Bert Vaux teaches phonology and morphology at the University of Cambridge. Previously, he taught for nine years at Harvard and three years at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.
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Hello reddit. My name is Bert Vaux, and I work as a linguistics professor at Cambridge University in England. You may have seen the NY Times Dialect Quiz, which used questions from my Harvard Dialect Survey to predict where quiz takers were from. There's also a new app version for iphones: http://www.usdialectapp.com/. I'm looking forward to answering any questions you may have about my work on English dialects, Armenian, Abkhaz, or general linguistics. AMA!
OK, time's up. I hope you all enjoyed this AMA and I appreciate your questions. Please follow me on twitter @BertVaux, and be sure to check out our beautiful new iphone app: http://www.usdialectapp.com/.
Do you have any prescriptivist guilt, i.e., do you ever secretly scowl at somebody for using a non-standard form because of (you suspect) ignorance rather than simply in-group marking or casual register?
I do! Even before I became a linguist I could never understand why people were so biased against forms of behavior (be the linguistic, or culinary, or whatever) different than their own. When I first started taking linguistics classes at the U of C in 1985 I was very pleased to see that linguists generally believed that all languages/varieties and peoples are equal.
Despite all this, though, for some reason I have a mental block with Estuary English! I know that it's just as interesting linguistically as any other variety of English, but it still gets me for some reason--even though more stigmatized varieties of British English such as Brummie, Glaswegian, etc. I greatly enjoy. I have a theory about why this is, but won't get into it in this public forum.
Hi Bert, what do you think is the next big thing in phonological theory? (after OT, obviously, or do you think OT is going to dominate in the foreseeable future?)
Back in 1993, when McCarthy gave a version of his "look at my new theory" talk at Harvard, I predicted to my advisor Andrea Calabrese that phonologists would eventually abandon all of the central tenets of OT--they'd have to, because they're so obviously falsified by the facts--but that this wouldn't take the form of an overt paradigm shift as it did with the sea change from RBP to OT. Instead, the tenets of OT would gradually be replaced by components claimed to be innovated by clever optimologists, but that were actually just versions of pre-OT derivational mechanisms. This has already come to pass with process ordering, local iteration, (for some) levels, and so on.
As for the next big thing: I fear that the next two steps in the field are (i) shift to intellectually-uninteresting money-generating number crunching followed by (ii) death of the field, which may or may not coincide with death of the humanities/universities/western civilization.
But in an IDEAL world, I think the next big growth areas would be sign language systems, nanovariation (especially with twin/sibling languages), renewed study of deeper principles of L1 and L2 acquisition (as opposed to the superficial phoneticky and/or functionalist stuff that currently dominates), design features of phonology and their connections to evolutionary theory, information theory, and so on, and analytic biases.
why does dialect vary by region ?
That's a big, tough question! There seem to be a number of factors involved, but in my opinion the main ones are:
i. the challenge and indeterminacy of language acquisition.
We don't learn language by plugging in a cable to our parents' heads and transferring their linguistic knowledge directly into our brains; we have to infer how the language works from a combination of sound waves and/or visual images that highly underdetermine what the actual message intended is. To take a simple example, when a kid first hears the word "dog" s/he doesn't know if it refers specifically to the family dog, or to labradors in general, or all dogs, or all quadrupeds, or all animals, etc. And the people in the room virtually never provide any further clues as to what these words mean--the kid has to figure out the answer for itself. Kids clearly come up with different hypotheses, and this appears to yield a lot of the linguistic variation we find, even within a single family.
ii. social differentiation
Despite all the rhetoric about humans wanting to be equal, most of them seem to find equality/identicalness profoundly disturbing. Your average human actually wants to be LIKE some people (in the case of kids, it's typically a subset of the kids of their age or a bit older), and NOT LIKE some other people. It's this latter force that can lead to further linguistic differentiation. Say you have a kid learning English who is exposed to the English of their little friends, their parents, and their grandparents. They typically will (subconsciously) opt for the forms used by their little friends, some of whom may have non-standard forms resulting from factor (i) discussed above. This is another way that social group differentiation (including regional variation) can arise and spread.
Hi Bert - Why is it that linguistics is such an "underground" area of study? Anyone on the street can tell you what history and physics are, and maybe even name some notable people from the field, but nobody seems to know anything about what linguists do - even though everybody speaks a language and lots of people are very interested in language, as the response to your dialect quiz shows. What gives?
