Interview with Betty Birner

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Betty Birner
Betty Birner

Meet Betty Birner, professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at Northern Illinois University. She has also co-authored many academic publications including Introduction to Pragmatics. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell (2013).

Please introduce yourself and provide some background information.

I’m Dr. Betty Birner, Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at Northern Illinois University. I received my Ph.D. in Linguistics from Northwestern University in 1992. I specialize in pragmatics, which is the study of language use in context. More specifically, my research focuses on word order variation within a sentence (such as the difference between A cat was on the table and On the table was a cat and how speakers exploit this variability to “package” information in a way that will facilitate the hearer’s processing of it. My most recent book is Introduction to Pragmatics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).

What is so interesting about language/grammar to you?

To me, the most interesting thing about language is its amazing complexity, and the fact that we’re able to master a system so complex that we can’t even fully describe it. The definite article in English is a great example: Nobody in linguistics has yet been able to adequately explain the rules for when we use the, which is why it’s one of the hardest things for a non-native speaker to master; yet native speakers use it effortlessly. Why do we take the elevator if there are six elevators to choose from? Why do we take the train or the bus to Cleveland, but take a cab or a plane there (never the cab or the plane)? Why do we ask someone to open the window when there are three windows in a room? Searching for answers to questions like these is fun for me; it’s puzzle-solving.

What do you think is your unique contribution to the English language?

I doubt I’ve contributed anything to the English language itself, but probably my two biggest contributions to the study of linguistics would be my dissertation on inversion in English (which is the construction seen in On the table was a cat, in which the usual order of the the subject a cat and the prepositional phrase on the table is reversed) and the theory of information structure presented in my 1998 book with Gregory Ward, Information Status and Noncanonical Word Order in English (John Benjamins). Both of these studies show how English speakers manipulate word order to place relatively familiar information toward the beginning of the sentence and relatively unfamiliar information toward the end, to help the hearer process the discourse.

What inspired you to write “Introduction to Pragmatics”?

That’s easy: The publisher invited me to write it. Honestly, I’d been researching and teaching in Pragmatics for so long that when the opportunity was offered, I jumped at the chance. The great thing about writing a textbook is that what your students read will be presented in exactly the way you think it should be (since you wrote it). The downside is that it’s hard to come up with material for class lectures, since all your best material is in the book, so they’ve already read it!

Do you ever tire of teaching linguistics and language related topics? Do you feel that linguistics is a dynamic, ever-changing subject or one that has an abundance of information but is stagnant?

Oh, it’s definitely dynamic and exciting! Language itself is ever-changing, so linguists will never run out of subject matter. Just look at the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2013: Because. This was chosen due to its new use in phrases like Because science! or Because reasons. This is a usage you never would have seen a few years ago, but now it’s everywhere. And as noted above, our linguistic knowledge is so incredibly complex that we won’t run out of fascinating puzzles to solve for a very long time – forever, really, since language continues to change and offer new puzzles. Linguistics is a lot of fun to teach, because the students have been using language all their lives, usually without ever really thinking about it, so they really have a wonderful experience when I ask them why they say I broke my arm (using my) but I tore a ligament (using a), and then explain a rule to them that they’ve been following all their lives without ever realizing it consciously. I give them a pair of sentences like When did the President say he would balance the budget? and When did the President say how he would balance the budget? and point out that the first one is ambiguous (between “when did he say it” and “when is he going to do it”) and the second one isn’t, and they all agree, and then I ask them how they know this. Where did the ambiguity go in the second sentence? And they can’t tell me. The wonderful thing about teaching linguistics is that I’m teaching them what they already know but don’t know that they know. When they see the intricacy of this system that they’re using effortlessly, and they realize that they’re completely unable to explain the implicit knowledge that tells them how to do it, the light bulb goes on and I can watch them fall in love with linguistics. It’s great!

Why should anyone be more interested in linguistics/grammar?

Because it’s fascinating, and it’s fun. It’s also important to study non-standard dialects, because one thing that laypersons don’t always realize is that every dialect of every language is equally rule-governed and systematic. So there are no bad, improper, or ungrammatical dialects. One of the most satisfying things I do as an educator is to show my students the grammatical rules underlying stigmatized dialects and help them to shed some of their linguistic prejudices. I explain that there’s a standard dialect of English, and there are all sorts of reasons to master the standard dialect, but that it’s no more logical, no better in any inherent sense, than any of the many non-standard dialects. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a double negative besides the historical accident of its not being part of the standard dialect at the moment. You wouldn’t want to use double negatives in a job application, but you also shouldn’t look down on someone using them in a casual conversation with a friend.

If you could change the way people speak or write what would you suggest?

I’d obviously like my students to be able to adhere more closely to Standard English in their academic writing, simply for their own benefit. But linguistics is descriptive, not prescriptive, so in general I enjoy the great variety of ways people speak and write. Okay, there is one thing: I tell my students to go ahead and split their infinitives as often as possible. The split-infinitive rule is just silly and needs to go.

What are the three most critical errors made most often?

Well, I know this isn’t what you mean, but I honestly think the most critical error is when those of us who have mastered the standard dialect look down on those who haven’t. I love standard usage as much as anyone, and it makes me smile inside when a student uses a semicolon correctly or uses the word ensure in the prescriptively appropriate way. But all of this pales in comparison with the harm done by the belief that knowing the difference between ensure and assure (not mention insure) somehow makes me a superior person.

Anything else?

Just the one thing I’m forever telling my students: Linguistics is fun!