Out of the Mouths of Linguists
Funnier than any spoof—thanks to the couching of a subtle and complex thought in a concise, colloquial form of expression—are some of the occasional spontaneous utterances spoken (or, as in one exceptional case cited below, mentally formulated but left unspoken) by linguists, whether in connection with their oral presentations at scholarly meetings or arising in their conversational exchanges with nonspecialists. These expressions can convey effectively in just a few syllables what might have required a lengthy, convoluted discourse had it been meticulously written in the standard disciplinary jargon.
The three vignettes assembled in this paper demonstrate how linguistic (as contrasted with “lingual”, in the sense proposed by Pap 1957) professionals, speaking in unguarded moments, can express (1) intensity of sociolinguistic judgments, (2) subtle ambiguity of conversational turn-taking protocols, or (3) high levels of theoretical abstractness—all using common layperson’s language that is understandable to any native-speaker of English.
Alas, most utterances of the kind under scrutiny here, whether actually said or left unsaid, fall by the wayside, unrecorded except imperfectly in the deteriorating gray matter of one or another observant-but-distracted attendee at a scholarly symposium. Thus the documentation of such phenomena is generally incomplete, with dates often limited to decade ranges at best, informant names mercifully forgotten, and other circumstances unknown or unverifiable. And the three specimens compiled here by your present investigator are, minus one exception, not atypical in this regard. Thus, although it is my usual custom to scrupulously document my findings, in the present case I must beg the reader’s indulgence with regard to the credibility/credulity issue: I can only solemnly assert the authenticity of the following scenarios, and ask the reader to believe only what she or he is capable of and willing to. Exhibit (1) below (Wolfram 1991) is, however, atypical, in that it indeed comes equipped with relatively precise data of time, place, speaker, and circumstance.
1) “Well you’re dead!”
Exhibit (1) was an utterance mentally formulated, but tactfully not delivered in situ, by sociolinguist Walt Wolfram, in conversation with one of his new neighbors upon moving into a new residence in a working-class district, in hypothetical response to the latter’s friendly, but grammatically stigmatized, assertion displayed in Exhibit (2).
2) We seen you move in.
I hasten to add that the mock-sarcasm of Exhibit (1) is emphatically not to be taken as implying that its would-be speaker was in any way expressing prescriptive grammar-snobbery. Far from it. Rather, he was dramatizing for an academic audience the life limitations that society places on those of its members who do not speak the variety of the ruling class. The use of the apparent past participle for simple past tense, as in Exhibit (2) is, of course, quite frequent among the spoken varieties of English around the world (Iqdotl 2009).
Exhibits (3) and (4) are, respectively, the first word and the last word of an otherwise very articulate oral presentation of a paper at a scholarly conference held either in conjunction with the same Institute where Exhibit (1) was gleaned or not long before or after it. Your investigator apologizes for having lost the identity of the speaker, all other details of the contents of said paper, and indeed even its general subject area. He cites, as an extenuating circumstance, the fact that his attention had recently been refocused exclusively onto “filler phrases”, such as um, by another paper, presented earlier at the same conference, which examined them as a linguistic phenomenon.
It goes virtually without saying that um as a discourse-initial word requires less explanation than um in discourse-final position. It is common knowledge that um can signify that the speaker is searching his or her mental lexicon for an appropriate word, which usually follows momentarily in spoken form.
Alternatively, within a phrase, such as between determiner and noun, um, spoken deliberately and followed by a brief pause, can serve to draw special attention to the euphemistic, ironic, or otherwise “delicate” character of the following expression, as in the constructed example of Exhibit (5).
5) What about your, um, “friend”?
But what can it mean to finish a discourse with um? A traditional view of this “filler” expression—rigidly adhering to the notion that it introduces a word or phrase about to be uttered by the speaker—might conclude that in final position it suggests that the speaker intended to say more, but then thought better of it and abandoned the thought in midstream. On the other hand, if we allow (judging from the ensuing behavioral pragmatics of the assembled listeners) the possibility that one speaker’s um could introduce another speaker’s utterance—analogously as intimate couples sometimes finish one another’s sentences, or as we elicit a person’s name by saying “And your name is...?”—then the final um of Exhibit (4) may serve the function of saying, in a less formal register, “This marks the end of my presentation; the floor is now open for your questions and comments. This is, for practical purposes, your initial um.”
To my knowledge, this is the first documentation of discourse-final um in the linguistic literature.
6) Y’know, I never really thought about it.
The utterance in Exhibit (6) was elicited by your present investigator in a post-Q-and-A session, one on one, with the presenter of an extremely theoretical scholarly conference paper on the phonology of syllabic stop consonants [sic] in Khmer-Aleut. (This obviously fictitious language family has been coined ad hoc to obscure the identity of the otherwise innocent anonymous informant.) Your investigator approached the speaker and asked, in all good faith, for a demonstration of what a syllabic stop consonant might sound like. The latter’s response, shown in Exhibit (6), demonstrates the lofty heights of abstraction that our science is capable of ascending to when pursued single-mindedly. What is remarkable here is not the exotic positing of syllabic stops per se—after all, Bell (1978:184-187) documents their existence and realizability, citing examples from several languages. What demands our attention is rather instead the very disconnect that is evident in an individual researcher between abstract premises and concerns of phonic realization, a phenomenon that in its general form has, no doubt, freed and enabled our discipline at large to engage in the full degree of abstract theorization that has been accomplished to date.
Your investigator has cited the above examples with no intention of embarrassing any linguist or native-speaking associate, but rather with the wish to pay tribute to the vernacular pole of the spectrum of registers in its capability to fully express finely nuanced linguistic judgments, as well as to heighten the reader’s appreciation for the broad diversity of phenomena and degrees of import that characterize the subject matter of our limitless discipline.
Bell, Alan. 1978. “Syllabic consonants.” In Joseph H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals of human language, Vol. 2: Phonology (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press), pp. 153-201.
Iqdotl, Ann. 2009. Personal communication.
Pap, Leo. 1957. A note on lingual vs. linguistic. General Linguistics, 2:42.
Tree, Jean E. Fox. 2001. Listeners’ uses of um and uh in speech comprehension. Memory & Cognition, 29:320-326.
Wolfram, Walt. 1991. Conversational semi-exchange recounted in lecture at LSA Summer Institute, Santa Cruz, California.