From the Archives!—A SpecGram Devotional Scroll—The SpecGram Archive Elves™ SpecGram Vol CLXVII, No 1 Contents A Preliminary Study of Immigrant Mongolian Transhumance Patterns in Western Jamaica—Siobhan Chavannes

The Speculative Grammarian Survey of Grammar WritersPhonology

Morris Swadesh III


For the past 40 months, Speculative Grammarian’s Office of Linguistic Documentation has conducted an extensive survey of linguists who have published descriptive grammars. Over 600 grammar writers responded to our extensive questionnaire, covering all areas of data-gathering, analysis, theory, and the processes of writing and publishing.

We share these results as a service to our beloved field of linguistics, which we know relies heavily on published grammars. After all, if you can’t trust your data, who can you trust?

Report 1: Phonology

Many interesting generalizations have emerged from our Survey of Grammar Writers, but the strongest of these is found in the area of phonology. Exactly one of our 623 respondents did not simply make up the data for the phonology section of his/her grammar.

For years it has been known that writers of so-called “reference grammars” are generally hopeless at phonology. This has never mattered much, because reference grammars are normally produced as doctoral dissertations, which get only the most cursory of readings by harried committee members. Furthermore, publishers of reference grammars almost invariably solicit anonymous reviews from grammatical experts or syntactic typologists, since the syntactic sections of anything with “grammar” in its title are generally considered to be the “meat” of the work, and are most likely to contain citable material for typologists. For these reasons, grammar writers have been able to skimp on phonology.

Thus, it didn’t surprise us very much that all but one of the grammar writers who returned our survey confessed to making up the phonology data contained in his or her grammatical description. Comments like these were common:

“Nobody reads the phonology anyway.”

“Phonology is just hocus-pocus.”

“I never took phonology, but my graduate advisor never noticed.”

“Other grad students suggested I just copy the phonology from one of their dissertations. I’m not sure what language family it was from. I don’t think she knew either. I think every dissertation in our department reused the same one.”

“If I had to analyze the phonology, too, I would never have finished in time for the tenure review committee.”

We did, however, discover one grammar writer who actually learned something about the phonology of the language, and whose phonological description is based on an analysis of the sounds and sound patterns in the language the grammar describes. In follow-up interviews, this grammar writer has asked to remain anonymous, fearing widespread ridicule, but did consent to being quoted:

“I just figured if I was going to claim this book was about the X language, I ought to really understand all of X’s features. I know it isn’t fashionable, but I thought why not?”

Speculative Grammarian is proud of the devotion to truth that this single writer has shown. We are equally proud of the ability of over 600 additional grammar writers to fake everybody else out.

From the Archives!A SpecGram Devotional ScrollThe SpecGram Archive Elves™
A Preliminary Study of Immigrant Mongolian Transhumance Patterns in Western JamaicaSiobhan Chavannes
SpecGram Vol CLXVII, No 1 Contents