Language in Context

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Lynne Nygaard and Debra Spitulnik

Lynne Nygaard (Psychology) and Debra Spitulnik (Anthropology) spoke in the last lunch of the spring 2009 semester about language in context. Debra contextualized the meeting by identifying the various disciplines in the room. There were representatives from psychology, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, psychiatry, and philosophy. To exhibit the power of context, Lynne and Debra communicated for a short while as two giggling girlfriends in a sand box. This broke the ice and demonstrated how genres and styles are determined within a discursive context.

What does the question of context stand against? Lynne contextualized the question within the history of the field, which traditionally held the model of a speaker-listener dyad. In this model, the speaker has an intention that translates into a physical signal. This signal is multilayered and structured and the listener unpacks the structured physical signal to understand it. It sounds good but alas, such an ideal dyad is nowhere to be found. For ecological validity we need to embed this dyad within a context; in fact within several contexts. Both Lynne, who studies phonetics and the biology of speech, and Debra, who studies society and culture, include context in their studies of language, and not as an epiphenomenon that can be left out of linguistic research. Not surprisingly, each has her own context.

Nested contexts: Lynne proposed a stratified and nested structure of contexts: phonetic, lexical, syntactic, sentential, discursive, situational, social, and cultural. She discussed phonetic research that has shown that already in the basic level, the way in which we produce a vowel depends on its consonant neighbors. Debra, who resides at the other end of this context-ladder, is interested in the social and the cultural. But they both agreed with the 20th century Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, whom they cited:“There are no ‘neutral’ words and forms—words and forms that can belong to ‘no-one’; language has been completely taken over, shot through with intentions and accents. For any individual consciousness living in it, language is not an abstract system of normative forms but rather a concrete heteroglot conception of the world. All words have a ‘taste’ of a profession, a genre…a particular person, a generation, an age group, the day and hour. Each word tastes of the contexts in which it has lived its socially charged life; all words and forms are populated by intentions.”

I wondered too. This word, which many of us were unfamiliar with, encapsulates the complexity of the various levels of contexts — how they (to use Debra’s language) “bleed” into each other — and how, in addition, they are all contextualized within time. How while we are speaking in the “time Now” (as Lynne described the present) we are carrying a discourse with the past and the future.

Cognitive conundrums: For Lynne the challenge is to understand how a biological system – yes, that’s us — can encompass such complexity. She listed some specific hard questions: How this biological system can encompass simultaneously the linguistic and the communicative? How do the representations of language and its emergence in social, communicative contexts relate to each other? And maybe above all, how can we study it? The reductionist approach, which makes the research more manageable, has its own pitfalls. The contextualized investigation might be too complex to be productive.

Linguistic anthropology: Debra’s is a humanistic inquiry. She is less interested in the mind/body framing of language than in its social and cultural contexts. Her questions are how do we map what gets activated in every specific situation and discourse? How do we account, for example, for the common use among young people of the expression “the fierce urgency of now”? In the Fall, they used it to connect up to the Obama campaign, and it had important echoes for them as the younger generation, but most used it without any knowledge that Obama’s use of the phrase was a reactivation of Martin Luther King Jr.’s coinage (he used it in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream speech’).

Debra emphasized the two competencies included in the use of language, the linguistic and the social. The linguistic guides one in speaking correctly; the social guides in speaking appropriately. One has to be competent in both not only for speaking but also for understanding. An anecdote from Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer’s The Anthropology of Language made the point: Dr. Stirland, a biologist from England, visited Kansas State University, and had planned to continue to Toronto. She was overheard mentioning her plans by a Native American young man, who approached her in the parking lot and commented on how nice Toronto was, and that his family lived not too far, in Upstate New York, and that he missed them. It took a while before it dawned on Ottenheimer that the Native American young man was not narrating a family story but rather indirectly, as is customary and polite in his culture, was asking for a ride. “I miss my family” was correctly understood by Ottenheimer, who resolved the situation and told the young man that Dr. Stirland would fly to Toronto. He wished her a safe flight and left.

Roberto Franzosi (sociology) gave another socio-cultural example of how his “How are you?” in England forced him to return from 10 feet ahead to listen to the answer to his question. He had meant it merely as a greeting, as in America.

These examples, pointed out Debra, are only a first step in the inquiry. They show the need for both linguistic and cultural competencies, and that we do not speak in a vacuum. But how do we understand these competencies and their context-sensitive activations?

Accommodation: Lynne introduced the concept of accommodation. In her field of study, vocal accommodation for speaking style has been observed. Utterances take on the characteristics of the interlocutor. Such accommodation has been found to be more common among women, Lynne told us. Bob McCauley (CMBC) wondered whether this is universal and hypothesized that it might be cultural. He also pointed out that his was an empirical question and can be tested.

Laura Namy (psychology), Donald Tuten (linguistics), Bob, and Lynne discussed the gender difference in accommodation. And Lynne added in favor of its universality some results from animal studies. Don spoke about how automatic or voluntary the process of accommodation is, and how gender often cannot be separated from power. In developmental studies, there is increasing evidence that up to the age of 6-7, children appear to accommodate automatically, and that it is hard to inhibit this behavior. Adults though can adopt non-accommodating strategies. And Bob was curious again about the universality of the phenomenon.

Apropos accommodation, Debra whose field-work was in Zambia, was impressed by how two people, with different yet close enough languages, often carry out dialogues in which each uses his or her own native language. The diversity of languages is culturally accepted and accommodated for. Quite in contrast to what one might see in the Balkans, where the language of the discourse expresses the power relation between the interlocutors.

That we have been left with many questions is a testament to the richness and the complexity of the topic. Studying language in isolation, as in Chomskian linguistics, enjoys mathematical elegance and can answer some linguistic questions. But at the end, how we approach difficult questions depends on context.

About Shlomit Finkelstein

Shlomit Ritz Finkelstein earned her PhD in theoretical physics from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1987 and her second PhD from Emory University in 2009. After a successful career in computer science she was admitted to the PhD program at the Graduate Institute for the Liberal Arts at Emory, an interdisciplinary department in which she pursued her interest in the neurobiology of language. As a graduate student, she was the first blogger of the Lunch Series of the CMBC. Currently she is an adjunct professor at Emory’s psychology department.
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