That's a great question! Part of the problem is that linguistics generally isn't proselytized very well--very few people have Pinker's ability to present sophisticated and interesting linguistic concepts clearly and compellingly, and most profs either can't see how to make their subject matter interesting to uninitiated students or don't want to (thinking that this is simplistic, or selling out, or what have you).
But I think that's just a tiny part of the problem. (Though we saw at Harvard in my day that if you taught good classes students would come in droves, and the university was then willing to give us new teaching lines, teaching assistantships, etc. Something similar seems to be happening right now at Queen Mary in London.)
Another part of the problem I think can be connected to the rise of chomskyan linguistics. When it first surfaced in the 50s, its affinities with the nascent computer science made it the equivalent of neuroscience and big data today--things that universities thought sounded impressive and able to generate lots of money. But now academia has shifted in two directions hostile to chomskyan linguistics: (i) almost every university has now switched to a business/profit model, wherein there is no place for fields that don't generate reams of income (read: arts/sciences/humanities, including linguistics); (ii) behaviorism (to which chomsky's rationalism is diametrically opposed) with its obsession with blind/shallow number crunching has returned with a vengeance.
In Britain there are other factors as well, or at least other factors that are invoked as disguises for what I think are actually financial motivations of the sort mentioned above. Linguistics is typically linked to the learning/study/appreciation of languages, but these things are in the West perceived as idle pursuits of the wealthy. British people (especially in upper middle class havens like Cambridge, ironically) are hyper-sensitive about class and privilege, and don't want to be seen as supporting anything connected with the privileged upper echelons of society, so things connected with the posho study of languages are a soft target. (One problem for this analysis is the survival/thriving of Classics at Cambridge, but that's a topic for another day.)
What do you think about conlangs like Esperanto? Interesting or misguided?
Very interesting! I personally prefer to study languages that develop naturally/organically, but there's plenty of interest in conlangs.
Yes, no, or maybe to the Oxford comma?
I prefer the system that more closely mirrors the normal spoken English intonation pattern, which is the one that goes "X, Y, and Z". Don't know if that's the Oxford comma or the non-Oxford comma...
What do you really think about OT?
haha, very funny. I think that OT is practiced by some of the best minds in the business (e.g. McCarthy, Kiparsky), so there's a lot of good reading to be done in that field. But there also happen to be many significant predictive differences between OT and RBP (Rule-Based Phonology, e.g. Kenstowicz 1993), and on the lion's share of these RBP has the upper hand. I for one find it very stimulating intellectually to identify and investigate these predictive differences; it's frustrating that most people prefer to avoid them and/or fall back on multiply invalid arguments such as the duplication problem or conspiracy theory.
Hi Bert! I was one of your students a couple of years ago; didn't get to give as much to the course as I would have liked due to ongoing illness, but had an amazing three years nonetheless. Thanks for playing your part in that and for inspiring so many of us - I know that a perhaps disproportionate amount of your students have gone on to postgraduate study, myself included.
My question is something I like to ask a lot of professors because of the sheer disparity in responses: how do you find teaching? Would you rather be able to research full-time, finding first-year undergraduates annoying and feeling stabby when you see them fall into the traps of linguistics myths? Or do you enjoy seeing them progress? Has a student (of any level) of yours ever come up with something so novel that it made you rethink something?
Thanks for the nice comments! I am touched.
As for teaching:
I went into academia because I loved learning languages, walking around the library and finding cool old books to read, talking with smart people who knew more than me, etc. I particularly enjoyed two things I learned as an undergrad at the University of Chicago: i. connecting disparate fields that normally don't get linked (and I don't mean in the forced superficial way that interdisciplinarity is normally practised these days); ii. applying the scientific method to existing research. More specifically, I love coming up with an idea or observation (typically about language, though for me it's often about music, fashion, or other human pursuits), forming a hypothesis about it, finding out what else has been said about it in the literature, and then trying to come up with predictive differences between the various hypotheses and find linguistic phenomena in the world's languages that can falsify one or more of those hypotheses.
So all of that stuff when I started in the field at 18 was purely intellectual; I never had any interest in teaching. But after about 2-3 years of teaching I started to really enjoy it! I realised that having lots of really smart students provided a great opportunity to research questions and refine hypotheses that wasn't possible on my own. I also found that the "shopping period" phenomenon at Harvard (a week where students try out different classes to decide which ones to take) + word of mouth (where students who hated my monotonous teaching would tell like-minded friends not to take my classes and other students who saw what I was getting at would tell their like-minded friends to take my classes) quickly led to me having big classes composed primarily of students who weren't put off by my various flaws and were clever and supportive. This was something I didn't really experience when I was a student and restricted to socializing with whoever happened to be in my department or live in my dorm.
