Nancy Dorian’s “Greatest Hits”

by | Jul 31, 2015

Nancy Dorian is well known in linguistics, linguistic anthropology, and Celtic studies for her research on Gaelic, language obsolescence, and the sociolinguistics of minority languages. She has studied the Gaelic spoken in East Sutherland, a “linguistic island” on the north-east coast of Scotland. She is a retired professor of Linguistics in German and Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College, Pennsylvania, USA. Her research contribution was honoured by the University of Glasgow which awarded her with an honorary D.Litt. degree at the 15th International Congress of Celtic Studies in July 2015. The university’s press release describes part of her contribution to Celtic and Gaelic studies:

“When Professor Dorian first visited the fishing villages of Embo, Brora and Golspie in East Sutherland in the 1960s, she surprised Celtic scholars when she discovered over 200 Gaelic speakers in these coastal areas. Unlike traditional dialectologists who focused on model NORM (non-mobile old rural male) fluent speakers, Professor Dorian included in her study less fluent and younger speakers, thus giving us a richer view of linguistic change through the generations. It was she who coined the widely used sociolinguistic term ‘semi-speaker’”.

The Journal of Sociolinguistics has just published my review of Nancy Dorian’s latest book, Small-Language Fates and Prospects: Lessons of Persistence and Change from Endangered Languages: Collected Essays (Brill’s Studies in Language, Cognition and Culture).

The journal requested my review as part of a new initiative to commission book reviews from established scholars. Nancy was an external member on my doctoral dissertation committee, and she was my mentor for many years, so I was honored to be asked to review her book. It’s an edited volume with 23 chapters previously published between 1973 and 2011, and it’s pretty much the equivalent of a “greatest hits” album for a rock star.


Emily McEwan-Fujita and Nancy Dorian

Dr. Emily McEwan-Fujita and Dr. Nancy Dorian


I’ve posted a personal manuscript copy of my book review on my page, where you can download it FREE. (I’ve changed the page numbers on the manuscript to match the pagination of the published copy, so you can cite it accurately.) If you can access the official PDF through a paywalled database at your library, then please do! Publishers do keep track of the number of downloads.

Nancy C. Dorian, Small-language Fates and Prospects: Lessons of Persistence and Change from Endangered Languages: Collected Essays. (Brill, 2014).

Nancy C. Dorian, Small-language Fates and Prospects: Lessons of Persistence and Change from Endangered Languages: Collected Essays. (Brill, 2014).


One odd thing happened to my review that is worth mentioning. When I received the proofs, the copy editor indicated only that I should double-check the spelling of my name and the book author’s. A quick read of the entire proof indicated that in addition, only ordinary copyediting changes had been made (fixing typos, a few word substitutions, etc.). I requested a few additional minor proofreading changes, and signed off on the proofs.

Later, I compared the proofs line-by-line with my original submission while preparing a PDF to post in my repository. During this process I noticed a substantive change: an entire sentence had been removed. It was the following:

“A key read for linguists is Chapter 21, which shows what is missed when an entire grammar or research study is based on data from a single speaker, or focuses too narrowly on finding features of Chomskyan Universal Grammar rather than on the variation that is inherent to language.”

Here is a key passage in Dorian’s Chapter 21, “Surprises in Sutherland: Linguistic Variability amidst Social Uniformity” to which I was referring:

“In the present half-century [i.e. approximately 1950-2000], the conventions of writing descriptive grammars have permitted reliance on a very small group of sources, or even, as was true of the last Scottish Gaelic dialect grammar produced before my own (Oftedal 1956), on a single highly intelligent and highly cooperative source. This practice reduces the likelihood that linguists will encounter markedly variable usage, or feel obliged to come to grips with it if they do. Oftedal, my immediate predecessor in Gaelic dialect studies, noted that the Gaelic of his single source and that of the man’s wife differed in a number of respects, despite the fact that the two had grown up as next-door neighbors; but after noting the existence of such differences in an early footnote, he never referred to the wife’s Gaelic again. Theoretical preoccupation with detecting the commonalities of universal grammar has meanwhile made it less likely than ever that descriptivists would be interested in pursuing evidence of individually differentiated usage, even if the differences should be of the rather striking sort that Oftedal encountered in the Hebridean dialect he was describing. In both traditional dialect geography and more recent correlational sociolinguistics, researchers have worked chiefly by multi-person single-interview survey, so that persistent differences in the usage of a single individual who is interacting with familiar interlocutors have little or no opportunity to emerge. The level of individual variability I was describing for speakers in socially homogeneous villages such as Brora, Golspie, and Embo seemed unusual, consequently, and by my own account this variability was turning up in small-village speech varieties on their way to foreseeable extinction. Under theses circumstances, then, it wasn’t surprising that even a highly knowledgeable Gaelic dialect researcher, when reviewing my monograph, took the myriad details of variable usage noted for ESG as an indication of the dialect’s obsolescence (Ó Dochartaigh 1983).

Reasonable though his conclusion seemed, I realized on reading it that obsolescence did not in fact provide an adequate explanation for what I had encountered and that the full range of ESG variability was still unaccounted for. […] Gaelic was dying above all by transmission failure in East Sutherland, not by disuse among those who had grown up with it. When I began my work, Gaelic was still both the first language and the stronger language among a good many older people, and their ESG could reasonably represent the conservative norm for a number of instances of change in progress. But there was a large amount of variability in the dialect that didn’t seem to correlate particularly with age or proficiency differences, and was found in the Gaelic of older and younger speakers alike.” (Dorian 2014, pp. 401-402)

These “varieties of variation,” which are not linked to the social differences that variation is usually linked to, are key findings of Dorian’s research. She published an entire book on the topic in 2010, Investigating Variation: The Effects of Social Organization and Social Setting (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics).

It is very curious that this one-sentence paragraph was removed by the editor, while everything else was retained. I simply pointed out the significance of Dorian’s observations, which might escape notice if the book were only skimmed.

And yet, the sentence mentions Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar. Chomsky’s theories have become hegemonic in linguistics to the extent that academics who raise serious criticisms of these theories are attacked — sometimes ad hominem — even when they offer data and well-reasoned arguments. So perhaps it is not so surprising that this sentence was removed, while the rest of the review was left virtually unaltered.

It is important for linguistic anthropologists, sociolinguists, and other scholars to speak out about their research which demonstrates the fundamentally social, cultural, semiotic, embodied, creative, interactional, varying, and changing qualities of human language. Fortunately for us all, Nancy Dorian is doing just that with her ongoing work on Gaelic in East Sutherland, Scotland.

Read my academic review of Dorian’s “greatest hits” book here.

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