Saturday, November 21, 2009

Copula contraction

I ran across an interesting instance of contraction on the Moviefone web site a while back, in the headline of a feature about some group of 80's stars or another: "Where They're Now". I found this interesting because you can't do this in English. Generally speaking, you can contract a copula onto the subject in English in an existential construction ("He is a good guitarist", "She is at the hospital") or when be is acting as an auxiliary verb ("They are going to the store"). This is reflected by a google search of "where they're now", which turns up millions of examples of constructions like "where they're now inside the city", but none of the Moviefone type.

This seems to be a function of wh-movement in this case. Note that the corresponding declarative "they are __ now" is perfectly happy to contract to "they're __ now". So why can't we do it after wh-movement? After all, we can say "they're happy" and "where they're happy". In all likelihood, this isn't a syntactic issue, but a phonological one, since contraction doesn't affect the syntactic status of the verb, only the phonological status. In a phrase like "He is a good guitarist", "is" is unstressed. Out of the blue, I have primary stress on "guiTARist", and secondary stress probably on "good". In "where they are now", on the other hand, "are" received some kind of secondary stress. I place primary stress on "now", but "where" and "are" both received secondary stress. It's for this reason that we (nominally) can't contract the copula onto the subject, because we can't get rid of secondary stress in that fashion. When there isn't stress on the copula, it can contract (or delete in ICE). I'm not sure if the Moviefone headline was written by a non-native speaker or just an overly efficient copy editor, but it's not well-formed in English, at least in my dialect.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review of "The Life and Death of Texas German" by Hans C. Boas

When I was asked to review this book on my blog, I was unsure what I would find. Far from an expert on Texas German, I had in fact never heard of Texas German before received it in the mail this summer. However, as I've been slowly reading through it for the past few months, I've come to learn a great deal about Texas German and the rise and fall of this dialect. Overall, Boas' book is well-organized and extensively researched. His writing conveys a profound familiarity not only with the literature on Texas German, citing probably every major study undertaken of the dialecct, but also a keen interest in the process of language death, and the possibilities of language maintenance and revitalization. The only criticism I can offer is the rather clinical attitude he attempts to adopt in light of the death of Texas German, an attitude he clearly does not espouse, as evidenced by occasional glimpses of the author's true passion for the language and its continued survival. I found "The Life and Death of Texas German" to be an interesting work on three levels: (i) the analysis of Texas German as a language/dialect in its own right, (ii) the similarities of Texas German to many indigenous languages of North America in its current decline, and (iii) the origins and persistence of distinct American dialects of German, which is my own heritage language through my mother's bloodline.

The book is perhaps most obviously a useful resource for any researcher working on Texas German, or more generally on American dialects of German. More useful still is the Texas German Dialect Project, of which this publication is a product. The TGDP is a project undertaken by Boas with the help of a few research assistants to document Texas German before it becomes extinct. It has as one of its more important products the Texas German Dialect Archive. For his research, Boas developed several questionnaires ranging from translation tasks of words and sentences from English to questions about the informant's attitudes toward Texas German. (I should note here that Boas' use of the word "informant" is dated from my own Americanist perspective; generally we prefer to use the term "consultant".) Boas first gives sociohistorical context for the formation of the Texas German dialect, giving an overview of German immigration to Texas and the settlement patterns of the German settlers in central Texas, specifically around New Braunsfels, where Boas did his fieldwork for the TGDP. He then comments on new-dialect formation in Texas German, especially as regards Trudgill's (2004) model of new-dialect formation. Latter chapters give examples of specific developments in Texas German phonology and morphosyntax. Throughout, Boas argues that Texas German never underwent the final "focusing" stage of Trudgill's model, in which a dialect settles on a consistent pattern of phenomena (which is distinct from early stages which display significant interspeaker variability). In his final chapter, Boas comments on the impending death of Texas German and the possibility of language maintenance.

The parallels between the moribund Texas German dialect and the many languages of North America undergoing language death are striking. While the impact of the death of a dialect of a major language like German may not be as severe as the death of a unique language such as, e.g., Cayuse, the processes that languages undergo as they fall into disuse are fairly universal, as discussed in Fishman (1991). However, Boas does note that Texas German seems to retain its morphosyntactic features to a greater degree than is usual among dying languages. The reasons behind the decline of Texas German are all too common: status as a minority language, discrimination, lack of official legal status, disuse due to perceived economic and social advantages of the majority language. In the case of Texas German, the language enjoyed considerable prestige in its early days, when significant parts of Texas were entirely German speaking. This situation declined as roads better connected different areas of the country, causing an influx of English-only speakers into the New Braunfels area and an exodus of native Texas German speakers to bigger cities in order to find jobs. World War II played a large role in the branding of German as an "un-American" language, not only in the passing of English-only laws for schools and even some public spaces, but a decline in even private use by native speakers, who considered themselves Americans and did not want to engage in activities that were perceived as unpatriotic.

On a personal note, this book held my interest as a non-speaker of German, in that it is my heritage language yet I have inherited only three phrases from my German-speaking ancestors: was machst du, 'what are you doing?', nicht so laut, 'not so loud!', and gesundheit, 'bless you!' Both my maternal grandfather and my maternal grandmother were of German stock, the latter more recently than the former. However, none of my German-speaking ancestors passed their native tongue on to their children. Even my grandfather's great-grandfather Valentine Denzer, who was born in Germany, spoke English for most of his life, even keeping his personal diary in English during the Civil War. I think I too inherited this tendency: before I became a linguist, I was of the mind that if I had children in a foreign country, I would see no reason to teach them English, and that while I would continue speaking English to my family back home, I would use the local language during the rest of my life. Clearly this tendency stems from the desire for your children to have a better life than you had, and the belief that any deviation from the norm results in social difficulty and financial loss. It doesn't help any that this belief is at least somewhat accurate; while speaking another language is never a handicap, identifying first and foremost with a language or culture other than English can be a stumbling block in the United States. This same attitude has contributed not only to the decline of Texas German, but almost every indigenous language. In the case of indigenous languages, mandatory boarding schools, where children were beaten for speaking their native languages, certainly had an enormous impact as well, but in modern times, it is primarily the belief that identifying as English-speakers will help their children which keeps native speakers from passing on the language they grew up speaking.

"The Life and Death of Texas German" is a valuable resource for researchers in many areas of linguistics and anthropology. The Texas German Dialect Archive is likewise an incredibly valuable resource, especially since it may soon represent the last data available on Texas German. Boas offers a wealth of data on Texas German, not only on phonological and morphosyntactic phenomena that distinguish Texas German from Standard German, but also on speaker attitudes toward Texas German, including how often speakers used Texas German historically and in modern times. In many ways Texas German parallels the plight of indigenous languages of Americas, coming from a proud tradition of vigorous use, and falling into decline as English gained ground as the majority language associated with social status and economic advantage. Given the large percentage of readers who come from a Germanic background, Boas' book will no doubt also be of interest on a more personal level, with German as a heritage language which has been lost in many families. Boas' book is eminently readable and clearly written, presenting a valuable introduction to Texas German for the non-expert, as well as giving useful commentary on language death in general.