Interview with American Speech Editor Tom Purnell

We recently had the chance to chat with Tom Purnell, recently-appointed editor of American Speech: A Quarterly of Linguistic Usage, a publication of the American Dialect Society. He discusses his new position, trends in the field of linguistics, the American Dialect Society Word of the Year, and even emojis. Additionally, we are happy to share the news that all volumes of the Publication of the American Dialect Society are freely available online. Browse volumes 1-99, dating from 1944 to the present.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your new role.

Professionally, I’m trained as a phonologist, so I study sounds—primarily tones—and how they interact with metrical systems. I got into sociophonetics when, in the last year of my graduate study, I got a part-time post being the phonetics lab manager, for lack of a better word, at Swarthmore College. John Baugh handed me his famous recordings on “hello” spoken in three different accents, and he asked me to look at them, and that led to an experiment down at the University of Delaware—where I was a student—and then led to a paper we published together with Bill Idsardi, which has gotten a lot of traction publicly and in different professions, like the legal fields.

That got me into sociophonetics and thinking about how language works in society and how people react to speech, a lot of times through belief systems and their own biases—but also how quickly the brain works in terms of processing, and what types of things the brain does with speech. So that led to a lot of different areas of sociophonetics. Then, at the University of Wisconsin, I joined a few years ago with Joe Salmons in the German department, and then later Eric Raimy in the English department, and we started looking at Wisconsin Englishes—primarily how German and other languages influenced the language, specifically the varieties of English spoken in the Upper Midwest. That’s continued from 2004 until now. So that got me very interested in the social aspects of language—particularly in the locality of language, how language change occurs, how it occurs in a local setting—and that’s been at the center of both those areas of research.

How did you become the editor of American Speech?

ddasp_90_4I almost didn’t become the editor! I saw the announcement for it, and I knew that [former editor] Michael Adams was stepping down, and the announcement was sitting on my desk for a number of weeks. Right before the deadline, a student came in and asked me, “So, are you going to apply?” Then I started thinking a little more about it, and I wrote a member of the committee who was at Wisconsin, and she encouraged me to apply.

I was transitioning off of the University of Wisconsin Press faculty committee, and I felt like I had spent some time learning about how presses work—primarily on the books side of things—and that this would be an interesting way to broaden this interest. I applied for it because I thought learning about journals, learning about the editing aspect of it, would be productive for my own research. But also, there are many ways of shaping the field through the journal—not only reacting to what people are doing, but also encouraging types of research. I felt like that was some of the motivation.

It could also have come from the motivation that when you read an article and you get six sentences from the end, and the author makes spurious claims—I was really tired of seeing those! This has to stop! So this is my way of contributing to that. Also, I had written a few articles in American Speech and participated in two of the audio features right before the announcement came.

Is the field of linguistics changing right now? How?

We’re at a point in the field where a lot of the vanguard, so to speak, the leaders from the middle of the twentieth century are retiring from the field. You have sociolinguists who are retiring or about to retire; you have the Dictionary of American Regional English moving through this huge transition into the Internet age, and then you have to ask what’s next, and how is this field going to move forward, both in terms of dialectology and sociolinguistics. I think there are things we can do in the journal, like using special issues to call attention to certain topics that are more relevant.

ddpads_99If you think of the Word of the Year, last year with “#blacklivesmatter,” it shows there are still issues with race and language, even though we’ve been working on African American English for years. There’s a sense in which we can set some special issues that address real-life problems and inform them. I think that’s going to be a promising place.

I think the other thing to do is something that [American Speech managing editor] Charles [Carson] has suggested: to try to group together old articles, articles from since Duke University Press has been involved with publishing American Speech but also even further back, and then thematically group them together, to remind readers about things that have been said in the past so that as research goes forward, they have this strong foundation.

