usage-based douging

one of my main complaints with formal stystems of syntax and semantics is that, if and when they acknowledge the importance of meaning in usage, they treat it as a concrete and knowable object. for instance, in my syntax class, we learned that a word is (presumably this means 'is stored in the brain as') an ordered triple, , consisting of x, the sound of the word; y, the syntactic category of the word (is it a noun, a mass noun, a verb? does it require a direct object?); and z, the meaning of the word and its logical relationship to other words.

this approach creates some fairly obvious problems, especially if one rejects chomsky's competence/performance distinction and acknowledges that people have disputes and confusion about what words mean all the time.

a great example (and a hilarious invented usage!) is the verb 'to doug,' which has been widely circulated in my co-ed house here at brown. it's a humorous adaptation of existing linguistic material (namely Doug's name), and I think it orginated in the passive form: "you've been douged!".

i don't provide the definition or the exact origin story because these are both somewhat disputed. there are at least two origin stories floating around (and I personally believe the meaning may have been added as an afterthought to the utterance anyway). this is a pretty common case in normal language, too. consider all the idioms we use daily without knowing their origins (let the cat out of the bag? what!?). in addition, there are certain fine points of usage that people don't agree on. for example, can only Doug doug? does douging have to be an unintentional act? and so on.

now, for all this fuzziness and lack of formal definition, there are some amazing consistencies in the usage of 'to doug.' i presented some house members with fill-in-the-blank sentences, and their answers were very elucidating. for instance:
"He ____ her too often for comfort."
- dougs, douged
"Tom ate all of Dick's food without realizing it was Dick's, though he knew it was not what he, Tom, had ordered. What a prototypical _____!"
- douging
"In fact, Tom engages in ____ almost daily!"
- douging, dougage, douggery

so, how can we account for both the inconsistencies and the consistencies with one theory? should we, like chomsky, ignore the 'anomalous' utterances that don't fit with our rigid structural categorization of 'to doug'? should we declare speakers who don't know the 'real' meaning incompetent, and imagine a perfect, ideal speaker who has a perfect representation of the meaning of 'to doug' in her head? how can such a 'real' meaning exist for a word that was made up mere months ago?

this is why usage-based theories of grammar are so freakin' sweet! if we appeal to actual observable facts about usage, a lot of these issues fall out very neatly indeed.

a word's meaning is a function of the way we (average speakers!) use the word. scratch that--everything (syntax, spelling, pronunciation, meaning) are functions of usage!

that is, i heard a friend say 'you've been douged!', and because i am a native english speaker with experience with sentence frames like this, i knew 'doug'--regardless of its meaning--must be a verb that can take a direct object. then i saw a friend's t-shirt (this is a real thing), that says 'See Doug. See Doug doug. Doug Doug, doug!' and understood that 'to doug' is a regular verb just like the other verbs i've seen in that type of sentence my whole life. then, i heard a friend say 'i'm going to doug you!' and another friend say 'you can't--if it's intentional, it's not douging,' and i understood something new about the meaning of 'to doug' and the appropriate contexts for its use. on the back of the aforementioned t-shirt, it says 'you've been douged!', so i assume the past perfect (or whatever) form of the verb is spelled with one 'g.' enough counter-examples, or a counter-example from a particularly reputable source, might lead me to change this mental representation, though. (at this time, the t-shirt is the most reputable source available.)

when we learn a new word, we don't learn it all at once as an ordered triple, and its meaning isn't necessarily part of the original package. what we learn about words is ways that they might be used. these ways include syntactic and phonetic contexts as well as real-world contexts including socio-linguistic factors like social acceptability, formality levels, and so on. meaning falls out as a result of contextualized usage. we can explicitly define the word, as is done in dictionaries, but this is a) not necessary (as in the case of douging) and b) it still constitutes a particular type of context. we never--NEVER EVER--encounter words without a context that tells us something about their acceptability!

usage-based theories can empirically use statistical distributions to explain certain facts about language. for instance, the mass noun form of the word, 'douggery' or 'dougage', is not exactly disputed, but it's generally not that well known. this might be because it's very infrequent. we would expect this form to be less stable, less well-defined and more prone to change over time, because speakers have a weak representation of it in their brains. they haven't stored up enough examples to know how to use it properly in all situations. the phrase 'you've been douged', however, occurs very commonly and is therefore unlikely to be changed or used differently. spelling is another good example--there aren't enough instances of the written word yet to know whether one 'g' or two is more acceptable.

people can and do make mistakes in language. this is how language changes, and why we are sometimes not understood. usage-based grammar can explain both our competencies and our incompetencies using a very simple apparatus: we store and compare each example of a word we encounter. in addition, it explains our messing-up without appealing to a hard and fast prescriptive distinction between right and wrong. instead, different tokens of the same word are simply more or less acceptable.

an invented usage like 'to doug' is a great example because of its unsolidified state, but in some ways it's just like any other word; the same arguments i've made here can be applied to all language in general. now, go out there and try not to doug one another!


what are you gonna do with that degree, open a linguistics shop?

