February 16, 2006

Tannen in the New York Times

The NYT recently featured a Q & A by Claudia Dreifus with Deborah Tannen, motivated by the publication of "You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation", which currently #5 on amazon.com's book-sales list. I'll wait until I've read the book to post anything more about it, but there were a couple of nice things in the interview.

First, the last exchange:

Q. How did you become a linguist?
A. I'd always loved words and talk. After my first marriage ended, I wanted to reclaim my intellectual life. I'd been teaching remedial writing at Lehman College in New York. With my newfound freedom, I registered for a summer institute in linguistics and fell in love with the discipline.
That summer, I'd found a calling. Linguistics combined my lifelong fascination with talk and my interest in people. Thirty-two years later, I can't imagine any other life.

The popularity of her books shows that many people share Tannen's tastes. In fact, the analysis of interpersonal interaction must be high on any list of human interests. Given that there are many other things as well that fascinate people about speech and language, and plenty of practical applications for the results of science and scholarship in this area, it's downright bizarre that the field of linguistics has ended up in such a marginal position. Deborah Tannen is one of the people who are doing something effective to improve the situation. And her books are interesting and fun to read. So three cheers for her and for her books.

In the first exchange in the interview, Tannen makes a striking point in a way that gives an interesting twist to a usage that we've observed several times before. The general pattern is a sort of hyperbolic lexicostatistical metonymy, in which the alleged (non) occurrence of words in a certain context is used to imply something about the relationship of the things they denote. A common version involves claiming that certain words or phrases always or never occur in the same sentence. The new twist (well, new to this weblog -- I'm sure it's hundreds if not thousands of years old) involves asserting that certain words are not used by certain people:

Q. Many of the women you've interviewed for your new book complain of mothers who criticize their appearance. Are they right to be annoyed?
A. "Right" and "wrong" aren't words a linguist uses. My job is to analyze conversations and discover why communications fail.

Prof. Tannen may be making a point about description vs. prescription, which is absolutely correct as a characterization of the attitudes of most linguists. And she also may be reinforcing her own generally non-judgmental approach to disagreements: she typically describes arguments in terms of different understandings of the goals of the interaction and the meaning of contributions to it, rather than in terms of rights and wrongs or even in terms of conflicting interests.

So to say that linguists doesn't use the words right and wrong is a striking way to emphasize analysis over evaluation. However, as a factual statement about the lexical habits of our profession, it's not entirely accurate. In fact, it's downright, well, uh, wrong. For example, the Linguist List archives have 1076 instances of the word "wrong", starting in Sept. 1991 (emphasis added):

I've been hanging back from the sound-change-teleology discussion because I have a feeling that the question of teleology in sound change -- regardless whether argued pro or con -- may be the wrong question.

and ending in Feb. 2006:

The authors strongly recommend a multilingual and multicultural perspective toward issues related to language and aging, contending that ''[A]s with monolingualism, the assumption of mono-culturalism in any society is wrong, and that applies to the elderly population as much as it does [to] other populations'' (p. 77).

That's about one "wrong" every five days over 15 years (which seems remarkably civil, now that I think about it).

Scanning a paper by Barbara Partee that I happen to be reading at the moment, I find at least one relevant use of the word "right":

But at this point we should probably bear in mind the “Janus-faced” nature of the genitives that we noted in section 5: for “pure” non-elliptical predicate genitives, it may not be right to call this a “genitive” relation at all; this is where the distinction between “genitive” and “possessive” may become important.

Amazon's "Search inside the book" tells me that Noam Chomsky's Minimalist Program has the word "wrong" on 12 pages, and mentions of "right" on 34 pages, at least some of which mean "correct" rather than "later in time and thus to the right in English orthography":

"... it will hold only for A-chains, not for A-chains. That conclusion seems plausible over a considerable range, and yields the right results in this case. Let us return now to the problem of binding-theoretic conditions at S-Structure. We found a weak ..."

Linguists mostly agree that there are not "right" and "wrong" ways to talk and write (though of course there are "standard" and "non-standard" patterns, and confusions and mistakes of many kinds as well). But linguists, like any other scholars or scientists, frequently discuss the "right" and "wrong" ways to analyze the phenomena they study. And even those who analyze argumentative discourse while trying not to take sides are likely to find reasons to use words like right and wrong in an evaluative sense from time to time.

Indeed, Prof. Tannen herself is a relatively frequent user of right and wrong: according to Amazon's "Search inside the book", in You Just Don't Understand there are 29 pages on which "wrong" occurs, and 69 pages on which "right" occurs. This is one right or wrong for each 3.6 pages (compared for example to one right or wrong for every 6.3 pages in Strunk & White's Elements of Style). For that matter, in the cited NYT interview we can find one additional use of each word:

The mother feels she's caring. The daughter feels criticized. They are both right.

So when mothers and daughters spend a lot time talking about personal matters, it gives them countless opportunities to say the wrong things to each other.

Now, these examples are not really inconsistent with what I think she meant, which is that her professional interest is in description and analysis, not moral evaluation or judgments about winners and losers. The first example ("they are both right") is an attempt to put moral evaluation aside; the second example ("countless opportunities to say the wrong things to each other") uses wrong to mean something like "ineffective in advancing the speaker's goals", or "leading to unnecessary conflict".

And yet...

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 16, 2006 07:01 AM