Friday, October 23, 2015

The Queen: An Interview

In this episode we bring you our interview with Robin Queen. Based out of the University of Michigan, her work on language is situated at the intersections of language, gender, media, and cognition. In a nutshell, Queen endeavours to explicate the details of how our “mental representations of the social world” crisscross with our “mental representations of language.” Our discussion largely focused on the issues surrounding the use of media data for linguistic inquiry.
Aperitifs: As usual, I’ll point out a few gems that surfaced In the course of our conversation. First, the practical: Recently I’ve come across a fair amount of research that makes use of media data to answer questions that - in my humble opinion - are not answerable using this source. As such, I was keen to pick Robin’s brain on effective use of the media as a body of data. (Check out her recent book on the topic of media, "Vox Popular: The Surprising Life of Language in the Media".) This part of the conversation contains some of the most practically (as well as conceptually) useful tidbits for the working linguist. Principally, Robin emphasizes that the linguist must be honest with themselves about their priorities, as well as the scope and limit of their approach. Put simply, they must ask whether their research question can be appropriately answered using media data; recognize the limits of this type of source, and refrain from pushing beyond what is answerable. They must also ask themselves why some particular piece of media has grabbed their attention; does it faithfully address the topic they are pursuing? Both of these lines of thought depend on having first framing a scientifically tractable question that reasonably captures their interest.   Second, the conceptual: We then explored how the media, as a commercial enterprise, contrives to portray a version of reality that reflects their commercial interests. Even the most cursory consideration of this fact invites a critical assessment of the quantity and quality of variation portrayed by the media, such as what kinds of linguistic variation are being presented by today’s media, and what exposure children receive to linguistic variation. Pertaining to children’s exposure to linguistic variation, Robin referenced a chapter by Rosina Lippa-Green entitled “English with an accent” which explored how heroes in Disney films use standard American English whereas non-heroes use non-standard varieties. Robin points out that although there are some online discussions pertaining to this topic, they are anecdotal in nature, and that in fact very little experimental work has been done on what (if any) effect this has on our perceptions of non-standard varieties of English. Third, the question: Finally, I leave you to mull over this idea at the intersection of language and cognition: How does media’s portrayal of linguistic variation reflect, or affect, our interpretation of the personality traits of those characters (i.e. introversion/extroversion, mental health, optimism/pessimism)? À la prochaine!

Note: This interview / post was conducted & composed by Selena Phillips-Boyle.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Phoneme: An Interview With Elan Dresher

In this episode, we're speaking with Elan Dresher, professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto.

Two things stand out from this interview like a sore thumb. The first is something I said which was at best controversial, and at worst just plain wrongheaded. The second is something which it seems to me was left tragically under addressed.

(1) The Structure of the Phoneme
The basic idea is simple (and has its origins in Fodor's Hume Variations) : the notion of “contrast” is of significant vintage in phonology, having its origins in such sources as Sapir, Jakobson, and the Prague school. And yet, it’s also been a central notion in generative grammar where a great deal of other structuralist notions have been eschewed.

In some ways, the idea of individuating (psychological) entities in virtue of their contrasts in a given schema is more in tune with the Pragmatist tradition, and indeed it seems rather isolated in linguistic theory to phonology and lexical semantics.

Thus, the obvious question : why should we continue to act on the belief that the contents of a mental particular is just whatever possible contrasts that it can sustain between itself and every other mental particular in a given system?

As far as I know, (and I know very little) it’s just not a question that bothers the phonologists in my circles -- even phonologists who are committed to explicating their corner of the language faculty in terms of a naturalist, realist psychology of language, who would otherwise consider themselves anti-Pragmatist.

To respond to this question in good faith would mean not just arguing convincingly that if phonology were to pivot around the notion of contrast then the data of externalization is explained with a neat formalism, but also that the concept has some independent theoretical motivation.  

As has been noted elsewhere, a number of questions confront the concept of contrast. Two of them are:

a) Holism: If a unit in a schema is defined solely by its relationship to every other unit in the schema then how can it be learned individually -- since grasping its character is a matter of grasping the relationships it has with all of the other units.

b) Substance: Concretely speaking, what is it that speakers contrast -- abstract mental symbols? acoustic features? articulatory features? 

(2) Phonetics-Phonology Interface

Although we briefly discuss the relationship between the two domains in this interview, we really don’t do the topic justice. For those listeners interested in an in-depth analysis, a good place to start might be Thomas Purnell's (2009) Phonetic Influence on Phonological Operations

One issue left unconsidered in this interview is that of the relationship between acoustic cues and the mental symbols they typically token in speakers. As Purnell observes, the relationship between these two entities is neither direct nor predictable simply on the basis of the acoustic information. To see this, consider the observation that acoustic properties are just the physical properties of a stream of sound -- they are layered, continuous, multitudinous -- while the mental symbols they token are in important respects atomistic and categorical. Acoustic cues are quite variable from speaker to speaker, as well as within a speaker, yet the behaviour of interpretation is astoundingly robust. 

Moreover, a single mental symbol (phonological feature) may be tokened by different acoustic cues. This suggests that the ground separating phonetics from phonology has some depth worth considering. 

In essence, this just recapitulates a very old argument about the origin of structured knowledge. Empiricists hold that the origin of structured knowledge is situated in the environment, which the mind reflects; rationalists hold that the origin of structured knowledge is situated in the mind itself, and whose final form is the product of an ongoing interaction between innate schemas and the raw stuff of the world. Doubtless the distinction as described above is whiggish, but it's enough for present purposes.

