12 June 2018

Straw [M|B]an

by Cecily

Straw Ban Man
If I didn't feel certain that the Founding Fathers are going to return any day now, sailing down the Potomac in all their glory to advance us all to the next level, I would be worried about climate change. I would still not support any bans on plastic straws, though, because they don't solve the problem and they actively hurt vulnerable people.

They Don't Solve the Problem
If there's any hope of saving the world (don't worry, there's not), it's going to involve a lot of sacrifices on a lot of levels from the wealthiest of us. (Us being humanity, not Americans, although that too.) Using fewer plastic straws should certainly be a component of that! Let's all not use straws if we don't need them. Let's also work on getting rid of all the all the HumVs and oil drilling and leaky pipelines and frivolous air travel and to-go boxes and extra packaging and microdermabrasion beads. Let's pass laws forcing restaurants to provide biodegradable straws even though they're more expensive. Hey! Let's ban restaurants from sending food home in STYROFOAM BOXES for christ's sake. And please let's ban coal rollers! Ban ordering shit from Amazon instead of going to the store on your way home! (Maybe Jeff Bezos could use some of his extra dollars to switch to biodegradable packaging in the Amazon boxes instead of space travel?) Starting with plastic straws is ridiculous, which is not problematic per se, but besides being ridiculous it actively hurts people who don't deserve it and shouldn't have to.

Bans Actively Hurt Vulnerable People
Many disabled people need straws to drink. Reusable or paper straws are a workable solution for some, but not all. Banning plastic straws would make these people's already disenfranchised lives even more full of barriers. Having prescriptions or special permits for straws puts the burden of accessibility on disabled people, who are already spending way too much energy fighting for rights and access, instead of on the venue. In this country we already force disabled people to live in poverty, remain unmarried, and endure stares, condescension, and criticism every time we are out in public. We already have to argue for hours to get interpreters or find out if a place is wheelchair-accessible or be let into a bar with our fucking guide dog. Strangers already harass us for parking in reserved spots and for buying a bottle of wine and for just being out of the house after 5:00. Let's not add to the difficulties we're already forcing disabled people to face. Let's think of a different way.

Straw Man Ban
Luckily in real life we don't have to worry about any of this because like I said, Abe Lincoln is gonna be swimming up that Potomac to save us all real soon now, and I'm sure that whereever he takes us there will be high-quality biodegradable bendy straws for everyone.

08 June 2018

Completely Multipurpose

by Cecily
The puppy got bigger. Never having seen more water than is in her bowl, she found the wading pool I put in the front yard terrifying and spent three days circling it, barking suspiciously. Then I made her go camping at the lake.

large brindle mastiff puppy on Cecily's lap. Very little of Cecily is visible. Lake and lake-goers in background.

After cowering in my lap for a while, she waded in and realized she loves water. Aw, what an adorable dummy. (She loves the wading pool, now, too.)


I have several interesting things to say but not the energy to type them up.  Instead, here is a picture of the most delightful storefront in all the land:

dilapidated single-building storefront labeled "Multi Item Store". Picture from across the street (sidewalk and street in foreground)

I drive past it pretty often but I've never been in. I can't decide if I want to or not- what if it's terrible? I'd rather cling to my illusions. On the other hand, I would really like to know which items specifically they sell in there. What a conundrum!

02 April 2018

Plus One

by Cecily
Here's what I did last week:

mastiff puppy on grass in sun, with bowl of water and pink toy


dark-haired boy, age 3, holds blue puppy kong up to small brindle mastiff puppy
dad holding puppy and mom holding baby at a dinner table
puppy asleep on a patterned rug

 I drove to California. It was summer there. I got a puppy.

Then we drove back home. Now it is naptime.

16 March 2018

Telescoping Reduction

by Cecily
This blog post will be of interest to an extremely limited audience.

A long time ago (ten years at least!) I noticed this phonetic fact about ASL: when fluent signers sign things that include a repeated gesture, the gesture often becomes smaller with each repetition. I made up a name for it: Telescoping Reduction.

