One of the joys of being a linguist (*cough* former linguist) is that you’re constantly surrounded by data. Turn on the tv, and you hear language. Call your mama on the phone, and you hear language. Somebody’s rude to you in the supermarket… you get the picture. We are constantly surrounded by data for a potential linguistics paper.
Yes, we’re analyzing everything you say. At least I do. And so does the Linguistic Mystic. All the time. Acutely.
I know immediatly some people are going to read this and assume we’re constantly listening for grammatical errors, and judging people for their non-standard speech. We’re not. Standard speech for linguists is both a) a myth, and b) a giant snore-fest.
What we listen for is variety. I listen particulary for dialect, both in terms of phonology and lexicon. Once, in grad school, I told my friend that her husband’s dialect reminded me of someone I knew from Ephrata, Washington… He then explained that he grew up in Moses Lake, Washington, just 15 miles down the road, and everyone was filled with wonder. I’m sure that British or Italian people, who are much more dialect conscious, would think that 15 miles is a huge margin of error, but for rural Washington, where homogeneity is an expectation, that 15 miles is pretty good.
I have always analyzed language, since I was a kid. I remember sitting in the garage, in the back seat of my parents’ VW Dasher, waiting for my parents to come drive me somewhere, and thinking about conditional sentence structure. For example, “If I had known you were coming, I would have gotten ready.” I remember thinking about the grammatical words “had” and were” and “would have,” and the grammatical meaning that they conveyed in the sentence. I think I was seven.
Also, in first grade, Ms. Slosson was teaching us reading with phonics (which is stupid by the way, English spelling is not phonetic, not even phonemic) and she asked me to spell the word “milk.”
Fine, I said, M-E-L-K.
And she said, no, listen: miiiihhhhlk, miiihhhlk.
So fine, I spelled it with an “i” for her, and she thought I was dumb for trying to spell it phonetically. She was a bitch anyway, I hated that Ms. Slosson, and she hated me.
I can’t tell this to people, because they all insist they don’t pronounce it [mɛlk] but let me tell you, anyone who learned English in the 1970s in Olympia, Washington has [ɪI] and [ɛ] in free variation. You will hear my generation and older making no contrast between pin/pen, windy/Wendy, milk/mElk, vanilla/vanElla…
I told this story to my mama and sister, and they insisted that they do not say [mɛlk], that [mɛlk] sounds dumb, that they always say [mɪlk]. And then they demonstrate it for me, [mɪlk], [mɪlk], [mɪlk]! Like I’m stupid! But then, when they’re not consciously thinking about it, just talking about diary, they’ll go and pronounce it [mɛlk]. Yes. YES.
One time, in Italy, we were watching tv at dinner, as we always do, and my host brother turned to me and asked me why “Singin’ in the Rain” was spelled like that, what happened to the “g” on Singing?
I told him, oh, Americans don’t pronounce “-ing” in casual speech.
And the other American sitting next to me, who was WHITE, said “what? I always pronounce the ‘-ing.’
So of course, my Italian host family watched the white American correct the pronounciation habits of the brown American who HAPPENS TO BE A LINGUIST. How do you tell Italians, sorry, I know more about his language than he does….
So only a few minutes later, he turns to me and says, “Ok, I’m gettin’ tired, I think I’m goin’ to bed.”
So I was like, “Aha! You said, GETTIN’ and GOIN’!”
And of course, he was like, yah, so what? It was totally out of his mind, he had moved on. So of course I had to explain it to him that he told the Italians that I had given them incorrect information about English, but that actually I was correct, and he was ignorant about his own pronunciation. It’s like he wasn’t even in the room.
Oh, he says, I guess I did. Huh.
And that was the end of it. But it didn’t matter, because by the Italians thought I spoke some degenerate form of English…. me and Gene Kelly…
Anyway, the point is that people are not conscious of their linguistic performance. But I am totally listening. To everything. And so is the Linguistic Mystic. We’re not listening for mistakes, we’re listening for variation. And we can’t really stop either, unless you stop talking. Asking us not to hear language variation is like asking you not to see the difference between orange and blue.
You don’t have to feel self conscious about it. The only thing I ask is that when you ask us what we heard, and we tell you, don’t correct us. We’re right. We’ve been listening to you. And you haven’t.