As for your Q about researching full time: by the end of my 10 years teaching at Harvard I realized that what I enjoyed most in life was teaching big outreach classes--Dialects of English, Intro to Linguistics, etc. I had plans for a lot more classes like that (Language and Music, Language and the Law, etc.), but hadn't gotten around to them by the time I left.
Unfortunately when I moved to (old) Cambridge I discovered that the system doesn't allow for teaching big interesting classes of that sort, and I've gradually shriveled back into doing stuff more directly connected to my own theoretical research. I think that Cambridge will eventually shift to an American-style system wherein the undergrads have more choice of subjects within and across fields, but that may not happen in my lifetime.
Finally, your Q about students coming up with novel things: all the time! The most impressive in this respect was Neil Myler at Cambridge a few years ago, but there have been dozens of brilliant students over my 20 years of teaching who have come up with professional-level ideas. Makes my job easy!
Would you recommend Rosetta Stone as a way to learn a language? I would like to learn another language via this method.
I'm afraid I don't know anything about the methods used by Rosetta Stone, but unless it involves learners acquiring linguistic patterns subconsciously by interacting directly with native speakers, the chances of success are fairly slim. Pat Kuhl has some neat recent work on which methods of exposure are most effective for language learners.
(As for learning from the ACTUAL Rosetta Stone, that could be a fun challenge...)
My wife and I both took that quiz. It is uncannily accurate.
What is the most interesting origin of a dialect to you?
For example, here in the states, the Cajun way of speaking is a mixture of English and French. Not metropolitan French, but actually Canadian French.
I'm glad it worked! Josh Katz wrote the predictive algorithm based on my original survey questions and answers to them by c. 350,000 people, and he also came up with the cool heat maps, so he deserves the credit for those two things.
The prediction with our beautiful new iphone app (http://www.usdialectapp.com/) isn't quite as accurate yet, because we don't yet have a big enough database of respondents. But I hope you'll check it out if you have an iphone!
Most interesting dialect? I love the American varieties of French that you refer to, including Cajun and Quebecois. My colleague Luc Baronian has a lot of cool things to say about them. Did you know, for example, that Jacques Kerouac was a native speaker of a variety of Massachusetts French, and his original draft of On the Road was written in that dialect?
As for English, I think my favorites are the creoles in Hawaii, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, St Thomas, etc., and then I love all varieties of Scots and Scottish English, and I have a soft spot for the variety of American English used in the part of western Pennsylvania where my dad's family is from, near Pittsburgh. It's one of the coolest varieties of American English in several respects, yet not many people know about it. I also love the Eastern New England varieties of American English, especially in the Boston area.
Potentially career-ending question right there :p
i loved that quiz. I made everyone in my family take it as many of us have lived all over the country. My question is how would the quiz have handled us if we had also lived abroad for a significant time period?
One of the problems with an open-ended survey for the masses that seeks to automatically map their responses is that it can't easily adjust for complex cases--people who move around, people who aren't actually native speakers, etc. This is one of the main attacks that was levelled against me when i was first trying to develop my online Harvard survey in the late 1990s. I was convinced, though, that if one surveyed the population on a large enough scale, reliable regional patterns would emerge--and this appears to have been correct in the end.
Haha, nice questions.
I think my true love is best characterized as deviant/understudied/endangered/evanescent linguistic varieties and phenomena. Part of this is because these linguistic areas present many features of particular interest, and part of it is because I find it incredibly boring to do what everyone else does. Where's the fun in applying the tired old concepts of memory, identity, etc. to yet another case? Or showing that one can account for a subset of the facts in a well-studied language using the hottest new phonological theory?
As for the Bulls: yes! I've followed them pretty closely since my family moved to Chicago in 1978. Needless to say, with my luck they didn't start winning championships until I moved to Boston (the 1990-91 season). I still try to follow them from over here in England.
With the software Rosetta Stone (I'm speaking to the best of my knowledge), the program basically trains you up from the beginning as if you were a child. It has you associate things to words. It could show you the sun and mean sun, or star, or yellow (depending on which association it wants you to make). As far as I know, this is how it teaches you the language. Through association with the original context.
Hm, I'll have to see it in practice before I can form an educated opinion...
Let's hear it!
that one will take a while, so email me (email@example.com) and i'll send you some details of the Greek/Indo-European history of the word (and of phth clusters in particular, and why English speakers tend to pronounce it pth instead of phth).
What's the secret to become so intelligent?
