A linguist by training and professor in Manchester, England by trade, Laurel MacKenzie uses the space of her Feature to look at the language people use and how we understand words. She presents thoughts on how instantaneous Reflection and Response occurs and doesn’t occur when we hear each other speak. As an educator Laurel utilizes large lecture classroom settings to provide an opportunity for data collection on language and has created various language maps of the United Kingdom with her students. She drops ill knowledge throughout this piece on how our brains practice Reflection and Response just as sounds reach us-before any creative mediums lead to expression.
I investigate the variation that is inherent to language: cases where our language gives us multiple ways of saying something, and we have to make a conscious, or just as often subconscious, choice of which one to use at any given time. We’re most familiar with this kind of linguistic choice where words are concerned…[however,] I study linguistic choices on an even more minute level, in the way we pronounce the words that we use.
– Laurel MacKenzie
Leading off with some basics, where are you from? And where are you at?
LM: I grew up in College Station, Texas, a small town with a big university, a lot of cows, a ton of wide open spaces, and not much else. I did undergrad degrees in French and Linguistics at UC Berkeley (woo go Bears!) and a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania before taking up my current job as a linguistics professor at the University of Manchester in Manchester, UK.
I feel very lucky to get to have a foot in two countries at once. I go back to the US frequently to visit family, and with only 5 hours’ time difference between the UK and the East Coast, I never feel like I’m very far away. At the same time, after a year and a half here, I’m starting to pick up on cultural knowledge and feel more integrated. The result is not that I’ve given up my American self, but rather that I’ve been able to augment it with a new body of knowledge that I’ve gained the UK. I see it as a gift to get to be able to coexist in two cultures.
What does Reflection and Response mean to you?
LM: My first thought was that this sounds a lot like what we do in academic work. As a linguist, I study and analyze the patterns found in language. This can be as straightforward as listening to the way someone pronounces their vowel sounds and using that to identify where they come from, or more complicated, like studying a body of linguistic data, finding the patterns or relationships it displays, and then using those to generate theories about how language is stored in the brain. Everything I do in my research involves reflecting on data, and responding to what I find in that data.
But I also thought about how reflection and response are involved on a much more subconscious level every time we receive some sort of sensory input. I study language, but I’ve also been a musician since I was a child, playing piano, viola, and carillon (tower bells — another Go Bears! shoutout to the UC Berkeley Campanile), so I’ve always been interested in how we perceive and interpret sound. Whenever we receive an auditory stimulus, whether it be music, speech, or any other sound, split-second reflection and response processes occur, allowing us to make sense of what we’ve just heard. Our brains are amazingly good at this. When you think about it, speech is really messy and complicated: we talk fast, we omit sounds and syllables, different people pronounce words differently depending on where they come from, and even you yourself will pronounce a single word differently depending on where in a sentence it occurs, whether you’ve said it before, how long you’ve been talking, and how comfortable you feel with the person you’re talking to. Yet in the vast majority of cases, we understand exactly what’s been said to us, even if it wasn’t pronounced in the same way we would have pronounced it ourselves. Those reflection and response processes are always going on under the hood, picking apart the sounds that we hear and turning them into something meaningful.
Our brains are also really good at knowing when reflection and response are not necessary. Take the role of pitch in language. In some cases it’s essential to be attuned to the pitch of someone’s speech: imagine the difference in intonation between “That’s a GREAT idea!” said enthusiastically, and “That’s a GREAT idea” said sarcastically. The words are the same in each case, but the pitch patterns are different. Our brains need to be constantly reflecting and responding to these up-and-down pitch patterns that we hear in speech, in order to make sure that we get the right meaning in cases like this. But in other cases pitch differences are completely irrelevant. For instance, some people have high-pitched voices and some people have low-pitched voices, but when we hear a speaker with a low voice, we don’t immediately think “Wait, why is their voice so low? What do they mean by this? Is there something they’re trying to convey?” Our brains can filter that kind of variation out, without wasting time trying to look for any meaning in it. This kind of thing fascinates me, and makes me feel so lucky to get to have a job where I can engage with smart people who are thinking and talking about it.
How does your work fit in with that definition?
LM: I have to say that much of my academic work actually focuses on the aspects of language where reflection often isn’t involved at all — it’s all response, and it’s an impressively subconscious and automatic response, at that. I investigate the variation that is inherent to language: cases where our language gives us multiple ways of saying something, and we have to make a conscious, or just as often subconscious, choice of which one to use at any given time. We’re most familiar with this kind of linguistic choice where words are concerned: for instance, if your professor or your boss gave you some good news, you might say you were “delighted,” but if the good news came from your best friend, you might be “stoked.” I study linguistic choices on an even more minute level, in the way we pronounce the words that we use.
Recently I’ve been interested in the way we can contract verbs in English. If I wanted to prove to you that Manchester isn’t always the grim, gray, rainy place it’s made out to be, I might tell you “The weather’s beautiful right now, the sun’s shining, the forecast for Saturday’s showing 60°, and the tree outside my window’s finally in bloom.” (All true, by the way!) Or I might tell you “The weather is beautiful right now, the sun is shining, the forecast for Saturday is showing 60°, and the tree outside my window is finally in bloom.” The words are the same, but I’ve changed how I’ve pronounced the verb is. Every time we use the verb is in a sentence like this, we have a choice to make: do we lop off the initial vowel and turn it into the ‘s contraction, or do we pronounce the whole word? It sounds like a mundane question, but the cool thing is that, when you actually study people’s choices, you start finding eerily similar patterns.
One thing I’ve discovered is that people are less likely to use the ‘s contraction the longer the subject of their verb is. So if you lined up hundreds of people and got them all to describe the weather exactly as I just did, you’d discover that most of them would choose to say “The weather’s beautiful” and “the sun’s shining” — with contractions — but that most of them would also choose to say “the forecast for Saturday is showing 60°” and “the tree outside my window is finally in bloom” — without contractions. No one ever sits us down and teaches us that that’s the way English works, but somehow we all find ourselves converging on that particular pattern without any reflection at all. The fun and tricky part of my work now is to reflect on why we’re doing that, and where it came from.
What else have you been working on recently? What are you looking to work on next?
LM: One of the most fun parts of my job is that I have a captive audience of students who are ripe for collaborating with. I’ve been trying to use the large (100+ students) lecture classes that are the norm here at Manchester to my advantage, as a way of crowdsourcing data collection. Because our students come from all over the UK, I got them to help me carry out a study last year of regional dialect variation in the British isles: the UK equivalents of the famous “pop/soda/Coke” and “y’all/you guys” divides. My students passed out surveys of a “Do you say X or Y?” nature to their friends and families, and then one of my brilliant undergraduates compiled our findings into this awesome series of dialect maps, which got a great writeup in VICE Magazine’s Motherboard blog back in December (along with a lot of other attention in the UK media). We’ll be updating and improving these maps in the near future, and I just got some funding to start up an outreach program whereby undergraduate volunteers go into local high schools and use the maps to teach students about linguistic variation and dialect diversity.
Who or what inspires you?