Alan M. Perlman, language expert, laughs in the face of the uselessness of a linguistics degree. He's a forensic linguist specially trained to help attorneys interpret the law to the semantic letter and appear as an expert witness on matters of authorship. His website says "We all leave linguistic fingerprints on everything we write. If they are there, Alan will find them."

He's a linguistic superhero! Or he's at least like one of those guys on CSI. (Incidentally, I found Alan's website because it was an advertisement in my gmail screen; it ran above an email about my linguistics experiment.) Check out this page, which contains a curriculum vitae that lists a linguistics B.A. from Brown University. It also lists the legal applications of his varied experiences with language and linguistics which include speech writing, teaching, and writing a dissertation at the University of Chicago on code-switching. See also Alan's writings about why linguists can hold up their heads as useful members of society!

And Mr. Perlman is not alone. The intriguing domain name 'thetext.com' is owned by the Forensic Linguistics Institute, and LanguageHat wrote briefly about the phenomena in October 2003.

One envisions a cozy office on the main street of a small town (although Alan M. Perlman's address is listed as Highland Park, IL). One might assemble not only forensic linguists but also translators and advisers for a whole range of professions; advertisers, politicians, editors, software designers and diplomats could all use a little technically and legally sound advice about language now and again.

Look out world. We know you've held the smoking gun of language, and now we're dusting for fingerprints!


where have i been?

i've wondered it myself. Sadly, the world of actual linguistics has left me little time for the forum that kept me interested in linguistics when 'the establishment' wouldn't touch my sophomore butt with a ten-foot pole! (see this guy's website for even bolder rantings and his self-published play, 'cyprus,' by briggs)Link
there are a lot of interesting posts floating around in my head, but i've got no time to do them justice these days. so this one will be an explanation of what i do with my time and what it makes me think about writing.

first and foremost, my thesis! i'm about to start collecting data on a linguistics project that's been near and dear to my heart for a while now. i'll post more about it after i have some data so i don't risk biasing friends who might be subjects. it's about language and technology--suffice it to say i'm psyched!

other classes are good too. in introduction to linguistic anthropology, i have to record the speech of a local speech community. i've picked the CS department. (also, thanks to Dave for writing the software for my above mentioned thesis. i have my own software! yay!)

then, i'm taking speech prosody. we're studying pitch contours (how people raise and lower the tone of their voice). again with the software: i downloaded this great program called 'praat' (available for all operating systems--just google 'praat'), that lets you manipulate and visualize sounds in all kinds of interesting ways. some friends i and had fun reversing our voices and trying to speak backwards.

last but certainly not least, i'm taking an mcm (modern culture and media) class called 'media archaeology: information, discourse, networks.' it's right up my alley, focusing on the interaction of technology and... well, kind of everything... but let's say artistic genre for now. we're reading a lot of great theory (Vannevar Bush, Marshall McLuhan, Foucault) and looking at neat web art. see especially 'dakota' by young-hae chang. is it a poem? is it a movie? no one knows! its' web art! (make sure your computer's sound is on!)

then, my job at the vocab lab (or 'voca blab.' ha!) is at an important stage. we've started bringing in subjects to take a first draft of our vocabulary test, which will one day be part of a national literacy exam. i've been spending a couple of hours a day testing subjects and preparing software (boy! that word again! i'm so technological these days). i'll be writing an article for the indy about the process of bias and sensitivity review that all educational materials have to undergo these days. i've been thinking about the issue a lot, especially since i've been involved first hand and read part of diane ravitch's 'the language police' over break. keep an eye out for that one!
unfortunately, it's another blog post that's been lost to the real world.

in my free time, i've been involved with rush at the frat (co-ed), where people do all kinds of interesting linguistic innovation. the most recent example is 'douging,' which, perhaps more so than the rest of these blurbs, definitely merits a post all of its own. stay tuned, faithful inventors!