December 01, 2003

The rigors of fieldwork trips

I am shocked, shocked, at what Mark Liberman clearly insinuates in his recent Language Log entry. He notes that hundreds of compounds with plural non-head elements, counterevidence to the (originally Kiparskian) generalization studied by Peter Gordon (`Level ordering in lexical development', Cognition 21 [1986], 73-93), could have been be found on the web site of my own institution, not only without leaving my desk but without leaving the Internet domain. Clearly he is implying that therefore the rigorous field trip I undertook to the barren desert state of Nevada, during which I tracked down and recorded the crucial compound counterexample activities center, must be suspect as far as tax deductibility is concerned. I am deeply disturbed lest any reader, whether working for the Internal Revenue Service or not, might be inclined to follow him in doubting the genuineness of my business travel schedule.

It is essential for the empirical health of linguistics that the investigator should not just sit at home in (say) his comfortable Philadelphia apartment with his high-speed Internet connection and his radio-equipped laptop using Google as a substitute for fieldwork, but should be prepared to travel to far-away places, sometimes with harsh and arid climates and strange customs, to observe language use in its natural context and setting. It is true that dozens of examples like activities center are already recorded in the 2002 paper by Scholz and myself, and many more are on UCSC web sites, including my own; but one can never have too much data, and dedicated linguistic scientists must be prepared to get out of their comfort zone and undertake travel to distant parts to gather more of it. Serious empirical inquiry demands no less.

Since my ticket stub entitled me to a free cocktail at The Orleans' casino bar, I had an opportunity for further mingling with the local area speech community, in Spring Valley (The Orleans, too, falls outside the Las Vegas city limits) after the Frankie Valli concert. Thus in a single evening I had juxtaposed opportunities for objective observation of both the lithe bodies of the four young male Californian singer/dancers backing up Frankie Valli's show and those of the young female drinks servers at The Orleans (whose uniform consists of fishnet tights over a thong-style body stocking and little else but high heels). The combined aesthetic effect would suggest the idea of bisexuality to anyone whose mind wasn't utterly closed to new experiences. And the mind of the scientific investigator must never be closed to new experiences. I didn't actually gather any useful linguistic data that particular evening, but my mind was open. I think any fair-minded tax inspector would agree that the social science fieldworker must be prepared to get out there in the speech community and interact as a participant observer, not just sit around playing with his Google.

Oh, I nearly forgot: the foregoing paragraph contains another relevant noun-noun compound with a regularly inflected plural noun as first element; I put it in just to test the reader's alertness.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 1, 2003 07:54 PM