Monday, January 14, 2013

Greenbaum's "Acceptability in Language"

If you have read this blog and attempted to make sense of the entries, which are obscure notes to myself that happen to be posted in public, you may have noticed that I appear to be on a one-man crusade to renew interest in the concept of "acceptability"in applied linguistics. Why? Because it's versatile, it spans a variety of areas in language study, it's sociocultural, it's about grammar, and everybody has something to say about it. Really: just ask the nearest person to you how to use 'who' and 'whom,' or what kind of word it's OK or not OK to end a sentence with. (Ha.)

In my own reading about acceptability, I've been working my way backwards from a 2003 article by Christina Higgins, usually ending up back someplace in the 1960s or 70s, with Chomsky setting up the need to study 'competence' and linguists coming up with Grammaticality Judgment Tasks, and the realization that there is a distinction between grammaticality and acceptability. Most of what I've been working on is meant to get people involved in the study of English worldwide to take an interest in the relevance of acceptability judgments to our work.

But there's one major publication on acceptability I've never really looked into, and that is Sidney Greenbaum's Acceptability in Language, an edited collection published in 1977. Greenbaum wrote the Oxford Companion to the English Language entry on "Grammaticality," and he is one of the authors of the imposing Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. (He died in 1996.)

Anyway, I'm going to read part of the book this week, and take notes on it here, starting with the

Introduction by Sidney Greenbaum

Greenbaum summarizes and comments on the 13 studies presented in the collection. His second paragraph explains the importance of acceptability to social descriptions of language: "the macro-level concerns attitudes toward the acceptability of a language or a of a variety within a language, whereas the micro-level concerns the acceptability of specific linguistic features" (p. 1). (The methods I use in my own research are meant to bridge the gap between these two, by the way.) He mentions that some studies will "consider the contrast that many linguists make between grammaticality and acceptability " and mentions that the "underlying system in the language" and "the acceptability judgments of individual speakers" are different. (Indeed, I think the latter are worth focusing on for that reason.)

Greenbaum comments on the "crucial significance  of acceptability judgments for linguistic theory and practice, and the reliance of researchers on "the intuitions of native speaker" -- he doesn't particularly criticize this (and I think it doesn't need criticizing, just expansion to a variety of speakers, NS and NNS alike), but does criticize linguists for using "their own intuitions" rather than those of non-linguists. (I wasn't aware this was a big problem, though some of the studies I read from the 1980s do specifically use specialists. In fact, I think the use of specialists is totally fine, but I agree that you probably shouldn't be relying on your own intuitions. I haven't come across any of those studies, however.)

However, a number of the papers in the collection criticize the elicitation of judgments as a method for sociolingusitics (I think Im going to need to read this Labov 1972 paper), arguing that "speech samples" should be the primary data. (Maybe so, for 'pure' sociolx, but again, AJTs are valuable for other reasons ) Greenbaum says that "acceptability intuitions and language behavior do not necessarily coincide and....informant reactions do not always reflect actual usage (p. 5)." "The producible is not always identical with the acceptable."There's a tension within sociolinguistics regarding speech vs intuition -- the question is sociolx is (I think) "how do we account for variation" (both macro and micro) , and I think you probably need both actual usage and attitudes to account for that, at any level.

Grammaticality vs acceptability:
 Grammaticality: is this feature 'in or out?'
Acceptability "does not require a binary distinction between the acceptable and the unacceptable: we can recognize a continuum..." (p. 6)

To read:

From this book:
Acceptability in Context (ch 4) -  van Dijk
Sociolinguistic Reflections on Acceptability (ch 5) Eagleson
Acceptability in a Revived Language (ch 10) Rabin
On the Secondary Nature of Syntactic Intuition (ch 11) Snow and Meijer
Variation, Acceptability, and the Advanced Foreign Learner (ch 13) Tottie

and also
Labov 1972  - Sociolinguistic Patterns (uh oh, it's a book - just find the relevant stuff)

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