Eventually I wrote a paper about this fascinating topic. I was in the middle of revising it for Language when my life went upside down. I still think it's interesting, though, and things have stabilized enough that I started thinking about linguistics again. "I should go back and finish that paper" was one of my thoughts, and then "I don't care about my CV any more!" was another. It is very freeing, not to care about my CV and not to have any reviewers or editors. (The downside is that editors make your work better and so this paper has infelicitous clauses all over the damn place.)

Anyway, for the 3-4 people who will find this a fascinating topic to discuss, here it is, in all its glory. (That's a 33-page pdf about phonetics and phonology. There are no cranky rants or amusing anecdotes. You have been warned.)

27 February 2018


by Cecily
Here's a thing that I hate: someone (usually a journalist or a reviewer or something) is describing someone else. It is a man, or a woman, and they have a job, and sometimes they have an age or a location or something. And then, they also "just happen" to have a disability.

This happens SO OFTEN, and it makes me scream/groan every time because how do you not see what a low-key insulting patronizing othering BULLSHIT way to refer to people this is?*

You know where just so happens belongs? In a fairy tale. Or a whimsical anecdote of some sort. Or the Bible.
Not everyone liked the king of Persia. In fact, two of his servants decided they would kill him. Now it just so happened that Mordecai, Esther’s cousin, heard these two servants discussing their evil plan. He told Esther, who told the king for him, and the murder was prevented. Grateful, the king just so happened to write what Mordecai had done for him in his record book. And then, it just so happened that, for the time being, the king forgot all about it.
And you know what it means? It means that the narrator is introducing an unexpected coincidence of some sort. For example, The prince just happens to be riding through the forest when he hears Rapunzel singing and falls in love. MacGyver just happens to have exactly the necessary tools and knowledge to escape whichever trap he's in. Russia just happened to hack the US election system the same year Donald Trump was running.

Do you know what is not an unexpected coincidence? When a person has an interesting job or has created some interesting product or has said or done something interesting, and also the person has a disability. Swap in another characteristic to see how ludicrous and shitty this sounds. "Cecily is a cranky, sporadic blogger who also happens to live in Montana!" "Angela Merkel is the Chancellor of Germany who just so happens to be a woman." "Barack Obama served as the 44th President of the United States and he also just happens to be black!"

It's weird, dudes. Cut it out. I know it's some well-intentioned but misguided attempt to act like "hey, I'm cool, disability is no big deal and I'm TOTALLY NOT FOCUSING ON IT it's just, like, a coincidence, man!"  But this phrasing actually has the opposite effect. You're drawing attention to it and labeling it as unexpected and unusual. Lots of people have disabilities. All of them do things and say things and generally exist as members of society. There is no surprising coincidence.

You don't need to dance around disability in your description- just say it (if it's relevent) like you say all the other descriptive facts you're including. No coy Biblical/fairy-tale highlighting needed.

*I know this also happens for other "unexpected" characteristics, where it is equally shitty and irritating. She's a successful business executive who JUST SO HAPPENS to also be a loving mother! What a plot twist!

I also know some people with disabilities use this phrasing when talking about themselves. Obviously everyone is allowed to describe themselves the way they want, and if you want more space between yourself and whatever characteristic you just so happen to have, so be it. My complaint is with the sappy journalism overuse, which I think displays discomfort and internalized ableism rather than informed and conscious distancing.

07 February 2018

Out in the wild

by Cecily
One time, teaching an upper-level college class, I assigned a paper: “Compare and contrast the American Deaf community with another minority group in the United States." Among other results, I obtained this sentence:
It is much easier to spot an African-American person than it is to spot a Deaf person.
That class was full of glittering gems. (Also some very nice insightful discussions and lots of lovely students.)

Anyway. Tricky though it may be, if you do spot a Deaf person, and you are in a restaurant when it happens, I have written up some advice about how to behave.

25 January 2018

Grice Gricey and the Conversational Maxims

by Cecily
Don't you think that would be a good band name? All the linguists and sociologists would flock to your shows. (My grad students always really hated this joke. I made it a lot and everyone groaned and rolled their eyes every time. I think it's hilarious, though, so I win.)

