Friday, November 18, 2005

UWO in Canada rationalizes language consulting approval

Earlier this year, Claire Bowern over at Anggarrgoon was collecting examples of human subjects policies as they apply to language consultants at various institutions. In that connection, I've been meaning to post this announcement I received from the Canadian Linguistics Association mailing list a couple of weeks ago for consideration:

"The Office of Research Ethics at the University of Western Ontario has recently approved a document giving exemption from ethical review for certain types of language consultation. We invite linguists across Canada to consult this document and to use it as the basis for exemption at their institution if they so choose. This document was written by Claire Gurski, Stephanie Kelly, David Heap and Ileana Paul from the Department of French at UWO and we would like to thank the research group PERL (Practice of Ethics for Research in Linguistics) for their hard work over the summer. A link to the document can be found on the PERL website, as well as other information about our on- going activities: "

The document itself can be downloaded at this link:

In my own capacity as field researcher, I present a two-and a half-page, densely written consent form to my consultants for their signature. This document, based on University of Arizona guidelines and modified by me for my particular research project, was vetted extensively by our Human Subjects office and was a necessary part of getting project approval. Its intention is solely to ensure that my consultants are fully informed of any possible negative effects that the research project might have for them, and to be sure that they are aware that they can withdraw from the project at any time, and of the compensation rates which they are entitled to for participating in the research.

Despite all of these good motivations, however, the document is a problem; it's quite awkward to begin my relationship with my usually elderly, sometimes not-100%-fluent in English consultants by asking them to sign something that looks like a contract and describes every imaginable negative repercussion they might suffer from participating in the research. I am required to (and do) explain the content of the document to my consultants in cases where they don't seem to want to or be able to read it, and I explain that it's required for them to sign it, but it's not the best way to begin a comfortable, friendly relationship that I hope will last over many sessions.

Not only that: I personally feel that the relationship of a linguistic researcher and language consultant is just that -- a professional relationship between an investigator and someone with expert knowledge not available in the population at large (particularly in the case of minority or endangered languages). Treating a language consultant as a 'human subject' seems to me to express exactly the wrong attitude. The consultant is an expert who must be treated with respect and appreciation, more like a teacher than a experimental subject. Although the elicitation of a grammaticality judgment is technically a psychological experiment, it is one which crucially depends on the specialized knowledge of the judger and their willingness to deploy it. The consent form, however, administered as part of the 'human subjects protection program', is a disempowering document, with a 'me investigator, you gerbil' feel to it. We do have to watch out for our gerbils, human and otherwise, but a language consultant is not one and should not be made to feel like one. (This sentiment is much more eloquently expressed in the PERL document linked to above.)

It is of paramount importance as a field researcher to be aware of the ethical ramifications of one's work, and to be sensitive and responsive to the wishes and needs of one's consultants and their larger community of language speakers, most especially in cases of minority and endangered languages. I would consider it very appropriate for our human subjects office to try to find a way to monitor researchers' behavior with respect to these questions. I don't think that consent form model, however, succeeds at this particularly well, and consequently I applaud the UWO decision to exempt language consultant work from this procedure.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

rationale which

Been insanely busy these last few weeks (somehow have managed to become more than a month late on no less than four projects, which is kind of putting me in a paralyzing frenzy of conflicting priorities -- must do this today! no, this is more urgent! no, this is!) and has hence cut into blogging time. But just noticed the following which/that alternation in reading a student's paper. My student wrote:

"The voiced velar stop is only found in recent loan words from Spanish, that is why it is in parentheses."

As it is, I find I can only read this as a run-on sentence, with 'that' anaphoric to the preceding proposition; it should therefore be punctuated with a period after 'Spanish' and a captial 't' on 'That'. However, the rationale clause could be introduced with 'which' and be perfectly good as some kind of adjunct to the root clause, allowing the current punctuation to stand; that's how I've corrected it, as I think it's what is intended.

0. The voiced velar stop is only found in recent loan words from Spanish, which is why it is in parentheses.

The question is, what kind of adjoined clause is this (the corrected version)? Is it a nonrestrictive relative on a proposition? Does that phrase even make any sense at all (can one have a relative clause of any kind on anything other than an NP/DP?)? (Hmm. If I try to use this type of which-clause on a DP as any kind of relative, I get weirdness -- (1) below seems bad, but (2) is fine.

1. *(Sue described) [the situation(,) which was why she left]
2. (Sue described) [the situation(,) which was the cause of her leaving]

trying the same thing for 'how', I don't get the contrast as strongly. (3) is with a 'which is how...' clause modifying a propositon, like the first case above; (4) has a 'which is how...' modifying a DP, which I find pretty much acceptable compared to (1) above, (5) has a non-Q alternant:

3. Sue pulled on the handle, which was how she'd opened it last time.
4. ?(Sue described) [her secret recipe, which was how she got such great results].
5. (Sue described) [her secret recipe, which was the way she got such great results.]

Ditto for 'what':

6. Sue ate one of Mary's cookies, which was what had gotten her in trouble at the last birthday party.
7. (Sue described) [her secret recipe, which was what had won her first prize the year before.]
8. (Sue described) [her secret recipe, which was the reason she had won first prize the year before.]

Hmm, ok, now I'm really confused; if I modify 7 back to a 'why', I find it's fine as a relative on the DP; maybe (1) is just a garden pathing problem which is clarified in the secret recipe case:

7'.: (Sue described) [her secret recipe, which was why she had won first prize the year before].

Drat. Now that I say (1) to myself again. I find it perfectly fine. (Cf, e.g., the declarative, 'This situation is why she left'). I must have primed myself for the propositonal-modifier reading with the original case, and hence illusioned myself into missing the DP-readig. So never mind the whole raving series of contrasts above. Unless you also find a contrast... do you? It's probably all a question for the newly credentialed Lance, who no longer wonders his time remaining, but rather his job prospects. )

Basically, I just want to know what to call the kind of which-clause illustrated in 0, 3 and 6 above, where the 'which' is adding information about the proposition. Is it a (nonrestrictive) relative clause? What is it? I'm sure I should know this. Maybe my overcommitted state has shorted out my network of grammar concepts, as well as my judgments.