So that deals with looking back, but doing it in a way that’s going to help address issues that are relevant today. At the same time, there are some cautions to this. There’s a big movement now for very rapid analysis, like big data analysis. And I think there are a lot of papers coming through the pipe that deal with trying to use things like Twitter. We have to be cautious that we’re not preventing people from sending those papers in, but we want to make sure that the research is done correctly.

I’d also like to try having cross-journal connections. There are a number of journals that deal with social issues. Maybe they have a slightly broader or narrower approach, but they would still be germane to people who are working on language. Sociolinguists have sort of shied away from making a lot of statements about society, but rather just making observations. I think we need to continue making these observations and say, well, what do we make of this? How can we further discussion on issues of, let’s say, the racial disparity in schools? How can we address issues with violence—not that we’re going to be police or anything, but how is the public discourse about public shootings; how do we talk about that type of violence; how do we talk about it in the political world? It’s an election year, so we think about that. What kinds of patterns are out there? What kinds of words are being developed? There have been some papers coming out that do this—that start with a basic question and go into deeper research.

What do you think are the current hot topics in the field of linguistics?

Sociophonetics has been hot, and I’m not sure that it’s going to stay the same way. I think there’s going to be a change in how people use technology. After initial work on sociophonetics by people like Erik Thomas, there was a movement to rapidly go through and analyze all kinds of things. I think we’re going to find some things out of that, but at the same time, rather than be the focus, it has to be one of many tools. I imagine you’ll see analyses come through that use everything from Twitter to doing an analysis of someone’s voice, and then try to put pieces together, rather than doing a very narrow analysis. The focus has been on the individual, the identity of the individual with respect to the speech community, or the speech community.

ddpads_98_coverAt the same time, we’ve taken certain things that have been axiomatic—like that when you speak in free conversation, you’re more free and you’ll speak more vernacular. It turns out, looking at some of the Dictionary of American Regional English recordings, that a number of the speakers were actually more vernacular when they read a story, and when they spoke in free conversation, they were more careful. A number of my students have found this when they do these analyses in class. I have them compare the style and the register, and it turns out that the more vernacular pieces are read passages rather than spoken, which seems to go against one of [William] Labov’s major generalizations.

But there are factors for that, and I think we need to start exploring some of the other factors. There are methodological issues, like these are older speakers, so they’re more nervous when they’re reading. So they’ll throw in “onest upon a time” at the beginning because they’re focused so much on the process of reading. You could argue, well, we’re only focusing on younger speakers now, and so on and so forth, but I think that misses some of the generalizations about how different people behave differently in the same setting. Even if you had younger adults who have a problem with reading, they may have been doing this same thing all along, but we’ve not been catching those things.

I think we will find more nuanced approaches to language rather than large categories of behavior. I’d like to see more articles come through that focus more on that—not narrowly on the individual, but looking more at the range of variation, even outliers. Sort of like a thread on a coat, where you pull a little bit of it and it starts unraveling, there’s a sense in which some of those little things we observe may turn out to be nothing, but may actually turn out to be a new avenue of research. I’d like to encourage those papers that look at things we don’t even expect to find.

What is your favorite part of the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year vote?
WOTY_Charles Carson_2

Photo courtesy of Charles Carson

The best part of the Word of the Year vote is the energy. There’s this very raw energy in the room. First of all, the room is jam-packed, and it seems like this has built up over the last several years. People from the [Linguistic Society of America], from all the other groups that are meeting at the conference, know that this is the only thing that’s happening at that time, and they just pack the room. You’ve got to go early to get a seat! Recently I’ve been late and I’ve had to stand in a corner, and you’re stuffed in there! But the energy itself, and people feeding off the energy, is just something. It’s really exciting.