Paul Grice was a guy who studied language, last century, and one of the things he came up with was a self-help book for lonely, shy, and bored people called Grice's Conversational Maxims.

That was false. He did not write a self-help book of any sort. But he did come up with theory of what the unspoken rules are for "How to Have a Successful Conversation with Another Human." Under this theory, when people are having a conversation, there is a set of rules that everyone uses. As long as we're all using the same conventions, we will successfully be able to communicate with each other!

[It turns out that much of linguistics just involves writing out, explicitly, things that everybody knows.]

Here's what to keep in mind, when you decide you want to contribute to a conversation:

1. Maxim of Quality: 
Try to make your contribution one that is true.
  • Do not say what you believe to be false.
  • Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

2. Maxim of Quantity:
Make your contribution as informative as is required
  • (for the purposes of the exchange).
  • Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

3. Maxim of Relation:
Be relevent.

4. Maxim of Manner:
Be perspicuous.
  1. Be brief
  2. Be orderly
  3. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  4. Avoid ambiguity.
And if you follow these easy instructions, you too can participate in the New Fad of Conversation! Some assembly required.

Really now we say that most people follow the Cooperative Principle, instantiated in various ways in different places and circumstances. People who routinely flout any rules generally get a negative reaction from their surrounding humans.  The Cooperative Principle says that any time you have a conversation, you are cooperating with someone else in a joint effort at communicating. Violations of the norms communicate something, too- hostility, or a funny joke, or a very different mindset, or a hallucinogen.

[I dearly love the phrase "Grice's Conversational Maxims" and I will never call them anything else.]

We were talking about Grice's Conversational Maxims the other day at a barbecue (as were the all the rest of you, I'm sure) and it suddenly struck me that all the problems in the government can be explained by the fact that President Trump doesn't obey the Maxims consistently. He's playing with different rules, and he knows what the rules of the game are and his interlocutors don't.  Many misunderstandings and frustrations ensue. (Also there may be some other reasons too.)

I would not have guessed it, but this turned out to be a surprisingly successful tactic. Trump gets to assume good will and cooperation from other people, but he arbitrarily switches between Cooperative and Uncooperative, and very little communication happens, however long the conversation goes on. It's like playing bridge without deciding which bidding conventions to use first (surely a universally understood analogy). The resulting "conversations" are sufficiently confusing (and unexpected and unprecedented) that no one knows what to do or how to handle it. No one ever expects the Spanish Inquisition! In the short run, he is winning, in the LARP game he thinks we're playing. As long as he is winning, he doesn't really care what you think the rules are.

If he were in a different game, though, where winning required obeying Grice's Conversational maxims, he'd be really bad at it and lose immediately. So all we have to do is get the Senate to create a place where Trump has to go, and where violating Grice has severe negative effects. It's a trap! Who's with me?

I'm gonna make t-shirts and signs that say "Always Obey Grice's Maxims!" and proselytize in DC, around Capitol Hill. Advocate strict enforcement. Convince some powerful politicians to take this seriously. Every meeting from now on, everybody has to sign an agreement to play using Grice Rules. Get the Senate to adopt the maxims officially in their Rules book. Then hold some meeting that the President will need to attend and speak. He'll violate a maxim in his first three utterances- immediately out of the game. (For the purpose of this plan, I am assuming that the Senate Code of Conduct and their Rules book override every other jurisdiction/authority, and that amendments to both involve short, straightforward processes. If this turns out not to be the case, some revision may be necessary.)

Flagrantly violating Grice Gricey is not an effective long-term strategy, anyway. We hope. People get really mad when you violate even one Maxim, and Trump ignores them all half the time, so everyone's getting more and more angry. Eventually nobody will play with the kid who's always trying to change the rules. His turn will be over someday. Unless he throws the board or changes the rules.

N.B. He does seem like the kind of guy who might throw the board or change the rules.

13 December 2017


by Cecily
There is a thing that happens often in discussions about issues where a minority group wants to do something differently, and the majority group would prefer the status quo. The minority group says "let's do this change!" and [some portion of] the majority group responds with a version of "That's not fair! They don't get special treatment! If you reversed the roles this would never fly!"

