Figure 1: Prof. Jack Chambers (Toronto, February 2005).
My specialty in grad studies was syntax, but it was a turbulent time with Chomsky promulgating something he called Extended Standard Theory and opposing what seemed to me to be the more promising theory of Generative Semantics, led by people like Jim McCawley and Haj Ross. Chomsky prevailed, of course, and people on the other side went in various directions, me among them. At the same time, I had published the paper called "Canadian Raising" in 1973, and it made an impact both on phonologists (it was generative phonology, in the Chomsky-Halle framework) and on more general linguists, including dialectologists. I realized after I wrote it that CR was undergoing change, and in pursuing the variationist implications I remade myself as a sociolinguist. Ten years earlier, when I was still a literature major and starting a Ph.D. in it, I had taken a course from Harold B. Allen at University of Minnesota. Allen was director of the Linguistic Atlas of the Upper Midwest, and I liked him, and maybe that experience gave me a soft spot about studying dialects, which most syntacticians disdained. When I was a young assistant professor, I met Peter Trudgill through a former classmate who taught with him at Reading University, and I spent my first sabbatical at Reading in 1976-77, reading and writing voraciously. By the end of that year, Trudgill and I had a contract with Cambridge University Press for Dialectology, which was the first-ever book on the subject when it came out in 1980 and proved to be very influential by integrating urban dialectology (sociolinguistics) and traditional dialectology (dialect geography). We thought it might be too radical when we were writing it, and a few old-timers did have fits about it, but it caught a wave among younger and more adventurous scholars. I don't think it is much exaggerated to say that the book played a role in reviving dialectology as an integral linguistic discipline.
2. Why did you start a large scale project like Dialect Topography?
We had no systematic study of English in Canada. French-speaking Canada had a couple of projects, but the people who claimed to be working on Canadian English when I came into the field were mainly foreign-born, from Great Britain, and some of them seemed to me to be off-base in their observations and unambitious in their prospects. I discovered that the University of Toronto library had an incomparable collection of dialect atlases from all over the world going back a century, and so in my Dialectology seminar I made students choose an atlas and work with it throughout the course. They are beautiful books, these atlases, but often horrible works of scholarship, cumbersome and confusing and excruciatingly detailed. I had no ambition to make an atlas for Canada until my M.A. student, Christine Zeller, showed me a better way of doing it. Christine was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about 1500 km due west of Toronto in the U.S. She was keenly aware of how different her dialect was from the one she was living with, and she wanted to find out if there was a dialect continuum between Toronto and Milwaukee. In 1990 she made a questionnaire asking about words for things and pronunciations of words, and she mailed it to about 100 people, mostly professors, between the two places. I was very sceptical, but when the answers came back and she started plotting them, she got eye-opening results. There was no continuum, but she found acute differences at the Windsor-Detroit border. I saw the potential immediately. Her method was efficient and relatively quick— and it got results. With a larger, more representative sample and a longer questionnaire, it became the Dialect Topography of Canada.
3. If you had the chance to change something in the project, what would it be?
After establishing the validity of the methods with the Golden Horseshoe study in 1991- 93, I should have mounted a million dollar study to cover the entire country in the next three-year grant period. Instead, we have limped along covering a couple of regions in each three-year period so that, today, we have covered only about 50 per cent of the population. Our databases are out of sync too. It is hard to compare, say, the Quebec City results to Vancouver with full confidence because one was completed in 1996 and the other in 2004. That's not so bad, but with every new region the gap grows longer.
4. Since it is practically impossible to get equal numbers of informants in terms of all independent social variables, you have chosen two that should be represented in ample numbers, namely Age and Sex. There is, however, a bias towards women in the samples of all regions (~65 % females vs. 35 % males). Can you briefly comment on that?
I was really disturbed when I started getting the imbalance in the Golden Horseshoe. So I started appealing to my contacts and seeking out male havens (a horticultural school, for instance), trying to correct it. But nothing helped. It seems that women are just more cooperative, more interested, more patient. Also, in the oldest groups, they are more plentiful. Finally, I decided just to worry about getting enough men to make a reasonable number for analysis. What do you do then with the 'excess' women? By the time you get 7 men in an age group, you find you have 12 women. Well, we work with proportions, and so the raw numbers don't skew anything. The real problem arises when regional directors didn't get enough men to do trustworthy statistics, like when they get only one or two 80-year-old men. We have some of those, and all you can do is hope they are truly representative, which shows up when you look at regular trends. If they look like oddballs, you have to ignore them or put them in with the 70-and-overs. Our consolation is that having even one or two is better than none.