You get votes, and you get people standing up to make statements. Some of them are funny, some are more serious, but they’re very impassioned pleas to vote for word X—or not vote for word X, as the case may be. What’s really interesting is—looking at it outside that vote—is that people pay attention. I think some of the dictionaries have already announced their word of the year, and we have no control over that. But for the Word of the Year for the American Dialect Society, anybody can have influence over the selections of words. If you’re at the conference, you can stand up to say ‘this is the word I want.’ They solicit words the day before, and actually people have already been talking about the words online, so there’s a slate that’s building. But you have the chance to go, and you have the chance even that day to throw in a word. It’s a participation sport. And it gets physical at times as well!

I think when everybody comes out, they may not agree, but it’s something you talk about and share with your students; people are immediately blogging, and their students read that. They talk with other people, and there’s a lot of discussion. I would imagine that there’s more discussion of the Word of the Year this way. When it comes out from this kind of vote, it’s a very populist approach to language.

Do you have a favorite Word of the Year in the past couple of years?

I’m not a lexicographer, so I’m always surprised when I go. I hear words and I’m like, ‘Oh, where did that come from?’ Some things I’ve heard, I’ve thought, ‘Who says that?’ So it’s interesting to hear people say ‘Oh, yeah, in our part of the country, my students say this.’ Maybe I’m just really out of touch, and it’s my one shot of getting in touch linguistically!

“#Blacklivesmatter,” last year’s Word of the Year, was a relevant word. I think there are words people vote on because they’re relevant. People will argue and say ‘Oh, that’s not a word, it’s a hashtag,’ but hashtags have this role as words now. My middle-school son walks around saying ‘hashtag X,’ you know. Or he’ll say things like ‘much happiness.’ He uses these expressions, and he does use a hashtag as a word. I have to catch myself from being the parent and saying ‘No, you cannot use that, that’s not a word.’ But as a linguist, I have to let that flow.

So I’ve been surprised by a lot of the winners in a way. Some of the winners you expect because you hear them, they’re so prevalent, but I really enjoy the surprises. Like how “sharknado” made it, but of course it made it in the “most unnecessary” category.

Have you seen Oxford’s Word of the Year, the “face with tears of joy” emoji?

face_with_tears_of_joyYes, I have! So with the hashtag, I can accept it as a word because it’s connected to words. Orthography is just random symbols that we’ve selected and said ‘Oh, that’s a sound,’ or not a sound, in the case of silent e’s and whatnot. But they’re just symbols, right? I think this pushes that concept of sign and symbol a little too much. But probably I’m more put off by it just because I never use it. I wasn’t the first one to think of that! But because I don’t use emojis, emojis are just not in my worldview. But I know there are people who use emojis.

It’s hard to speak an emoji, though.

Yeah. I think part of the problem is also that “hashtag” has a more straightforward interpretation. And emojis, like a drawing, are much less straightforward. It’s similar to onomatopoetic words, but even those are culturally bound; they’re not actually universal. I think it’s the same thing with emojis; you have this thing that someone had to provide an interpretation of, like what teardrops mean with a smile. If someone didn’t tell you what that meant, would you have picked that up anyway? So part of that is that we need some knowledge that this doesn’t mean “I’m happy that you’re sad” or something. Who knows; there could be several different interpretations. But we had to learn that interpretation.

The counter to that is that we have to learn all words anyway. We have to learn the meaning anyway for a word, so someone could argue, well, that’s what makes a word a word! I think that’s what makes a sign a sign, but I just have a harder time with that. Hashtag, to me, is okay. I can live with that.

Follow along with this year’s Word of the Year vote at the 2016 Linguistic Society of America conference. The vote will take place Friday, January 8th, from 5:30pm-6:30pm EST in the Shaw Room at the Marriott Marquis in Washington, D.C. The vote is open to the public, so if you’re in the area, consider attending to feel the energy that Tom describes! Otherwise, follow along on Twitter with the American Dialect Society and Duke University Press.

For the first time, all back volumes (#1-#99) of the Publication of the American Dialect Society, dating from 1944 to the present, are available online. They will be freely available throughout 2016. Browse the archive to discover the breadth of this resource. Learn more about American Speech at

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