As in:

We have Black History Month; where's White History Month? Nobody complains when men get objectified by women in a movie! Why aren't we allowed to have White Pride and Straight Pride, when they get Black Pride and Gay Pride?

Et cetera.


Everyone on my linguistics and gender-politics branches of Facebook have been talking about this kerfluffle for the past few days. (The kerfluffle being, a well-known linguist intentionally misgendered someone in a blog post about singular 'they', and then doubled down when people told him they were upset.) What I had to say about it originally was
"I have been following this desultorily, mainly with the reaction of "ugh more white men being jackasses," but this is a really nicely-written piece that both spells the problems out clearly and is applicable to many other parallel situations. The bike analogy is dumb though."
Then followed a facebook thread! This question arose (Hi Topper!):
"If I said I find the phrase "white male jackass" somewhat hurtful, would I be listened to and my opinion respected, or would I be told, for example, that the phrase is implicitly third person and there is no reason I should take it personally?"
I jumped to the conclusion that my commenter was setting up the "no fair!" situation from above, but it turns out that he was just exploring the boundaries around the naming etiquette being discussed. But it started me thinking about the "no fair!" response in general, and why it is so stupid.

Everyone* knows why it is so stupid. You can't reverse the situations because the groups' positions in society are not equal, so swapping individual cases doesn't solve the surrounding inequity. But here's the part I think many [majority-group-members] miss:

It is impossible to invent parallels that involve you, a straight white cisgender nondisabled man, because the world and the language are built around the assumption that you exist and are a member of society. There is no instance where you have to ask people to make accommodations for you, because everything is set up for you already. You like the status quo becaue the status quo was designed (or developed) with you specifically in mind as the end user.

We didn't have to add amendments to the constitution to give you the right to vote. You had the right to vote already. Who else would vote? We don't need a White History Month because all the history we teach everyone is white history. That's what 'history' is. You have always been allowed, and encouraged, to marry a person of the gender you are attracted to: it's the definition of marriage. You can get into all of the buildings, and understand all of the announcements, and read all of the signs, and use all the public amenities, because all of them were designed for someone like you to use. You have never had to ask anyone to change anything just so you could use it. You've never even had to think about it.

(I like this story/metaphor/parable on the same basic idea.)

(I was a little taken aback by my emotional reaction to this statement. Fighting assumptions and correcting misunderstandings and asking for help and requesting accommodations are all very emotionally draining. The thought of just being able to go out and use whatever public things I want without worrying about communication and planning ahead made me lightheaded. And then furious.)

Everyone else has had to fight and beg and argue to get you to let us change stuff so we can use it, too. Some of us are still fighting and begging and arguing. To change laws so we can vote, add laws so we can use the water fountain, overcome assumptions and stereotypes so we can get jobs, argue and protest and beg and fight so we can go to school and eat in the same restaurants and receive the same information and generally be included in the idea of what "society" consists of. 

Once upon a time, back in the 1900s, the standard pronoun used to refer to an unidentified human was "he". This was true even if the human might be a woman. The default human is male, so if we don't know, we'll go with that. Clearly. When (female) people started arguing about this, and suggesting a change, there was resistance. He or she is so wordy. We obviously can't use she for someone who might be a man.** They is ungrammatical. Let's just keep doing it how it is- it's so much easier! And it doesn't really hurt anyone. It's fine!

Change happens slowly, but it does seem to happen, and the default human is no longer automatically assumed to be male.*** An unspecified human is now he or she most of the time, with s/he as a runner-up and singular they gaining ground. The default human is either he or she, though- those are all the pronouns we have, to refer to individual people.

Except some people aren't. They don't fit in either gender bin and they don't want incorrect pronouns used to refer to them. Just like women didn't like being referred to as he, even in the abstract. (And just like most men would reject any suggestion of being called she.**) So, the people are asking, could we try to change the language so that it includes us? And they are getting more or less the same response from many people who are already default humans, mostly men- "the status quo works for me just fine, changing it would be way too much work, it's ungrammatical, let's just leave things as they are because it's much simpler that way."