5. In one of your articles (Introduction to DTP) you express the wish and the aim to publish a printed atlas with the Dialect Topography data. Are you still planning on doing that?
If there ever is an atlas, it will be electronic and interactive. The day of the compiled book of maps is long gone. We have far too much information in our databases to reduce it to maps with distributions of variants, because each independent variable really requires a new map, and we routinely work with three to six independent variables. Maybe we will find a way to use holograms, virtual maps with shifting perspectives, but until then I will just go on looking for analyses that seem to have some connection to Canadian history and settlement patterns and attitudes, and I feel really fulfilled when I see you doing that too, and other scholars digging into the treasure trove and going through the learning curve that is required whenever we have to deal with something as complex as language in place and time.
6. It is sometimes said that linguistics is really just a discipline for the sake of itself. What do you think a project like Dialect Topography contributes to public life in general, to people who are not linguists?
I have never thought of linguistics as self-contained. Maybe that's why I left theoretical syntax behind with so few qualms. I have always written about language for the newspapers, and talked about in on radio, and testified in courtrooms. It is fun to get to talk to parents or editors or schoolteachers about language, to let them know that it is perfectly natural for children to use swear words, and to end assertive sentences with rising intonation, as in uptalk, and to use "quote" as a noun where we used to use "quotation." People tend to resist change, and to think of it as deterioration. But they can see how inevitable it is if you can remind them about their own parents scolding them for saying "tomEYdo" instead of "tomAHto," and the like. But it goes much deeper too. Our language is so deeply embedded in our human nature that it goes unnoticed, and Linguistics is ultimately the science that brings our human nature into consciousness. I can remember feeling a thrill the first time I was lecturing about code-switching to 150 students in my Sociology of Language class, about 80 percent of them from immigrant grandparents if not immigrant parents. And as I talked about code-switching patterns I could feel the shock of recognition sweeping through the room. You mean it isn't just something my sister and I do when we're talking to our parents? It actually has a name? It actually aids communication? It follows rules? You, the prof, find it admirable? I could see that lots of those kids were feeling proud of themselves about something they previously thought was mildly shameful. They had been code-switching all their lives, and they had never thought about it as essential, let alone ingenious.
7. What can linguists do for the public, for society?
We can keep our sidewalks shovelled and our lawns neat. Obey the laws and speak out against injustices. Like everyone else. Seriously, the more we learn about language, the better we should be at restoring skills for stroke victims, teaching children to be more articulate, bringing higher levels of literacy to immigrants. I know it doesn't work so directly, but knowing about language has something to do with coming to grips with our human nature, and if we disseminate the understanding then we must make a difference. Somehow. Somewhere.
8. "Linguistic variation worldwide is decreasing". What thoughts come to your mind when you hear that?
I think it is simply inevitable. Mobility has made a greater difference in the human condition in the last 100 years than any change in two millennia before that. It is mind- boggling to think that my great-grandparents, your great-great-great-grandparents, might have gone months or years without hearing someone who spoke with a different accent from theirs. They might have gone a lifetime without hearing someone speaking a foreign language. Nowadays, I fly to Japan and lecture at eight different universities, and then fly home and lecture to classes in which 80 percent of the students speak Korean or Slovak or Brazilian Portuguese or some other language at home. Students from Vienna and Sydney and Marseille spend a year studying here without culture shock or homesickness. We meet as equals. "Call me Jack." "Let's celebrate having a guest in our seminar by taking him to the pub for a pint of Creemore." We're friends, and friends talk to one another. So as we get to know one another you will talk a bit more like me, and I will talk a bit more like you. That's what friends do.
9. Future of Canadian English: where does Canadian English go? In several of your articles you say that Canadian English is, together with other varieties like American English, moving towards a standard North American variety. Does that mean that the whole North American continent will speak alike? Is that even possible?
