Wednesday, February 12, 2014

I'm a cunning linguist

Working in those famous buildings across the Thames from the London Eye, I've had quite a few people assume that I studied politics at university. So they're quite surprised to learn that I've actually got a degree in linguistics. They then ask what language that is - assuming that I've studied French, German, or Spanish. "No, no, just English - English Language, that's what a Linguistics degree is".

People ask what my course involved. Accents and dialects? Yes, but I didn't specialise in that field, as phonetics proved a little too much for me and my regional accent's pronunciation of certain vowels (the "a" sound in "face" and "oa" sound in "boat" will probably not be the same for me as they are for you, or in Received Pronunciation). While not possessing a strong West Cumbrian accent, I do have the vowel sounds common to most users of some form of North-Eastern English accent (Cumbria, linguistically, has more in common with NE England than NW England, even though it's in the NW!).

So what did I cover at university? Mainly pragmatics - the construction of meaning through context. While semantics deals with individual word meanings, pragmatics involves words being said by particular people to particular people at particular locations at particular points in time (this is all context). As part of a study of language-in-use and sociolinguistics, this is where the fields of linguistics, sociology and psychology all blur into one.

But my favourite response is when I tell people that as part of my course, I studied Conversation Analysis. The look of pure horror on people's faces as they frantically try to remember what they've just said to me, under the impression that I am now psychoanalysing their every utterance. Absolutely priceless.

Conversation Analysis does not come anything close to this - it involves incredibly detailed transcription of talk, which is then analysed with a fine tooth comb, picking out recurring phenomena within the data set in order to try and explain why people say particular things and what jobs particular conversational features do.

My main interest was the study of language-in-use. Rather than mere theory about language - syntax, grammar, etc., it is the study of how real people use real language in real situations. There's no such thing as "right" or "wrong" language use - no matter how annoyed we get when people have an inability to use punctuation or say "could of" when they mean "could have" (and believe me, I get very, very annoyed!). The whole point is that language is merely a means to an end.

As language users, we must assess what the primary purpose of our language is. From a Clarkian perspective (H.H. Clark, 1996, Using language - check it out!), language is all about achieving things, getting things done, and co-operation and co-ordination. These are our end goals - we seek to achieve our aims, whether that is to order a beer, to speak to our lecturer in an academic setting, or even to order our lecturer a beer! The fact is that virtually everybody uses language in their everyday life, though very few people stop to think about exactly how they use it - and of the few that do, even fewer still feel a need to dictate to others how things should be done. And what right to they have to do this? Why should we always do things in a certain way? To spend too much time cathecting and perfecting the way in which we say or write things can only ever be at the expense of us actually putting our words to good use and "doing things" (Clark 1996: 3).

Clark writes that "language is rarely used as an end in itself" (1996: 387), which is something that linguistic conservatives do not seem to consider. When asking out that pretty girl, "using language was only a means to that end" (Clark 1996: 387) - the likelihood is that the outcome of the interaction will culminate in the girl giving us either a yes- or a no-type answer; it is unlikely that she would correct us, had we ended a sentence with a preposition. And what do we want - the pretty girl, or a conversation about syntactic structure? To waste our lives concentrating on the means of language, rather than its ends, can never be ultimately productive, and will only serve to stall our efforts to get things done.

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