And there is no way it is fundamentally impossible to create a parallel situation with the roles reversed. English, like nearly everything else in the world, developed in a society based firmly on the assumption that men are people. English already has pronouns for you. You are already the default. There's nothing for you to ask for, and no accommodations to be made. You can already use the language, and the world, as they are.

That seems like it would be nice! If we made some changes, everybody else could use them, too!

*Everyone I would talk to, anyway. Leave my bubble alone!

**This suggests to me that men actually do understand how uncomfortable it feels to be referred to by the wrong pronoun, whether or not they'll admit it.

***Grammatically, at least. For practical purposes, the default human is still usually white and straight and male, but that's getting better, I think. The default human definitely does not have any disabilities, and I'm not really sure if we're making any progress on that one or not.

10 November 2017

Mixed Feelings

by Cecily
I'm in Helena. Winter on this side of the Divide is a different place. It's very, very sunny and very, very cold. The mountains are beautiful, the sky is bright blue, the sunshine is reflected off dazzlingly white snow on every surface. When your eyes start watering from how sunny and cold it is, and your eyelashes get wet, they freeze. The inside of your nose freezes. The lock mechanism on your car door freezes. And it's hard to look at anything because it is so sunny. It's really pretty, and a little difficult to deal with.

I'm here for the state basketball tournament, for Special Olympics. Special Olympics Montana (SOMT) also has some positive aspects, and some negative ones. JUST LIKE THE WEATHER did you guys notice my smooth metaphor skills?

I love hanging out with the athletes. They are hilarious and exhausting and kind and loving and irritating and demanding and a lot of fun. Everyone asks for a lot of help, and everyone helps a lot. They all step in to help without being asked, all the time. Everyone tells each other that I didn't hear them, and what everybody else just said. If someone is unhappy, or scared, or confused, someone else notices, and helps solve the problem (or helps find someone who can).

The coaches are also lovely people. Generous and silly and kind and patient and helpful. It is a fun crowd. Most of my social life in Missoula this year has revolved around people I've met through Special Olympics.

It is really nice to hang out with so many people who are so kind and enthusiastic and happy to see me.

Last week I went to Great Falls twice. The first time was to testify in an ongoing hearing, against SOMT. (The second time was unrelated. Both times were cold.) I had spent the spring and summer doing what I thought was collaborative and supported work on improving accessibility within the organization, for athletes and volunteers who have disabilities that are not intellectual. I thought we were making progress. Then I asked them to set up an intepreter for the coaches' meeting at the basketball tournament.

It turns out that SOMT decided, at some point in the past few months, that they do not have to, do not want to, and will not, provide interpreters "for individual athletes or volunteers." This means that they have repeatedly asked me to attend meetings for which they refused to provide interpreters. (I didn't attend the meetings.) It also means that Special Olympics athletes who are deaf are expected to either provide their own interpreters or go without. (Mostly, they go without.) The family of a Deaf athlete has been fighting for his access for years, and finally resorted to a lawsuit. In a spectacularly poorly-thought-out strategy, SOMT's response to this was to shut down interpreter access wholesale.

The State Office (that is, the paid employees of the organization) seems to be under some kind of decree to give me the silent treatment, since around the time I told them I was testifying on behalf of the plaintiff. SOMT employees have unfriended me on Facebook, I've been cut dead in hallways, and my emails go unanswered. It is so petty and absurd that I stopped being angry a long time ago. I'm appalled and disappointed and embarrassed (for them), but I also think it's hilarious. The Silent Treatment! No one has given me the Silent Treatment for years! Is this supposed to make me rethink my position on a key area of civil rights that impacts me directly? Maybe run that one by your PR directors again, guys. You can't give the Silent Treatment to people who are volunteering for you, for free, and have it go well.

