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Review of  Methods in Contemporary Linguistics

Reviewer: Annis Shepherd
Book Title: Methods in Contemporary Linguistics
Book Author: Andrea Ender Adrian Leemann Bernhard Wälchli
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.487

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EDITORS: Ender, Andrea, Leemann, Adrian, and Wälchli, Bernhard
TITLE: Methods in Contemporary Linguistics
SERIES TITLE: Trends in Linguistics/Studies and Monographs [TiLSM] 247
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2012

Annis Shepherd, University of Southampton

This volume is aimed at those who are interested in extending their understanding of methodology in linguistics. It covers not only areas of theoretical linguistics (phonology, syntax, morphology, etc.), but also others such as historical linguistics, psycholinguistics and sociolinguistics. The aim is not to develop new theories, but rather to reflect on the processes involved in their development, and the benefits that such reflection can have for our analyses. Dedicated to Iwar Werlen, the book aims to reflect his constant awareness of, and willingness to participate in debates about, the many different methodologies available to the modern linguists.

The volume is split into five sections. The first set reflects on non-traditional approaches in “core domains”, phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and pragmatics. The second deals with “Cross-Linguistic and Language-Internal Diversity”, considering the techniques used in areas such as multilingualism and second language acquisition. Section three covers the importance of methodological considerations in dynamic approaches to linguistics, including psycholinguistics and historical linguistics. The fourth section is entitled “Writing” and discusses how best to study visual language. The final group, “Language, Space and Society”, examines different ways of analysing language use in society.

In the first paper, “Methodological reflections on the phonetic-phonological continuum, illustrated on the prosody of Swiss-German dialects”, Beat Siebenhaar and Adrian Leemann consider the desirability of maintaining a strict distinction between phonetics and phonology. The authors discuss the need to take methodological considerations into account when creating a corpus of spontaneous speech and deciding how best to analyse the data gathered. This paper questions the assumption that underlying stress patterns predict fundamental frequency (f0) movement.. It concludes that a quantitative model (such as the Fujisaki intonation model) allows for more accurate analysis than others, as it allows for minor prosodic differences to be captured more accurately.

In “Phonological typology, rhythm types and the phonetics-phonology interface”, Stephan Schmid discusses the role of linguistic rhythm in language typology, with the aim of showing that phonetic and phonological approaches can be used in a complementary fashion. After a brief discussion of the different techniques in diverse areas of linguistic typology, Schmid offers three case studies of Italo-Romance dialects (vowel systems, syllable types and the application of rhythm metrics) to show that a non-standard method -- using a sample of languages taken from the same language family -- can be used to investigate hypotheses formed using the more frequently adopted approach, namely using a broad range of languages taken from as many different language families as possible. He shows that this method allows us to situate individual dialects within the “typological space” of the world’s languages and validate findings from other typological studies.

Moving away from phonology, Bernhard Wälchli’s paper “Indirect measurement in morphological typology” discusses the limitations of direct measurement and the legitimacy of indirect measurement (including its use in other domains). Wälchli uses a case study of parallel texts taken from the Bible to show that an indirect measurement methodology can be employed to measure the degree of synthesis seen. He applies a text-to-device approach (i.e., takes word-forms as the basic linguistic unit and derives the internal linguistic structure from them) working through three levels of analysis. The author concludes by discussing the advantages and limitations of the indirect measurement approach, with suggestions for ways to further develop its application to morphological typology.

In “Is a syntactic dialectology possible?”, Claudia Bucheli Berger, Elvira Glaser and Guido Seiler consider why dialect syntax should be studied at all, as it has been debated whether there is any such thing as dialect-specific syntax. They conclude that the best way to determine this is through cross-dialectal micro-comparison. Through a study of Swiss German dialects, they discuss the application of the “Zurich Written Questionnaire Method” (developed by the authors) to dialect syntax. They show that it can produce reliable syntactic data by comparing the results of their analysis with those of another, more traditional, methodology. The authors conclude with a discussion of how best to present their data cartographically, considering different map types and symbols.

