Friday, April 21, 2017

three times you can't use the present to explain the past

Context: 4th International Workshop on Sound Change (#WSC4) in honor of Uriel Weinreich (see also happy and sad)

Background: Empirical foundations for a theory of language change (have read parts, recommend all)

1) The Anxiety of Influence is on my to-read list (right after Weinreich, Labov and Herzog 1968). That said, a scholar's work does not only exist to influence a later scholar. It is nice to point out the places where someone's work was "anticipated" by earlier people. But I think sometimes we forget that these earlier writers had, and still have, much more to offer than this. At the very least, we can't wash our hands of having to read earlier work because some aspect of that work is now a known reference, cited as a precursor to the later work. Contemporary American linguistics emerged out of a war zone in the 1960s, Chomsky and Labov are major parts of this. You break it, you buy it, and they've been working ever since. We've joined this task of postwar reconstruction. The things getting built today, by hundreds of people working together, are – just as we'd hope and expect – more adequate, more sophisticated, and more complex structures than those pioneer edifices of the 60s, which still definitely stand. But let's not forget the civilization that came before. Let's not think that Fischer and Gauchat are only names that need to be name-checked, for example. Or that there aren't other names from "before the common era" that might deserve attention. Even though we seem to be saying something generous towards the past ("Labov had some key precursors in doing this stuff we do now"), we're actually doing earlier linguistics a disservice. We (especially his students) are the ones who are derivative of Labov. Not Fischer, Gauchat, Paul, Schuchardt, Kurath, etc. Thinking about the three waves of variation study, we can see how Labov 1963 is a great model or point to "re-turn" to, to come back to, to never lose sight of, but it's not a coincidence that this was his earliest paper. In saying we can't study individuals outside their social context, Labov was reacting to contemporary American linguistics of that period (in particular Chomsky), which itself, in saying we could/should study individuals one by one, or an idealized individual, was a reaction to an earlier, much longer period when there was not even any question of separating the two. One strand of 1870-1914 work, we're somewhat familiar with, and we might find it cold today – exceptionless sound laws, phonetic/mechanistic explanations – but this approach was not, in its time, based on separations and exclusions like Chomsky has made. Those same Neogrammarian types worked hand in hand with, and sometimes also were, dialectologists whose interest in the social and more generally the human was undeniable, taken for granted, and strong! And this other (braided, woven together) strand – we're less familiar with it, but it reads as shockingly contemporary, with its focus on individuals and personalities and communities and schools and societies and all the relationships between them in their complexity: the life of language and the language of life. Sometimes the example that's become a cliché was chosen not because it was unique, but still, for good reason. That is, there are many other precursors pioneers giants (see Malkiel 1984 for dozens of references). But Gauchat 1905.


  1. A whole blog post to show off your knowledge of French?

  2. touché. maybe so. one thing i like about blogging vs. trying to publish is that i don't have to worry as much if someone – like you, i guess – already knows and/or has thought about the same thing(s) i am. it's also possible at the same time that another reader will get more out of my post, don't you think? (please say more about your position, if you'd like – I couldn't figure out if you're in linguistics or dialectology from your name. thanks for the comment, though, that is certainly one way to think about my role! (I plan to translate this paper, too – I don't think this is JUST showing off, though sure, that's part of it, I guess!) :-)