Sitting through the Opening Ceremonies last night was interesting. There was an interpreter, bus she was unqualified, incompetent, and not visible. Two giant screens showed magnified versions of speakers and audience members, but not of the interpreter. No videos were captioned. VIP speakers spent a lot of time talking about inclusion, and perseverance in the face of discrimination, and courage, and breaking down barriers. The deaf people in the audience watched the mascots and twiddled our thumbs and daydreamed about the blog posts we were going to write the next day. (And contemplated the arrogance and hypocrisy of an organization, ostensibly dedicated to inclusion and access for people with disabilities, in the midst of a lawsuit accusing them of refusing to provide said inclusion/access, peacocking around on stage pontificating about inclusion and access all while willfully disregarding the inclusion and access over which they are being sued.)

Here's a sentence I didn't expect to say, ever: I will not support an organization that discriminates on the basis of disability, and therefore, unfortunately, my tenure as a volunteer for Special Olympics is coming to an end.

07 October 2017


by Cecily
I learn most of my new vocabulary words (Hortatory. Scybalum. Logomachy.) and nearly all of my potential personal mottos from inter-war British murder mysteries.

Here's some good advice for dealing with nearly anyone, courtesy of Edmund Crispin:
"Give them a drink of beer and pack them off with specious, high-sounding promises."
You're welcome.

30 September 2017

Double Dactyl of the Day

by Cecily
Argentum bargentum
President Plutocrat
sits in his golf cart and
angrily tweets

odious nonsense; he's
sure this will bring his
opponents defeats.

10 September 2017


by Cecily
This fall is my 15th anniversary of being deaf, if you measure from when I stopped being able to hear well enough to use a telephone (even with maximum amounts of amplification).

It is kind of weird to think about how long it's been since I answered a phone or called someone. It is also kind of weird how, in the interim, everyone else has basically stopped (voluntarily) using phones, too, so now we all just text and email and facebook each other like the gods intended.

[ETA] In the olden days, when I was in high school and I was hearing, phones still had cords. I talked on the phone all the time and wrapped the cord around things and got in trouble for stretching it out. My parents thought it was excessive but I spent hours on the phone anyway. While I was thinking about this post, I tried to remember what I spent those hours talking about, and I have no idea.

I have started to forget whether things make noise or not. Only every once in a while. And forget that there are noises regularly in the background. I completely forgot about the whole birds and crickets and traffic background, until someone else couldn't hear me because the crickets were too loud. That feels pretty weird, too.

There are also other weird things about it, but they are private and I have emotions about them and am not going to discuss them on the internet.

04 September 2017

The Unrealized Inceptive

by Cecily
Here's a thing I wrote a few weeks ago, when I was riffing on toddlers and their mysterious, repetetive, data-gathering ways:
She spends hours, weeks, months, locking eyes with nearby adults and beginning to do things she has (hypothetically) been told not to do. Every time, the adult demonstrates some form of negative signalling until the Tiny Anthropologist sits back down, or stops shrieking, or backs away from the fire pit.
It's all true. This is what toddlers do. However, it also occurrs to me that this exact behavior has a posited name/verbal inflection in ASL. According to Liddell &/or Johnson, in various articles that I'm not going to look up right now, there is an aspectual inflection in ASL called the "unrealized inceptive" which is basically pretending you're about to do something but then stopping before actually doing it, because of suspense or other storytelling reasons.

In ASL, this works as a narrative device: "I was just about to begin writing on the paper when..."  "I was ready to get into bed when..."  "The swarm of creatures was just coming down the stairs when..." etc.

In toddlerdom, it works as a narrative device also, except that you are forcing other people to participate in your live-action reality television series. "I was just about to dump my cup of water out when..." and then they wait to see what happens next. The narrative is real life.

Next up in strained metaphors: Human toddlers are drunk screenwriters.

20 August 2017

My Weekend, by Cecily

by Cecily
What did you do over the weekend? I went to my dad and stepmom's house by Georgetown Lake. Remember this? In the olden days of Summer 2012, they had some land by Georgetown Lake. Now, in modern-day times, there is a house on the land. The back yard still looks the same, though. I took this picture:

Looking west, I think? From whatever hill or mountain the house is on.
You may notice a difference in clarity and how many far distant mountains you can see, comparing the 2012 pictures to the modern ones. (There is also a difference in how much snow is on the mountains, but the old pictures are from June and these are from August so don't read too much into it.) Anyway the state is on fire and even in places where the air is relatively clear, like Georgetown, it is still not as clear as it might be.