“Methods for modalities” (by Johan van der Auwera and Gabriele Diewald) considers various ways of investigating modality. According to the authors, modality is of interest as it can be used to study both form and meaning, but an approach which allows for an investigation of both at the same time can have interesting results. They begin by discussing the different techniques that have been applied in studies of modality (native speaker intuition, corpus studies of both comparable and parallel texts and “specialist consultation” -- using either linguists or grammarians to gain indirect access to native speaker judgments) and the role of the computer in corpus studies. They then discuss the application of these methodologies in specific studies, to show that a combination can allow new perspectives on modality.

In “The making of a festschrift, is it a ritual?”, Andrea Ender and Bernhard Wälchli consider whether editing a festschrift such as the volume reviewed here can be considered a ritual act. By concentrating on the intentions and actions of the editors when redacting a festschrift in “a broader pragmatic sense”, they investigate its symbolic nature. This paper includes a discussion of the methods in the analysis (self-observation, questionnaires completed by editors of other festschrifts, discourse analysis and spontaneous definitions provided by different members of an academic community), a consideration of the usual and/or expected components of a festschrift, as well as a brief overview of the (increasingly negative) attitudes towards them. It then moves on to consider various definitions of the term ‘ritual’, before analysing the extent to which festschrift editing can be considered ritualised. The authors conclude that, whilst the manner in which the editing is done may be considered partially ritualised, each festschrift could be said to reinvent in part the production of the final product.

The first paper of Part 2, Fernando Zúñiga’s “Language description and linguistic typology” considers the methodological challenges faced by those investigating language description and linguistic typology. The author discusses three particular areas that cause issues for linguists: the collection of data; sampling; and crosslinguistic comparison. He analyses data collection with some of his own previous research, showing that several traditional approaches have at least one shortcoming. His discussion of sampling is less specific, concentrating more on the general issues faced in avoiding bias. The final part concentrates on crosslinguistic comparison, how it should be undertaken and some of the challenges involved.

In his paper “Multiple languages and multiple methods: Qualitative and quantitative ways of tapping into the multilingual repertoire”, Raphael Berthele considers the different methods that can be used to investigate multiple language usage, based on the current debate over the qualitative-quantitative divide. After a section considering methodological triangulation and some of the other ways (and combinations of techniques) of eliciting data, Berthele moves on to two case studies highlighting the results that can be obtained when more than one method is adopted. He concludes with a discussion of the issues involved in studying multilingualism.

“Koineization and cake baking: reflections on methods in dialect contact research” (David Britain) discusses the data collection issues that need to be considered when studying dialect contact, with a focus on koineization (the formation of a new dialect through prolonged contact between two different dialects). Britain’s motivation is that, whilst the distinction between language contact and dialect contact is often unclear, the two are usually studied separately, and draw on very different methodologies. After a discussion of the different types of dialect contact, the author discusses in some detail the techniques used (and the issues inherent in adopting them) in studies of linguistic accommodation, second dialect acquisition, new dialect formation, supralocalization and innovation diffusion. He concludes with a discussion of whether the cooking metaphors frequently used in studies of koineization are appropriate.

Andrea Ender’s paper, “Variation in a second language as a methodological challenge: Knowledge and use of relative clauses”, addresses the little studied issue of how second language learners cope with variation in their input and how this affects their language acquisition. She does this through a consideration of a previously undertaken study of relative clause acquisition in learners of German in Switzerland. After a discussion of terminology, an overview of the context and why relative clauses are problematic, she outlines her study, the methodology adopted to collect her data and the rationale behind its use and her general findings. She concludes that the variation seen is a result of a combination of linguistic, cognitive and social factors, and that therefore a combination of methods was required to investigate it.

“Polish tea is Czech coffee: advantages and pitfalls in using a parallel corpus in linguistic research” (Ruprecht von Waldenfels) considers the strengths and weaknesses of using parallel text corpora. Von Waldenfels discusses the issues raised when translating equivalence of meaning between languages and the problems caused by specific characteristics of translated texts. Using examples taken from studies using ParaSol, a corpus focussing on parallel texts in primarily Slavic languages, he shows how these issues can be resolved. This paper also briefly discusses the differences between the use of parallel corpora and questionnaires, and concludes that the two are complementary.

