August 17, 2005

More illusions

In my posting on Dr. Language and I, I pointed out two seductive effects of selective attention: the Recency Illusion (if you've noticed something only recently, you believe that it in fact originated recently) and the Frequency Illusion (once you notice a phenomenon, you believe that it happens a whole lot). The point here is that your impressions are unreliable; you need to find out what the facts are.

Now my colleagues Elizabeth Traugott and Isa Buchstaller have pointed out that when people lament, "Those kids today!", they're likely to be victims not only of the Recency Illusion ("today") but also of related illusion that I'll call the Adolescent Illusion, the consequence of selective attention paid to the language of adolescents ("those kids") by adults. This illusion is a special case of a much broader effect, in which people pay attention selectively to members of groups they don't see themselves as belonging to and so locate phenomena as characteristics of these groups: an Out-group Illusion.

There are many familiar examples. Ask people about retro-not ("I think that's a smart idea -- not!") and lots of them will tell you it's both recent and characteristic of teen speech. As Larry Horn has observed (in, for example, his 1992 paper "The said and the unsaid", in Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 40.163-92), neither of these impressions is really accurate.

Teenagers are likely to be blamed for most things that (some) people find reprehensible in language. This is not an entirely unreasonable view, since a great many linguistic changes do seem to originate in adolescent language. But, of course, you have to figure out whether the phenomenon you're looking at actually is one of these changes in the early stages of progress. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

More generally, people sometimes are exquisitely sensitive to some linguistic feature in groups they don't belong to, while missing it almost totally within their group. My current favorite example of the Out-group Illusion is a contribution to a Linguist List discussion of "double be" last year (issue 15.535, 2/9/04). Jill Murray, writing from Australia, joins the conversation:

Just as I was reading this posting I had a phonecall from an Irish speaker who used the construction twice in a five minute conversation. It is not a feature of Australian English and I had never heard it before. Both were "The thing is, is that ..."

Pat McConvell, who had been posting and writing about the phenomenon for over 15 years, then chimed in (issue 15.560, 2/12/04) to flatly contradict Murray's subjective impressions: most of his examples were from Australian speech, and he collected new examples "virtually every day" from Australian-born colleagues, on the radio in Australia, etc. Murray was detecting the feature only when it came from people whose speech she was likely to judge as unusual, exotic, marked.

Like I said, you just have to go and find out. I no longer trust my own subjective impressions, or those of other linguists, no matter how reputable. The OED, for instance, sometimes gives judgments about how frequent certain uses were in particular periods (many of them James Murray's, from well over a hundred years ago), as do reference works like Tauno Mustanoja's Middle English Syntax, but those are impressions based on experience with unsystematic samples, and they simply aren't reliable. There's lots of work to do.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 17, 2005 09:06 PM