Meanwhile, in Missoula, somebody else took this picture from the main street downtown:* 

Looking south down Higgins*

There is a really big, scary fire on Lolo Peak. It was at 30,000 acres when I looked it up this morning. (Update 8/22: now it's 32,300.) (Update 9/4: 45,012 acres) (update 9/14: 52,745)

Missoula is basically surrounded by fires (but not on fire itself) so that whichever way the wind blows, it is still blowing smoke on me. Air in Missoula is intermittently unbreathable, which is the only way it is affecting me personally, but the fires are also jumping lines and burning up houses and killing people so I'm trying not to complain about how everything smells like camping.

This fire, and most of the other ones, will keep burning until it freezes. Is what everyone says. Mid-September, probably.

I've had Johnny Cash stuck in my head a lot lately. Here you go!

*I stole this picture off Facebook but I can't figure out where it came from originally. If you know, tell me and I'll add credit. (I didn't try very hard. I might try harder some other time.)
 PHOTO CREDIT: Ross M Perkins https://www.instagram.com/wanderlustnotless/

18 August 2017

Anthropology for Beginners

by Cecily
As we all know, one of my hobbies is making up really, really elaborate metaphors and pushing them as far as they will go. This week's episode is:

Human Toddlers are 60-s Era Anthropologists on an Unknown Planet

People, when they are born, show up in the world as tiny naked anthropologists stranded on an unknown planet with no tools and no instructions and no way to record anything so they have to memorize all the data.  It's a stressful situation! You are in an unfamilar environment and you don't know how anything works here. There are inhabitants, who seem friendly overall, but they are much more powerful than you and you don't seem to have any control over anything. An overwhelming prospect! But there is a strong innate instinct in humans to Figure Stuff Out, and after a couple of days of jet lag, you get to work.

(The first step is obviously to figure out how to work your body, but that doesn't really fit in my metaphor so I'm mostly ignoring it. That happens in parallel, but it is less like anthropology.)

Tiny Anthropologist is an expert gatherer of data, and an expert noticer of patterns. She collects an enormous amount of data. Some combinations of sound waves occur very frequently, and others barely ever. Certain people correllate with certain smells. When she screams, the most common result is that an adult comes over to check on her.  She collects data on everything, and on how often it occurs with everything else. She keeps extensive databases full of detailed information, and does sophisticated things to the data with statistics and probabilities. Pattern after pattern emerges. The patterns are kept in a separate database to analyze which ones are significant and which ones aren't.

The adults produce certain sounds and/or gestures far more often than chance would predict. They seem to be able to communicate with each other this way. Tiny Anthropologist needs to figure out how to mimic those sounds and gestures, in order to test her theories about what they might mean. She practices controlling her body; getting better and better at making sounds and gestures that are similar to the adults'. Eventually she is able to mimic them in a way that gets enthusiastic approval from observers. She keeps track of which things are crowd-pleasers, which attempts at communication are successful, and so on.  She refines her theories about contrastive elements and phonotactic constraints.

By toddlerhood, the Tiny Anthropologist has a reasonably reliable phonological inventory for the language, and a functional ability to make sounds and gestures that nearby adults and older children recognize. She develops a lexicon, frequently running quality check tests by repeatedly pronouncing a word and noting the results. The adult interlocutors' reactions begin to show signs of impatience. Once upon a time, they were thrilled with her whenever she correctly identified an object. Now they seem less impressed. "Yes, it's a dog," they say, but they display traces of negative affect while saying it. It's time to move on from lexical inventory to more complex aspects of communication.

