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Review of  The Linguistics of Speech

Reviewer: Wendy Anderson
Book Title: The Linguistics of Speech
Book Author: William A. Kretzschmar
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 20.3995

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AUTHOR: Kretzschmar, William A.
TITLE: The Linguistics of Speech
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2009

Wendy Anderson, Department of English Language, University of Glasgow, UK

This book makes a convincing call for a focus on the linguistics of speech (i.e.
parole in Saussurean terms). Kretzschmar explains that this is not a matter of
ceasing to pay attention to linguistic structure (i.e. langue), but of
redressing the balance between the two. The book provides compelling evidence,
largely drawn from linguistic survey research and from corpus linguistics, that
research methods today are easily up to the task of coping with sufficient
quantities of parole for a sturdy analysis. This is therefore a plea to look to
the linguistics of speech to investigate the relationship between speech and
structure, to reconsider problematic areas in linguistic structure with input
from speech, and to tackle real-life linguistic problems such as those stemming
from contrasting attitudes to language.

The book's eight chapters take the reader through the argument and evidence in a
logical manner. Chapter 1, 'The contemporary marketplace of ideas about
language' introduces the distinction between 'rightness' and 'correctness' in
language as a means of highlighting the often destructive differences between
typical academic and popular perspectives on language. ‘Correctness’ relates to
institutionalised forms of language, such as Standard English, while 'rightness'
is a relative notion, concerned with the appropriateness of usage in particular
groups (whether defined geographically, socially or diachronically). This is
exemplified by the Oakland Ebonics controversy in the late 1990s, in which
academic and popular ideas about language stood in stark contrast to one
another. Kretzschmar returns to this debate in the final chapter, noting that
while perspectives from the linguistics of speech cannot resolve such issues,
they do “address the contradictions of those public and academic debates” (p. 271).

Chapter 2 offers a summary of Saussurean ideas about language, focusing,
naturally, on the distinction between parole and langue. It is well known today
that Saussure identified langue as the primary object of linguistics, with
parole as a subordinate variable (e.g. Saussure 1916 (1986), cited here p. 42).
Sometimes overlooked, however, is the fact that he “not only admitted the
possibility of an alternative linguistics of speech, he went a long way towards
defining it” (p. 46). Methods for dealing with speech were simply not available
to him in the early twentieth century. It is Kretzschmar’s fundamental claim in
this book, however, that we are now in a position to plug this considerable gap:
in his words, “What was intractable for Saussure has become conceivable for us
today” (pp. 99-100).

The next three chapters set out evidence for a linguistics of speech. Chapters 3
and 4 focus on the evidence from linguistic surveys, particularly the Linguistic
Atlas of the Middle and South Atlantic States (LAMSAS), part of the Linguistic
Atlas Project. It emerges that despite the massive amounts of variation in the
data, it shows the same pattern of distribution, namely the ‘A-curve’
(asymptotic hyperbolic curve), which Kretzschmar explains is not just a curious
property of speech but of great importance for the theory he is proposing (p.
99). Chapter 4 offers an overview of the statistical measures needed to
interpret such data, applying these to the LAMSAS data to allow the reader to
understand the nature of the distribution of variants at all linguistic levels.
Both chapters include numerous figures, which helpfully illustrate subtle but
significant differences in analyses.

Chapter 5 shows the place of findings from corpus linguistics in the emerging
linguistics of speech. It is particularly good to see corpus and dialectological
methods brought together as part of a more encompassing theoretical model, given
that the connections are evident but rarely emphasised. This is a model which
marries the textual with the social, and as such can only help the explanatory
power of both approaches. Kretzschmar sets out the methods of Firthian
linguistics and Neo-Firthian corpus linguistics, grounded in the fundamental
assumption that meaning is use, and demonstrates how the behaviour of variants
is similar regardless of the dimension in which they are considered (e.g.
distribution of sounds in geographical space as revealed by survey data,
distribution of words in text types as revealed in corpora). Again, there is
ample evidence from corpora.