The people who sound more like one another are the mobile people. That is not everyone, probably not ever. And there is a contrary movement too. As barriers fall — social, linguistic, even geographical (bridges are built, new roads reach the top of the mountain, etc.) — people start clinging to their individuality. So we are seeing political movements that break barriers, as in the ECM, NAFTA, the Pacific Rim, multinational corporations, and at the same time we are seeing the assertion of ethnic roots, like Chechnya, Quebec, Serbia, the Kurds. People have to have a sense of belonging. That's why accents and dialects exist in the first place. My accent says I am Canadian. Having that accent doesn't aid communication when I live in England. It would be better if I had the same accent as the people I work with and live with there. But I can't do anything about it. If I try to talk like them, even saying one word like them, I feel like a phoney. (They usually don't even notice that I said it.) It's too deeply engrained. I don't think local accents can disappear. For the most mobile classes, their accents get milder, and more accommodating. That is true of everything. My wife's parents were sacrament-abiding, full-time Catholics, but my children are mild Catholics if they are Catholics at all because they grew up among not just Protestants but also among Jews, Buddhists and Moslems. They married them, and so the Protestants, Jews, Buddhists and Moslems they know are also mild ones if they practise at all. It is the globalization of religion—everybody a mild sectarian. And the globalization of language is the same—everybody a mild dialect speaker.
10. Your current research project? Any future plans or suggestions for work on Canadian English?
Dialect Topography carries on. The Vancouver data is only a few months old on the website, as you know. People talk to me about surveying southwestern Ontario or Edmonton-to-Calgary. All the pieces are accessible. I am sure there will be M.A. students whose theses revisit regions we have looked at, if not next year then next decade or next century. In the meantime, I carry on working on projects for the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles and the Canadian English Usage Guide and the next edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. My own research is Canadian-centred when it can be. I just worked out the implications for a syntactic variable that a Calgary student who is now at UMass discovered. Canadians like me can say, "I'm done my homework" and "I'm finished the exam," but Americans can't. They say, "I'm done with my homework" and "I'm finished with the exam." The Canadian/American split appears to be fairly strict. It has now been corroborated by several people via e-mail. But nobody ever noticed it until now. Maybe when I talk about that in my Canadian English class, one of the students will look into it and find out more. My next article on Canadian English will be published in 2006 in the Canadian Journal of Linguistics. It is called "Canadian Raising retrospect and prospect." That's my next article. Not my last article.
11. You are not only a linguist, but also a jazz critic. Is there a connection between language and music for you?
I have kept my jazz research and my linguistics research separate as far as possible, by writing jazz under the name "Jack Chambers" and linguistics under "J.K. Chambers." Writing in the Globe and Mail, of course, the name game couldn't be sustained, and I wrote both jazz pieces and language pieces as Jack. Even so, in the biographical line at the end of the pieces, I gave jazz credentials for jazz articles and linguistics for the language articles. It was too risky letting the jazz community know that I had a day job that was not in music, because it is a very competitive world with lots of jealousies and selfishnesses. Being a linguist who writes jazz smacks of being a dilettante, and I wouldn't risk inviting people to make that inference about me. But music and language do have common ground. Both have syntax and phonology, and if I am good at talking about them it is because I can use the same analytic skills on both. Linguistic structure is, of course, hard-wired and irrepressibly human. Musical structure is not hard-wired but learned, and learned with great effort for the greatest practitioners. But it is also uniquely human, and I suspect that it takes its form by spinning off our language faculty, like a kind of satellite. And jazz is especially language-like, because musicians use the syntax and phonology to construct motifs (phrases and sentences) and melodies (discourses) that no one has ever heard before, and they do it spontaneously, just as speakers do in ordinary conversation, except that at its very best it is more like a poem than like ordinary conversation. And how they do it, no one knows. Every three-year-old can do that with language. But only the most gifted musicians can do it in music.
12. What's your favourite place to go on holidays?
Key West. It is the southernmost tip of Florida, removed from the mainland at the end of a chain of small islands (called keys). The most southern tip is called Old Key West, and it is not very American in most ways. The Atlantic Ocean and the Florida Gulf are less than a kilometre apart, the width of Key West. Sue and I have gone there for years in the week when April ends and turns into May. That is the end of our academic year, and I am usually drained. So we go there and sit in the sun and jump into the pool and read novels and walk to see the sunset on the Gulf side. When we first started going there Key West was shabby, with a lot of winos and unemployed Cubans and African-Americans, but the restaurants and bars were good, and the climate was perfect. It has gentrified since then, and real estate prices have probably quintupled. But we still like it. It is really the only place I have ever gone on a holiday because the other places I go are usually for lecturing and giving courses, and not just for laying back and gathering resources for the next week or month or year. We go whenever we can.