[Lingtyp] Conscious choice of linguistic examples

Sebastian Nordhoff sebastian.nordhoff at glottotopia.de
Tue Mar 22 09:36:04 UTC 2022

On 3/22/22 09:18, Maia Ponsonnet wrote:
> Hello,
> But this precisely assumes that "John" and "Mary" are unmarked first names.

Yes, that's the assumption, and that assumption is empirically 
warranted. If you have read the last 50 years of linguistic literature, 
your assumption, all else being equal, will be that in a new example 
with one referent, that referent will be "John", and if there are two, 
they will be "John" and "Mary".
If you have read the last 50 years of cryptographic literature, it will 
be Alice, Bob, and Eve.

To be clear, I am not advocating that this is a particularly desirable 
state of affairs. I just want to point out that "minimise 
astonishment/variation" is a principle which can guide didactic choices 
and has done so in the past. There are of course other, competing, 
principles, which one could rank higher.

> Which I do not believe to be accurate anymore in the context of a 
> student population in Australia for instance (speaking of what I know).
> Presuming unmarkedness implicitly postulates a certain category of 
> population as a norm (including color, age, probably social class...).

> And it seems even more problematic to consider that "John hits Mary" is 
> unmarked 😉.
> In my opinion, it is worth risking to distract readers/students ever so 
> slightly to avoid perpetuating stereotypes.
> Plus distraction can be a good thing!
> I have found that when presenting tedious grammatical phenomena about a 
> minority language, semantically rich examples can be used as our 
> "window" onto speakers' personalities, lives, cultures, inclinations 
> etc. It is also a way to make speakers visible as individuals, and show 
> respect, as pointed out by Felicity.
> In teaching contexts, such rich examples often trigger background 
> questions that allow to give flesh to somewhat disincarnated theories. 
> This sort of distraction is a good pedagogical tool to maintain interest 
> and attention. As a reader, I find this applies to the scientific 
> literature as well.

I personally find "John gives Mary the book" sentences incredibly dull, 
but I could see why for certain types of highly formalised intricate 
syntactic argumentation you really want to minimise variation.

If I were to write intricate syntactic papers, I would probably go for 
Agatha for Agents and  Pat for Patients. Maybe throw in some other names 
with A... and P... (and T... and R... for other roles). To offset the 
historical imbalance, I would personally not use John or any male names 
for this kind of paper. John has done a lot of work in the last 50 
years, he can rest a little bit and leave the floor to others.

Best wishes

> Cheers and kind regards, Maïa
> Dr Maïa Ponsonnet
> Adjunct Researcher, Discipline of Linguistics
> Building M257
> The University of Western Australia
> 35 Stirling Hwy, Perth, WA (6009), Australia
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
> *From:* Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org> on behalf of 
> Sebastian Nordhoff <sebastian.nordhoff at glottotopia.de>
> *Sent:* Tuesday, 22 March 2022 8:17 AM
> *To:* lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>
> *Subject:* [Lingtyp] Conscious choice of linguistic examples
> Dear all,
> consider the following illustrations of an adversative construction
> (1) My hat is red but my shirt is blue.
> (2) My hat is ochre but my shirt is teal.
> If your point is simply to illustrate the use of "but" in English, (1)
> is preferable to (2). Readers are not distracted by the use of uncommon
> colour terms, which have no impact whatsoever on the construction under
> discussion.
> When discussing grammatical phenomena, a common device to avoid
> distraction is to not vary participants in the article/book. This is why
> you get "John" and "Mary" all over the place. Upon seeing a sentence
> with "John" and "Mary", readers know immediately that the linguistic
> phenomenon to be discussed will focus on the words of the sentence which
> are not "John" and "Mary". This makes processing on the reader's side
> easier as compared to examples with a wide variety of names.
> This strategy is used in other disciplines as well. In cryptography, it
> is always Alice who wants to send a message to Bob, and Eve tries to
> intercept it. It would confuse readers if all of a sudden a different
> set of characters emerged and people would have to backtrack whether
> Marie-Pierre was the sender or the receiver.
> There is thus some didactic value in having
> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metasyntactic_variables 
> <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metasyntactic_variables>
> The same didactic value holds for non-names, eg verbs or adjectives.
> "See" is the prototypical perception verb. One could use "smell", but
> readers should be faster in getting the stimulus-experiencer frame for
> "see". If your point is to talk about experiencers, start the discussion
> with "see" or "hear", not with "smell".
> To come back to transitive verbs, "hit" and "kill" are pretty much the
> "John and Mary" of the verbal domain. Readers will know that these verbs
> stand in for "affected patient" and "animate patient" and can
> extrapolate from there. You could of course use "tickle", but it will
> take longer for readers to process that the point you are making is
> "affected patient" and "animate patient".
> This is the didactic motivation.
> On the other hand, there are motivations of naturalness. Not all
> linguists think that the study of made-up examples of the type "John
> gives Mary the book" is a worthwhile exercise.
> Then, you get motivations of diversity and representation, which
> conflict with a fixed set of characters with traditional Western names
> and their roles. The characters' roles are furthermore stereotyped (that
> is the idea for Alice, Bob, and Eve to begin with), but of course
> breaking (or not perpetuating) stereotypes is also a motivation writers
> can have.
> So you get the competing motivations of didactics, naturalness, and
> diversity.
> Depending on the type of paper you write, one or the other of these
> motivations will prevail. But it is clear that this is a choice of the
> author whether "John hits Mary" or "Fatima tickled Li" are more suitable
> in the argument to be made. In line what has been said in this thread
> before, authors should realise that the choice of participants and verbs
> is in their power. This is not so much about policing (come on, no one
> will fine you!), but about realising which motivations can have an
> impact on your examples.
> Best wishes
> Sebastian
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