Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.
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
SUMMARY 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 system.
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 variation.
EVALUATION 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.
REFERENCES Beedham, C. (2005). Language and Meaning. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Bybee, J. (2001). Phonology and Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
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).