It’s got to be deontic necessity

Gretchen McCulloch has been posting about epistemic modality on her All Things Linguistic blog recently. If you don’t know what epistemic modality is, very briefly, in many languages (including English), there are words that are ambiguous in a particular way: between saying something about our social and moral codes, and saying something about our knowledge of the world. Consider this expression of necessity:

  1. She should be there by now.

Under a deontic interpretation, this “should” is telling us that she has an obligation to be there by now, but under an epistemic interpretation it means that we expect her to be there by now. Other expressions of necessity like “must, have to, got to” have similar pairs of interpretations. Now consider this expression of possibility:

  1. She could have gone there yesterday.

Under a deontic interpretation the “could” means that she was allowed to go there yesterday, but the epistemic interpretation means we have some reason to imagine that she went there yesterday. There are other expressions of possibility like “may, can, might” that allow similar ambiguity.

There are also root modality interpretations: under root necessity, (1) means that the circumstances of the world have culminated in her being there by now, and under root possibility, (2) means simply that it was possible for her to go there yesterday.

A few years ago I noticed that the Jackson Browne song “Somebody’s Baby” had an interesting twist to it. According to Harmonov it was written in 1982 for the soundtrack to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as a theme for the character of Stacy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

I was listening to “Somebody’s Baby” again yesterday not long after reading Gretchen’s post, and I realized that the lyric twist plays on the ambiguity between epistemic and deontic modality. In the first verse we hear “got to be” and “must be”:

Well, just, a look at that girl with the lights comin’ up in her eyes.
She’s got to be somebody’s baby.
She must be somebody’s baby.

The clear intent is the epistemic one: the girl is so fine that the narrator can only conclude she has a relationship based on this evidence. The guys on the corner don’t harass her because they come to the same conclusion and don’t want any trouble from “somebody.” But the twist comes in the second verse:

I heard her talkin’ with her friend when she thought nobody else was around.
She said she’s got to be somebody’s baby; she must be somebody’s baby.

The epistemic reading of these modals is ruled out by the fact that it is the girl who is saying them. Presumably she knows whether she’s somebody’s baby or not, and does not need to declare this epistemic relation to her friend. This leads us to the root necessity reading: she has a need to be somebody’s baby, and the deontic reading: she has an obligation to be somebody’s baby.

It’s actually very sad that this girl believes her beauty and worth are not validated unless she is in a relationship highlighted by metaphors of possession and infantilization. Not to fear, our narrator will use this overheard intelligence to approach her when all the other guys are too intimidated, and she can be his baby. Let’s hope he’s a decent guy.

But anyway, the point is: modals. The first verse is epistemic necessity, but the second verse has got to be deontic necessity. It must be deontic necessity. It’s so fine.

Describing differences in pronunciation

Last month I wrote that instead of only two levels of phonetic transcription, “broad” and “narrow,” what people do in practice is to adjust their level of detail according to the point they want to make. In this it is like any other form of communication: too much detail can be a distraction.

But how do we decide how much detail to put in a given transcription, and how can we teach this to our students? In my experience there is always some kind of comparison. Maybe we’re comparing two speakers from different times or different regions, ethnicities, first languages, social classes, anatomies. Maybe we’re comparing two utterances by the same person in different phonetic, semantic, social or emotional contexts.

Sometimes there is no overt comparison, but at those times there is almost always an implicit comparison. If we are presenting a particular pronunciation it is because we assume our readers will find it interesting, because it is pathological or nonstandard. This implies that there is a normal or standard pronunciation that we have in our heads to contrast it to.

The existence of this comparison tells us the right level of detail to include in our transcriptions: enough to show the contrasts that we are describing, maybe a little more, but not so much to distract from this contrast. And we want to focus on that contrast, so we will include details about tone, place of articulation or laryngeal timing, and leave out details about nasality, vowel tongue height or segment length.

This has implications for the way we teach transcription. For our students to learn the proper level of detail to include, they need practice comparing two pronunciations, transcribing both, and checking whether their transcriptions highlight the differences that they feel are most relevant to the current discussion.

I can illustrate this with a cautionary tale from my teaching just this past semester. I had found this approach of identifying differences to be useful, but students found the initial assignments overwhelming. Even as I was jotting down an early draft of this blog post, I just told my students to transcribe a single speech sample. I put off comparison assignments for later, and then put them off again.

As a result, I found myself focusing too much on some details while dismissing others. I could sense that my students were a bit frustrated, but I didn’t make the connection right away. I did ask them to compare two pronunciations on the final exam, and it went well, but not as well as it could have if they had been practicing it all semester. Overall the semester was a success, but it could have been better.

I’ll talk about how you can find comparable pronunciations in a future post.