Beatrix Busse begins Part 3 with “Historical text analysis: Underlying parameters and methodological procedures” , which considers the study of pragmatic phenomena in historical corpus analysis, something that has been made possible through advances in methodological techniques. Busse discusses the advantages of what she terms the “modern historical linguistic approach”. She then moves through an investigation into stance adverbials in Early Modern English to show that it is possible to overcome the issues involved in studying historical changes pragmatic phenomena through a combination of quantitative corpus-based searches and qualitative analysis.

In “Using methods of historical linguistics in Indo-European and Tibetan”, Roland Bielmeier exemplifies the merits of the comparative method, through an analysis of sound change in Indo-European and Tibetan. He concludes that syllable structure is an important factor in sound change in both language families, but that it would be unhelpful to compare sound change in Tibetan to that seen in Indo-European, as Tibetan typically sees conditioned changes, unlike Indo-European.

“Etyma, shouldered adzes and molecular variants” (George van Driem) explores the challenges in investigating areas of prehistory about which little is known with a multi-disciplinary approach. The utility of using disciplines as diverse as linguistics, genetics and paleobotany has been questioned: van Driem uses this paper to show that (in one case at least), some interesting parallels can be found. Drawing on work in etymology, molecular genetics, archaeology and human genetics, the author shows that it may be possible to construct competing accounts of the past. He concludes that, whilst an interdisciplinary approach has potential, caution is required in the interpretation of its results.

In “Experimental methods in psycholinguistics”, Constanze Vorwerg discusses the role of the experiment in psycholinguistics. She covers a wide range of topics, such as the rationale behind using experiments to gather data, common terminology, and different types of experiments available depending on the type of data desired and the area of psycholinguistics under consideration. Vorwerg follows the process from beginning to end, from the considerations that need to be taken into account when designing an experiment to methods of data interpretation and how they can feed into theory development. She concludes with a brief discussion of other experimental areas of linguistics and their role in interdisciplinary research.

Part Four begins with Daniel Perrin’s paper, “Coming to grips with dynamics and complexity. Methodological challenges to real-life writing research”. He first gives basic details of four well-known frameworks used to investigate “real-life” writing, considering the principal reasons for their use over others. He then moves on to discuss in detail Dynamic Systems Theory (DST) through a case study of an experienced journalist producing a piece about demonstrations in Lebanon. He concludes that DST has a genuine role to play in investigating written language.

In “Evolving methods for written representations of signed languages of the Deaf”, Penny Boyes Braem addresses some of the issues (e.g., the use of non-manual gestures and privacy violations) that need to be overcome when researching signed languages. She provides a critical overview of recent studies and methodologies, including those which represent individual signs, and those which attempt to replicate sentences and longer texts. She concludes that, through a combination of the existing writing systems with advances made possible by new technologies, it may now be possible to produce “adequate and useable written representations of signed languages”.

In the first paper of section 5, “Crossing perspectives on onomastic methodology: Reflections on fieldwork in place name research”, Elwys De Stefani compares the traditional aims and methods in onomastic research (namely historical changes investigated through isolated phonetic transcriptions of place names) with an alternative, called “interactional onomastics” by the author. A synchronic study is discussed employing interactional onomastics to discover how place names are used in naturally occurring conversation. De Stefani concludes that an interactional approach has shown that place names are just one way of referring to place, and that therefore a traditional onomastic approach needs to take this into consideration. He also suggests some areas for future research that have been highlighted by this new approach.

Matthias Grünert’s paper, “Does the territoriality principle work in practice? The principle’s application to the Romansh area in the Swiss Canton of Grisons” considers the controversial territoriality principle (which, in linguistic terms, obliges administrative, political and/or juridical bodies to use a number of languages, depending on the traditional and actual linguistic make-up of the region), how it functions and its application in the context of the Swiss canton of Grisons. Grünert concludes that, although other Swiss cantons abide by the territoriality principle, there are factors in Grisons that complicate its application.

