August 05, 2007

Blunder maven speaks

Ben Zimmer has reported here on Michael Erard's forthcoming book on speech errors and disfluencies, Um...

In which I'm featured, in chapter 9, as a "blunder maven".  Some reflections on my life in erroria...

First, it's an odd experience being a character in a book.  My daughter even plays a role, talking about what it was like growing up in a slip collector's household.  (In another chapter, Jeri Jaeger and her family are featured.)  Michael summarizes some of my work, of course, but he embeds this discussion in more personal details.  Like where my interest in classical malapropisms came from.  My e-mail answer to him in February 2006:

I started collecting them to use as illustrations and exercises in beginning linguistics courses.  They're entertaining, and they show the relevance of phonological features, prosodic structure, grammatical category, etc. to real life.

A surprising amount of my research started from teaching introductory courses.

(There was also the influence and example of my friend Vicki Fromkin, who's an important figure in Michael's book.)

That last sentence is important.  Though I started my academic career doing more or less "straight" syntax and phonology, plus some morphology and mathematical linguistics, teaching introductory courses turned to me other things as well, very quickly: usage, a lot more morphology, dialects, variation, errors, casual speech, applied linguistics, argumentation and evidence in linguistics, poetic form, style and register, the social side of sociolinguistics, language play, idioms and other formulaic language, and more.

In any case, I got into speech errors in the 70s and I've been in the neighborhood ever since.

Second, Michael's website for the book has a lot of stuff not in the printed version, including an extensive bibliography and also photos of some of the characters in the book: in the version that's up today, these are, in (neither chronological nor alphabetical) order:

Reverend Spooner, Giovanni Morelli, Kermit Schafer. Thomas Edison, Arnold Zwicky, Randy Harvey, Ralph Smedley, Victoria Fromkin, Rudolf Meringer, Sigmund Freud

Of these, only Randy Harvey (winner of the 2004 Toastmaster's World Championship of Public Speaking) and I are still alive.  I hope that Jeri Jaeger will be added to our company, and maybe Anne Cutler as well.

Third, Michael's plans for the book moved me to apply to teach a Stanford sophomore seminar on slips of the tongue, which I last taught in 2001.  (I taught graduate seminars on the topic at Ohio State in the 80s, and a course at the 1982 Linguistic Institute, at the University of Maryland, College Park.)  It's on the books for spring quarter 2008.  I hope the students will be entertained by having their instructor be a character in their textbook.

Fourth, ever since I got into the business of studying both variation and errors, thirty years ago, I've carried a notepad with me to record interesting data on the fly.  The Dreaded Notebook has developed a certain fame of its own.  Though I try to record things surreptitiously, people notice when I whip it out.  So during a faculty meeting in February 2005, when I scribbled something on it, Paul Kiparsky stopped in mid-sentence and demanded in consternation, "What did I say?"  (What he said was

It's just fishing in the dark.

which i took to be an inadvertent blend, based on "just a shot in the dark", with "fishing" -- from "just fishing" 'just searching aimlessly', or from "shooting fish in a barrel", or both -- substituted for "a shot".)

My year at the Stanford Humanties Center (2005-06) was full of such incidents.  The Fellows had lunch together every day, chatting about matters scholarly and personal, so there were many opportunities for me to collect data.  For a while, the Fellows panicked every time my notepad appeared, but eventually they accommodated to it.  Though even then, they were sometimes distressed by it.  At one lunch, a Fellow was talking engagingly about matters medieval when I pulled out the pad.  He stopped dead and asked, "What did I do wrong?"  And I got to tell him that I'd just thought of some things to add to my grocery list.  (The pad serves many purposes.)

Then there were visitors.  At one point Lani Guinier appeared for lunch, during a visit to give a big Stanford lecture plus a discussion session at the SHC.  The people at our table introduced ourselves, and general conversation ensued.  I thought she was so absorbed in talking to the director of the Center (sitting next to her) that she didn't notice when my pad came out.  But, alas, she did, and she remembered that I was a linguist, and she was freaked out (as she explained later to the Director).  I got to use the example in a talk I gave the next day (she was not in attendance).

Ok, here's what she said, from my data log at the time:

[10/31/05, talking about Constance Baker Motley]  Growing up, she was a real hero of mine.

This would be, according to many authorities, a "dangling modifier", since the subject of grow up is not supplied by the subject of the main clause.  But it's one of several types of examples that I consider to be entirely innocuous.  So Lani shouldn't have been distressed.

(A few years ago I started doing a series of academic collages -- a framed collection is now on display at the SHC, and many are pasted up on my office door at Stanford -- beginning with an amended version of a Edward Gorey drawing.  It shows Gorey himself, in his celebrated raccoon coat, lurking in an alcove while drawing on a notepad.  The caption I supplied: "Professor Zwicky was never without his notepad, and often collected data in unlikely spots.")

Fifth, and finally: in many courses I teach on variation and on errors, I have the students keep data logs of their own, which they then submit to me and I comment on.  This is a good exercise in learning to attend to what you hear and read (not an easy thing to do) and in becoming attuned to data of interest in one way or another.  There's a lot of wonderful stuff out there.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 5, 2007 02:48 PM