That's all for now.... 


Next Episode: We're speaking with the University of Michigan's Robin Queen. Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

sociolx intersects the pb

This week on the pb we dive into the fabulous realm of sociolinguistics. We sit down with Naomi Nagy, professor at the University of Toronto. Her work within the variationist paradigm seeks to understand how languages do and don’t change over time, primarily by looking at languages in contact situations.

For me, two things stand out from this interview:

Throughout our conversation, Naomi places great emphasis on the value of interdisciplinary work. She discusses how the aim of her dissertation work was not only to collect data on a small, minority language, but also to make contributions to greater questions of language structure and function. She suggests that more dissertations should collaborate in different domains, being supervised by professors in different areas of expertise (for example, sociolinguistics & syntax). Naomi explores the notion of “hybrid fieldwork”, and the strengths that differing methodologies bring to addressing the same questions. Many within the field would agree with the idea of working towards more integration and collaboration across linguistic disciplines. However, serious discussions remain to be had about how to implement these kinds of projects in a sustainable way that would enable us to address the bigger questions of language and mind.

Every field has starting assumptions from which they work, and sociolinguistics is no different. Current sociolinguistic work is challenging several of these fundamental underlying assumptions. For instance, in this interview Naomi challenges the idea of viewing prototypical speakers as monolingual: most people speak multiple languages, and are therefore simultaneously members of different linguistic communities. As such, a single speaker could be progressive in their use of one language, and conservative in another. An oft-cited example of this is women’s language: a great deal of recent variationist work shows that young women are linguistic innovators in, for example, English (see this article by Chi Luu for a popular description of this phenomena). Conversely, sociolinguists who work on language contact varieties see that it is the woman’s role to maintain the heritage language and culture in the home. This leads to a tension between our conception of women as language innovators (in, for example, the monolingual, English world), and women as language conservators (in, for example, the homes of heritage language speakers). Thus follows Naomi's research question: “Are they going to innovate in one language and be conservative in the other?” This tension begins to be resolved when we take into account the bilingual nature of individual speakers.

Note: however counter intuitive it may seem to some, this work reflects another point of agreement between generative grammar and sociolinguistics: as Noam Chomsky has stressed, the idea that a speaker / hearer instantiates a single grammar is an idealization for the purposes of particular kinds of inquiry. In point of fact, a number of researchers within the generative framework maintain that real speakers extract numerous grammars from the primary linguistic data. 

So if this blog is about language & mind, how does all this talk of language variation and contact intersect with cognition? Provided the sociolinguistic effects that the field has catalogued over the past 50 years, it is possible, for example, to inquire whether individuals with (acquired or innate) cognitive disorders display the same sensitivity to sociolinguistic factors as neurotypical speakers, and how that sensitivity is expressed. Such an enterprise would be a natural extension of Eric Lenneberg’s foundational foray into language development under conditions of adversity. Stay tuned for more on this topic in upcoming posts, including our interview with Robin Queen wherein we delve into her work on language contact and variation, and explore how cognition plays a role at this intersection.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

[yourdiscipline] is really just [mydiscipline]

if you’re involved in any discipline concerned with the nature of language and mind, this line probably sounds familiar. If you’ve been in the scene for essentially any length of time, a thick, bony cartilage has probably developed around any part of your psyche that may have ever taken such pronouncements (which are re-issued virtually every year in some form or another) at face value. 

Internal to linguistics, something like this sort of logic usually concerns the passing of particular phenomenon between (e.g.) syntax, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics. (I recall a number of students at the 2013 Linguistic Institute who were thoroughly scandalized by Sam Epstein's observation that word order is evidence about articulation, not syntax. Alternatively, I’ve got at least a couple of phonologists in my circles that are always trying to explain to me how this, that, and the other syntactic process is really just derivative of prosodic considerations). This kind of topic-shuffling can be highly productive and much of the time it is an indicator that the field still has a pulse. However, too often it is a reflection of flash-in-the-pan trends and academic politics.

External to linguistics, something like this sort of logic concerns the division of labour between neuroscientific and psychological inquiry.

Today, we’re posting our interview with one computational neuroscientist that seems to make both sides of the aisle sit a little easier, all the while maintaining a substantive proposal for integrating linguistics and neuroscience. Most refreshingly, he's challenging the [yourdiscipline] is really just [mydiscipline] rhetoric that's been so pervasive in the neuroscience of language. Below is a chat we recorded with David Poeppel back in December 2014.

A couple of things to note:
  • You can find more Poeppel & Co. over at the spectacular blog, talkingbrains
  • Poeppel argues that the right level of abstraction for the basic unit of computation is the neural circuit (see for instance his Towards a Computational(ist) Neurobiology of Language); This would seem to be, at least prima facie, in contradiction to Gallistel's recent sermons in which he argues that the basic unit of computation is intraneuronal. Perhaps there's no contraction for these two researchers and these differently sized units of computation are complementary -- however I didn't catch this difference in time for the interview. Perhaps you have some thoughts on this? 

Notes, Admissions, Qualifications, and Apologies: 
  1. the title of this post is lifted from Laura Howes tweet under the briefly (but thoroughly) trendy hashtag #ruinadatewithanacademicinfivewords
  2. I have no idea whether I am pronouncing "Poeppel" correctly, having neglected to confirm that during the interview. If I've screwed it up entirely, all apologies.
  3. I mispronounce the word "incommensurable" for the first third of the interview. I can live with it.