December 28, 2004

It's your choice at the MLA

John Strausbaugh's story about the Modern Language Association meeting currently taking place in Philadelphia (here if you register with The New York Times) is aptly described by Arnold Zwicky as pissy and snarky. Strasbaugh would have you believe that the meeting is all loopy feminists and rampant queers clamoring to be more outrageous than each other. It isn't. I'm at the MLA too, reporting for Language Log (a news source you can trust, one that has not had to dismiss a reporter and two editors for running dozens of faked stories).

Let me tell you a bit about the meeting. There are a staggering 774 separate events on the program. Yes, there is feminist research, and studies of gay literature, some serious, some less so. There are dull titles and provocative ones (abstracts are not published, so people try to create long and eye-catching titles; if you were trying to get your session noticed among 773 others, you would do the same). The question is whether you go looking for gaudy titles to make moronic jokes about or whether you have an interest in language and literature. If the latter, you can choose from a vast range of serious stuff.

I chose a presentation by sociolinguist William Labov this morning. Strikingly original, gripping in its import, compelling in its presentation. Labov has found a spreading sound shift in inland Northern cities (Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Chicago, but not Columbus or Indianapolis) stopped dead by a line where the prevailing ideology of Northern Yankees (anti death penalty; pro gun control) ceases to be a typical feature of local political opinion — a sharp and rather unexpected intrusion of ideology on the course of linguistic change. Labov is a giant of the field with a constantly progressing research program (he is reportedly 75, but looks about 50 and works like a man of 30, so this age statistic is not very useful). The session was worth the price of registration all on its own, in the opinion of this reporter. And I could be wrong, but I don't think I saw Strausbaugh in the session. He may have been off somewhere being pissy and snarky and trivial.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 28, 2004 09:37 PM