2006, a.k.a. ANAE).

Which system should be used?

To be honest, I think all three transcriptional systems ought to be engaged, so long as they are properly indicated. I think the Labov/Trager/Bloch system forces viewing the vowel system of various dialects with a certain systematicity that is clarifying. An IPA transcription is necessary for the phonetic detail, which is not clearly communicated with simple formant values. Finally, when speaking to an audience, I think you should always use the Wells' lexical sets.

If you did a study analyzing variation in (Labovian notation now) /i/ and /e/ varied, I think the following two ways of saying them are confusing:
  • I found an effect for [aɪ] but not for [iː].
  • I found an effect for [ɪ] but not for [ɛ].
The first option could confuse people into thinking you were analyzing /ay/ and /iy/. The second option is going to be perceptually difficult, if only because English doesn't allow stressed lax vowels. People won't be confused about which two vowels you're talking about if you say:
  • I found an effect for Kit but not for Dress.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Brussel(s) Sprouts

YouGov has come out with a perplexing, Christmas themed1, survey. "Sorry Britain," they say, "but you've been saying 'Brussels sprouts' wrong." Apparently 77% of respondents think the little green cabbage looking vegetables are called "Brussel sprouts." But as they point out, these vegetables get their name from the capital of Belgium, Brussels, and are original called "Brussels sprouts."

Ok, there's a lot going on here. First of all, what does it mean for 77% of the speakers of a language to "get it wrong"? If not only most, but the vast majority of people in the UK think these vegetables are "Brussel Sprouts", then what other basis is there for determining whether or not that is correct? Of course, we could turn to etymology, but that kind of approach to determining "correct" language is going to produce really weird results. Imagine this takepiece, if you will:
When you got dressed this morning, did you put a shirt on the top half of your body and skirt on the bottom half? If you agree with 100% of English speakers that these are two different words for pieces of clothing, you're not alone, but you're all WRONG! "Skirt" and "shirt" both come from the Old Norse skyrta! Why did people start ruining the language and mispronouncing skyrta to mean different garments? The Oxford English Dictionary says this an "unexplained difference of sense," probably because when you say "shirt" and "skirt" differently you stop making sense!
Pretty nonsensical, right? What's more, a shift from "Brussels sprouts" to "Brussel sprouts" is a very natural kind re-cutting of word boundaries that has happened many times in English. Oxford dictionaries has a nifty blog post about some of these cases involving "an." For example, when you set out to make your next big meal (maybe even a big Christmas dinner), you might tie on your kitchen apron. But the word used to be "napron". Getting from "napron" to "apron" wasn't just a case of people forgetting to put the /n/ at the beginning. Unlike with writing, when you speak, there's no spaces between your words. If you said:
I put on a napron.

It would come out of your mouth something like
I put on [əneiprən].
And then, a listener would have to figure out where the boundaries between the words are. But there's a two different options that could both work.

If you go with the first option, you decide that what what has been said is "a napron". But if you go with the second option, you decide what has been said is "an apron". At some point over the course of English, enough people went with the second option and the word became "apron." Are we all doing it wrong?

But the weirdest thing to me about YouGov's tweet was that they say we've been saying Brussel(s) sprouts wrong. First off, they only surveyed people about how they spell the vegetable, not how they say it. And second, if one person was saying "Brussels sprouts" and another was saying "Brussel sprouts," how would you even tell the difference?

I actually recorded myself saying "Brussel sprouts" twice and "Brussels sprouts" twice. Do you see a glaring difference in the offending [s]?

Ok, one of the "Brussels sprouts" [s] is about 60 milliseconds longer than the rest, but the point is that people don't speak letters out loud. We regulate our breathing and move our tongues around in a way that bears no resemblance to an "s", or "s s" as it's written or typed on a page. Asking people how they spell these words doesn't really tell you about how they pronounce them, and even if someone intended to say "Brussels sprouts," it would probably be indistinct from "Brussel sprouts" anyway.