The final paper, “Procedures of methodological triangulation in sociolinguistic research on multilingualism” (Georges Lüdi, Katharina Höchle and Patchareerat Yanaprasart) shows that, contrary to the impression of English use in Swiss workplaces created by studies relying on only one method, an approach that adopts several different complementary methodologies shows that English is not used in the same way as the country’s national languages, but rather as a form of lingua franca. Other insights are also discussed that could only have been made by adopting such a combination.

Overall, this is an extremely wide-ranging collection, potentially useful to anyone considering the role of different methodologies in a large number of areas of linguistics. A note of caution is, however, necessary. The blurb on the back cover could give the impression that the book provides an overview of current and widely accepted techniques. This is not the aim, and the book focusses more on innovative and unusual approaches in a range of different linguistic sub-fields.

The focus on innovative techniques makes the book most suitable for advanced students and experienced researchers. The majority of papers are written at a level that presupposes a relatively high level of prior knowledge of the subject material, and whilst it is not strictly necessary to be able to follow the theoretical detail of any examples given, such ability helps the reader to gain more benefit from the many insights contained in each paper. Having said that, some papers, such as Vorwerg’s, are considerably more accessible to readers with less-developed subject knowledge. This volume is definitely more suitable for researchers wishing to gain an insight either into the importance of methodology as a whole, or into the benefits and disadvantages of a specific approach. It is less suitable for students wishing to gain an overview of the more common techniques used in a particular domain of linguistics: whilst one or two papers may provide this, the majority do not. As I have already said, though, this was never the aim of the book, despite the somewhat misleading blurb.

It seems that one of the principal aims of the editors was to produce a volume which could stimulate debate about the importance of an open consideration of which methodology is most appropriate in a given context, rather than an implicit assumption that there is only one suitable option. It remains to be seen whether this debate will now take place, but if it does, this volume has provided ample material to allow linguists from all domains to participate, rather than syntacticians having a separate debate from sociolinguists, etc. The choice to include papers from all domains also enables the reader to learn about methodologies that may not be particularly common in their specific domain, but that might still be useful to them.

It is by no means an easy challenge to organise papers from such a diverse range of domains into a coherent volume. However, the editors have largely been successful: the division of the book into five themed sections is logical and the different sections generally work well together, although some (e.g. section 1) are more coherent than others (e.g. section 5). The introduction further clarifies this, describing in some detail the contents of each section and each paper.

Ideally, I would have liked more consensus as to what constitutes a discussion of methodology. Whilst all the papers considered the topic in some way or other, the approaches varied from that taken, for example, by Vorwerg, who provides a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of a range of approaches when considering a specific issue, to that of Lüdi et al., which shows how a specific combination can be used to advance progress, without discussing any alternatives at all. All have their merits, but it might have been nice to have a greater level of consistency.

It is refreshing to see an open and focussed discussion on the importance of choosing the right methodology. It is all too easy to adopt a particular method of data collection and analysis, without making it clear why that particular way has been chosen. This is especially the case when the one adopted is a common one, such as the role of intuition in many generative syntactic analyses. It is also a welcome change to see a consideration of methodology that covers such a comprehensive range of topics: many previous works (e.g. Maguire and McMahon 2011) cover the subject in a specific context, or the merits and limitations of a specific technique (e.g. Schütze 1996), but few cover such a wide range of contexts, methodologies and areas of linguistics. Overall, then, this book is a welcome addition to existing works considering the importance of an open discussion of methodology in linguistics.

Maguire, Warren & April McMahon. 2011. Analysing Variation in English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schütze, Carson T. 1996. The Empirical Base of Linguistics: Grammaticality Judgments and Linguistic Methodology. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Annis Shepherd is a Ph.D. student at the University of Southampton. Her research interests include the division of labour between syntax and morphology, intra-speaker variation and non-standard varieties of English. Her thesis deals with syntactic intra-speaker variation in English, focussing on case variation in coordinated structures.