The Tiny Anthropologist begins to study what it is that these beings do, exactly, with their time. She watches, and she attempts to participate. Sometimes an adult holds a broom and moves it around on the floor. Tiny Anthropologist requests to have a turn. Everyone sits on the couch. Tiny Anthropologist sits on the couch, too. An adult tells a long story, including a number of evocative gestures. The Tiny Anthropologist attempts to emulate the scenario. Eventually, patterns of behavior emerge, and the Tiny Anthropologist is thrilled when she begins to correctly predict strings of events. Equally, she is very disappointed when her predictions fail. She thought she had identified a pattern, and now all her work has to be thrown out! The Tiny Anthropologist is unable to contain her distress. Nearby adults are dismayed at her visible disappointment.

For the Tiny Anthropologist, there is also much to learn about how basic conversations work. How do you get someone to be in a conversation with you? Who goes first? How do you know whose turn it is? This is a daunting project. Tiny Anthropologist digs in. She starts by finding out about ways to get attention from other people. Screaming, which up til now has been a failsafe option, has lately been becoming less effective. Producing other sounds works sometimes, but not very reliably. Eye contact seems to get very good results. The Tiny Anthropologist notices that often, when an adult makes eye contact with her, the next thing that happens is that the adult says something, or moves something, or gives something to her. Many fancy statistical tests indicate that P is less than 0.05! The hypothesis is confirmed! The Tiny Anthropologist uses this information to initiate her own conversations: she makes eye contact with adults, and shows them things that she is holding. The adults say something to her! Tiny Anthropologist gets busy initiating conversations with whoever's eye gaze is around. She needs to practice.

Some of Tiny Anthropologist's best work is in the area of Quasilinguistic Discourse. She has come to believe that when the adults say "no" (and/or yell, and/or shake their heads, and/or furrow their eyebrows, and/or pronounce her name with a specific, ominous tone contour), this indicates that they would like her not to do whatever it is that she is doing, or is about to do. This is very useful information, but Tiny Anthropologist knows she needs to make absolutely certain that her understanding is correct. She spends hours, weeks, months, locking eyes with nearby adults and beginning to do things she has (hypothetically) been told not to do. Every time, the adult demonstrates some form of negative signalling until the Tiny Anthropologist sits back down, or stops shrieking, or backs away from the fire pit. She tests again and again, always making sure to lock eyes with an adult first. She starts to spit out her food. No! Food back in the mouth. Okay. She feints with a cup of milk. Scowl. Cup upright, the scowl relaxes. These tests, too, are successful. Achievement unlocked! (The adults seem to be less ecstatic than they should be at all this evidence that the Tiny Anthropologist now clearly understands what "no" means.)

One particular pattern jumps out. A pattern where an adult, while making eye contact with the Tiny Anthropologist, says a word from the known lexicon, while pointing to or holding some object related to the meaning of the word. The new H1 is that if someone, while holding or pointing at something, makes eye contact, the participants are expected to say words that are related to that thing. After many, countless, exhausting hours of strenuous testing (during which the adult subjects often become restless and impatient), the Tiny Anthropologist has enough data to support the hypothesis.

This is a huge breakthrough, because now the Tiny Anthropologist can find out what everything is called, and begin a number of concurrent studies related to sequences of words, and tones, and various co-occurring gestures. The Tiny Anthropologist is an extremely talented researcher, and her project now makes very quick progress. The Discourse notebook gets more and more notes and lists of different conversations. The Lexicon is expanding hourly. She figures out the pronoun system. She observes that (in English), questions are formed by wh-movement and prosody. The Tiny Anthropologist is more and more successful at participating in social events and traditions, and able to understand and comply with cultural and behavioral expectations. Everyone spends less and less time screaming.

The research program is enormous, but efficient, constantly generating statistically significant results. The Tiny Anthropologist moves from one subfield to another, refining and correcting and adding new information, until at last all of the necessary conversational norms have been strenuously tested. The work is complete. The Tiny Anthropologist has learned enough to participate in conversations, rather than study them. She is accepted as a member of the group, and can communicate successfully with most interlocutors. She understands the language and the social norms (mostly) of these strange, huge, people. No further research is needed. The Tiny Anthropologist is ready to move on to a new project. She begins to study her older siblings. It is time to learn how to bicker, squabble, tease, and tattle.