Anyway, in closing, roast your Brussels sprouts, don't boil them. They're better that way.

1 That is, Christmas themed in the UK, where Brussel(s) Sprouts are part of the traditional Christmas meal.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Scottish Narrative of Personal Experience

In a web extra from Samantha Bee's show, we get an extended interview with the farmer Michael Forbes telling a story about how he chased Donald Trump Jr. away from his Aberdeenshire farm. It was actually an excellent example of a narrative of personal experience, very similar to the paradigmatic type I was taught about in my sociolinguistics classes.

It's been a long time since I've tried any kind of narrative analysis, so apologies for any errors, but I'm going to give it a shot here cause I think it's such a good example, and indicative of how rich even simple narratives like this can be.

Check out the video, it's worth it.

Here's a transcript of the narrative, with the contributions of the interviewer simplified a bit:

a. I chased his son once from here.
b. (Which one?) The one who's got the greasy hair.
c. (Which one?) Young Donald is it?
d. I was having a cup of tea.
e. And they knock knock knock on the door.
f. And eh, my mother answered it.
g. And she says "We've got visitors".
h. And she shut the door
i. So they tapped a bit louder, you know?
j. And, mother answered it again.
k. She says "I told you, we've got visitors"
l. Shut the door again.
m. Rattled louder.
n. Well, I answered it the next time.
o. I says "Get the fuck out of here"
p. I says "If you come back here again"
q. I says "I'll have you charged with harrassment"
r. "Don't get angry mate, don't get a--"
s. I says "Fucking angry"
t. I says "I'll show you fucking angry"
u. And they go out the gate.
v. (You loved it) Yeah I did, Yeah
This satisfies the Labov & Waletzky definition of a narrative in that the sequence of clauses is the same as the temporal sequence of events, except for line (a). Lines (a-c) would be called the "Abstract", outlining the most reportable event of the narrative. After we have the abstract, we have the orientation in (d) I was having a cup of tea. Then it is just complicating action after complicating action until the resolution in (u) And they go out the gate.

One interesting thing about this narrative is it is devoid of any evaluation. All of the turns are devoted to what events happened, and what was said, but there is no turn contributing what his state of mind was, or any other kind of evaluation of the situation. You could imagine the addition of a "It was rude to keep knocking" turn, for example, but that is absent. I was told once that avoiding evaluation makes for a better narrative for the listener, and is more typical of working class narratives. The interviewer, Amy Hoggart, tries to extract an iota of evaluation out of him (You loved it), but he doesn't repeat the evaluation, he just agrees with it (Yeah I did, yeah).

The repetition of the knocking and answering events is really interesting as well. They serve the obvious narrative function of heightening the tension, to good effect as we can see on the face of Amy Hoggart at turn (n) when Michael finally answers the door. I would hazard a guess that if Donald Trump Jr. knocked on the door twice, or four times, this story would (and should) still be told with three knocks. It's also interesting that in the first two knocking-answering events, DTJr and his entourage don't actually say anything. They knock, they are rebuffed, and the door is closed. There's no other exchange of words.

There's also a complex piece of cultural information being conveyed here, regarding when it is appropriate to call on someone. Michael's mother indirectly tells DTJr to go away twice by saying We've got visitors. No visitors were mentioned in the orientation of the narrative, so I'm assuming that there were no actual visitors in the house. The fact that you should not call on someone when they have visitors is presented as so obvious that it is a de facto instruction to leave within the narrative, and in the telling of the narrative it goes unexplained.

Finally, his verbs of quotation are awesome. He exclusively uses say in the historical present, and it seems like he is only reporting on speech which was said. D'Arcy (2012) has argued that the new verbs of quotation, like "be like" have been buoyed up by an increasing tendency to include quoted thought and mimesis in narratives. Mimesis isn't absent from Michael's telling of the story, but it is absent from the text. He physically acts out each knocking and each door shutting event, and he acts out chasing them out the front gate.

All in all, a pretty good narrative.

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