Call me un-PC, but I think that much of intelligence is pre-determined, or at least independent of what one learns in school, etc. Same goes for musical ability and so on.
Having said that, though, I think that humans can help themselves by reading as broadly as possible, exposing themselves to as many languages and cultures as possible, and so on.
Maybe slightly off topic, but do you see any hope of increasing recognition of the Armenian Genocide?
Well, one might argue that Kim Kardashian has helped make it more known outside of the Armenian world, and perhaps Serj Tankian with his new album and tour will have some beneficial effects as well.
But as long as the two powers that consistently undermine the UN's humanitarian global initiatives remain in power, it's unlikely that anything running contrary to their historical narrative will be allowed its proper place.
Any chance the app gets released on Android?
I hope that happens at some point, especially as I use Android!
What is the most skewed dialect from its original language that you have studied?
In terms of phonological deviation, it would be the Armenian dialects of Kesab, Musaler, Cilicia, and Agulis. Or did you mean for dialects of ENglish in particular?
What's your favourite pub in Cambridge? I very much like the Eagle.
My favorite in the Cambridge area is (by far) the Queen's Head in Newton, about 5 miles south of Cambridge. Be sure to check it out!
The Eagle has some gorgeous rooms, but I tend to steer clear of it because it's always crowded.
Do you think things like Facebook and Twitter will start to blend dialects together, or at least create more universal terminology from now on?
How did you get into studying Armenian and Abkhaz? It's an interesting pair of languages, given that they aren't of the same language family, and neither are particularly well-known. Do you plan on studying any other languages in the Caucuses, or has that region already been fairly heavily studied?
Armenian and its dialects are my main love, and I got into them through studying Indo-European, the family Armenian belongs to. I got into Abkhaz initially when I started studying phonological theory, because its phonology is so cool and unusual on many levels. Ken Hale at MIT then introduced me to a speaker of an unusual and unstudied variety of it, my friend Zihni, and the rest is history!
The wolf is giving birth for a sun shower? What the hell is that?!?!
There's a great book on expressions for the sunshower by Matti Kuusi--check it out. There's also a more recent summary of expressions across the world here: http://linguistlist.org/issues/9/9-1795.html
Do you research non-US English dialects?
Yes, I have a lot of good data now on various World Englishes, especially in Britain--check out the maps on my current survey site: http://www.tekstlab.uio.no/cambridge_survey
I have also done fieldwork on a variety of non-US Englishes, including Krio, Hawaiian Pidgin English, Tok Pisin, multiple varieties of Scottish English, etc. etc.
I learned all about this quiz in my Linguistics class last term, and even surveyed some people myself for a project!
One question: do you realize how silly the word "dipthong" is?
you mean compared to the correct form <diphthong>?...
Or are you speak more phonesthetically?
If you're referring to the phth sequence, there's a cool historical story behind that...
Where do you watch MNF in England? Or have you converted to the "real" football, and in that case, who do you support? I hope you cheer for Leicester, but only if you pronounce it lie-cess-ter. (Sorry I forgot the IPA you taught me. It was over ten years ago after all.)
haha! good to hear from you again.
I watch all the Bears and Patriots games here using NFL Game Pass, which is available only outside the US. It's a great service, actually--you get to skip all the commercials and/or empty commentary between plays if you want.
Despite my best efforts, I haven't been able to get into professional soccer, rugby, etc. here, beyond watching the World Cup (which typically leads to rooting for Germany or the Netherlands, since England always loses so early!).
More basketball questions, Bert, can you share with us your NCAA career?
I played basketball my first three years of college, but then quit in frustration induced by our horrible coach!
Which is your favourite college and why? Have you ever made it to Girton?
King's, of course! (That's the college I'm a fellow of.)
I've always meant to trek over to Girton, but have yet to make it...
How would you suggest someone interested in linguistics get into it as a hobby or rather what is a good way of getting into learning it?
Any book reccommendations?
I would start with Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct.
Do you get annoyed by people spelling your name Burt? My name is Bert as well and it drives me crazy.
Yes!! If only I lived in Scotland, this problem wouldn't arise...
What are your thoughts on the the Borean, Dené-Caucasian, and Nostratic hypotheses?
The Borean one is highly amusing, if you're referring to the sort of thing discussed in Joscelyn Godwin's book. The Dene-Caucasian hypothesis can't be right, though I don't know anything about it. The Nostratic hypothesis rests on extremely shaky (and often fatally flawed) ground.
When do you think the ivory tower will fall?
The way things are going at present, it could be sooner rather than later! Within the next 100 years, perhaps?