Chapter 6 works through the claim that the linguistics of speech is a complex
system, in the mathematical sense, because the evidence already presented from
surveys and corpora displays all of the characteristics of complex systems,
including openness, non-equilibrium, emergent order, and the property of
scaling. Kretzschmar notes that the model of a complex system has been suggested
for language, citing work by Schneider (1997) and especially Bybee (e.g. 2001)
among others, but claims that even the most extensive of such work “remains an
understanding by analogy, not by identity.” (p. 184). In moving from the
linguistics of structure to the linguistics of speech, and drawing once more on
a wealth of evidence, here Kretzschmar takes this further step, arguing that in
speech we can identify all of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems,
and indeed rule out the possibility that it is a chaotic system. Assuming we
accept this evidence, then we can access the advantages of being able to draw
insight from other sciences which involve complex systems.

Serving as a complement to Chapters 3 and 4's aggregated data from surveys and
corpora, Chapter 7, ‘Speech perception’, introduces the psychology and the
physiology of the individual into the theory. The discussion here encompasses
areas such as perceptual dialectology, cognitive linguistics, prototype theory
and schemas, and spatial perception. The scaling properties of speech emerge as
significant, and support the model of the linguistics of speech as a complex

Chapter 8, finally, serves as a summary and conclusion, and a restatement of the
plea to take the linguistics of speech more seriously now that we have the means
to cope with it in sufficient quantities. The proposed model is set out in terms
of a formal conceptual model and also in discursive terms. This is then related
to the linguistics of linguistic structure, and areas for future research and
application are outlined in some detail. The potential benefits for historical
linguistics are particularly tantalising: statistical analysis of historical
data becomes a more viable avenue once we know to expect certain patterns of

This is an exciting, sometimes dizzying, book, which incorporates ideas from
areas rarely brought together, such as chaos theory, linguistic surveys, corpus
linguistics, perceptual dialectology, social attitudes to language, and
statistics. The exposition of speech as a complex system, with emergent order,
non-linear distribution, and the property of scaling, is intensely exciting. One
of its most satisfying contributions is the reminder that while the variability
of language often appears uncontrolled and uncontrollable, an analysis from the
perspective of a different scale may allow overarching structural patterns to
pop into view. This is reminiscent of the suggestion by Beedham (2005) that
unexplained exceptions to rules are artefacts of a faulty analysis. Beedham and
Kretzschmar differ, however, in their proposed solutions: for Beedham, the
solution lies in alternative analyses of the evidence (the ‘method of lexical
exceptions’), while for Kretzschmar, it lies in being guided in the analysis of
huge quantities of data by appropriate models from mathematics and statistics.

Various sections of the book deal with complex ideas from fields, particularly
in mathematics, with which many linguists will have only a passing familiarity,
and of which only few will have a professional working knowledge. Yet the
discussion is very well-pitched, moving smoothly from basic concepts to
applications, and so the pertinence of such ideas and models for language
becomes starkly clear. Many groups of readers will find something to take from
this book: it offers a coherent big picture, but one in which even the smallest
pieces of data are visible.

Beedham, C. (2005). Language and Meaning. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Bybee, J. (2001). Phonology and Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Saussure, F. de (1916/1986). Course in General Linguistics. Chicago: Open Court.

Schneider, E. (1997). Chaos Theory as a Model for Dialect Variability and
Change? In A. Thomas, ed., Issues and Methods in Dialectology. Bangor:
University of North Wales, 122-36.
Wendy Anderson is Lecturer in the Department of English Language, University of Glasgow, Scotland. Her teaching and research interests include: semantics, corpus linguistics, English, Scots and French, and translation. Between 2004 and 2008, she was Research Assistant for the Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech (SCOTS), and Corpus of Modern Scottish Writing projects, at the University of Glasgow. Recently, with John Corbett, also University of Glasgow, she published “Exploring English with Online Corpora” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521887038
ISBN-13: 9780521887038
Pages: 308
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