Discussion: Phonology at general linguistics conferences

From Abby Kaplan:

I’d like to solicit thoughts about the representation of phonology at general linguistics conferences.  (I’m thinking particularly of major regional conferences such as WCCFL and NELS.)  As I’m sure we’re all aware, the phonology talks are often substantially outnumbered by syntax talks – sometimes so much so that a phonologist may have only a couple of sessions to attend.

This topic has been on my mind lately because my institution hosted WCCFL 34, so I’ve had a front-row seat to some of the raw numbers.  This year, there were 157 submissions in syntax and 23 in phonology (plus 2 in both); the composition of the final program reflected this trend.  [NB: this is not an official post on behalf of the WCCFL organizing committee, although all the committee members have seen it.]

The situation isn’t new, of course, and I can imagine a few reasons for it.  One is simple demographics: there seem to be more syntacticians than phonologists (as suggested by the data here and in related posts).  Another is the existence of excellent phonology-specific conferences (mfm, LabPhon, AMP, NAPhC, etc.), which may be siphoning off work that otherwise would have gone to a general conference.  I also don’t mean to suggest that the situation is dire.  The difference may be more pronounced at some conferences than others; for example, my impression from the last few years’ programs is that there’s proportionally more phonology at CLS and BLS than at WCCFL and NELS.  And I certainly saw excellent phonology research at this year’s WCCFL.

I have no problem with being in a smaller subfield; I’m not arguing that we should try to catch up with the syntacticians.  And I know that the situation isn’t unique to phonology.  But I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts about what this means for general conferences.  What happens when the numbers get so small that serious questions arise about the value of a particular conference for phonologists?  Is it worth making a special effort to submit to conferences like WCCFL in order to sustain critical mass there?  On the one hand, I can see the value in working to maintain a phonology presence at conferences that are supposed to represent the field pretty broadly.  But on the other hand, if you want to get the best possible feedback on your work and see what other phonologists are doing, then submitting to a conference that’s light on phonology, just for symbolic reasons, may not do you the most good.



9 thoughts on “Discussion: Phonology at general linguistics conferences

  1. Alexander Martin

    This is a really interesting discussion topic, and I think it warrants be broken down at least a little bit. The questions raised here seem to be more directed at senior researchers, but are just as important (if different) for graduate students and non-tenured faculty. If we can only submit to/go to one conference a year (especially us Europeans who can’t afford to travel to the States regularly), what is going to be best for our career? Shouldn’t we make sure we get to exchange with the greatest number of people from our field? In that case it makes sense to target a more specific conference like LabPhon or other. This is really a similar question to “what journals should I publish in?” which is something us early career folk get quite nervous about (well at least I do, if only for the wide array of answers I get).

  2. Bruce Hayes

    Thanks, Abby!

    Re.: “Is it worth making a special effort to submit to conferences like WCCFL in order to sustain critical mass there?”

    I think yes, for this reason: linguistics is *all one field*, and conference participants should be exposed to data and theoretical thinking from all disciplines. This is especially true for the youngest participants — they are developing theoretical orientations and analytical outlooks that may last for decades, and we depend on them to keep linguistics coherent for the future.

  3. Aaron Kaplan

    I think both of the above replies are right: it’s important for phonology to be represented at these conferences, but I understand why people may see subfield-specific conferences as better uses of their time.

    As Abby indicated, the reason this year’s WCCFL had so little phonology was because we received very few submissions; if we’d had more submissions, we’d have gladly accepted more papers. My fear is that the scarcity of phonology at these conferences will discourage more people from submitting abstracts, and next year’s organizers will have even fewer submissions to choose from, until phonology’s presence dwindles away.

  4. Joe Pater Post author

    WCCFL, NELS and similar conferences serve a special role for grad students and other relatively early career people because they have proceedings, and a relatively low acceptance rate for oral presentations, so that the CV line means something in the job market. We’re hoping to serve that same role with AMP, but I’ll always encourage my students to submit to those other conferences myself.

    The sad reality is that for more senior people, it’s rare for us to submit to WCCFL-like conferences, because we can’t count on there being a good sized contingent of phonologists there. Perhaps it’s also not that great of an idea for us to compete for those few slots that our students need. The main reason I started working on AMP was because I wasn’t seeing my colleagues from the west coast enough (I would see Europeans at mfm and the ocp).

    While we’re on the subject of general conferences, I’d like to encourage more senior people to submit to the LSA. The program committee has been doing a great job over the last couple years, and I’ve been finding it really worthwhile, both for getting to know new people’s work, and for catching up with people I already know.

    1. Shigeto

      “Perhaps it’s also not that great of an idea for us to compete for those few slots that our students need.”–I always think about this too. I do not want to deprive these few slots from students who really need them. One solution may be for tenured people to volunteer to do more poster presentation (which I am doing for JK24), but I understand that not every conference has posters, or not everyone likes poster presentation.

      1. Joe Pater Post author

        Nice idea Shigeto – I think I’ll start asking only for poster slots at the LSA too, since talks there are really important for students.

  5. Rachel Walker

    The lowish number for phonology submissions was also something we encountered for WCCFL 32 at USC. I think it’s very important to keep WCCFL- and NELS-like conferences as active and viable venues for phonology, especially for early-career scholars. I continue to encourage graduate students to submit to them, because the proceedings paper is a valuable contribution to their CV, and it helps them to spread the word about emerging work.

    I also agree with Bruce’s point about the importance of conferences that include data and theory across all disciplines. It’s valuable for students, and I still find it valuable for my own thinking today. I enjoyed sitting in on some sessions outside my area of specialization at this year’s WCCFL. I also appreciated receiving comments on my talk from some people who work outside phonology. It enlarges the connections of our thinking and work on language.

  6. Marc Ettlinger

    My sense was always that WCCFL and NELS have been and were established as generative syntax conferences with a sprinkling of formal linguistics from other subfields. Conversely, phonologist have things like LabPhon, MfM, CUNY, Sigmorphon and even ASA.

    I think that probably says more about the field of formal phonology subfield (and it’s relation to other subfields) than it does about the place of phonology w/in linguistics.

  7. Shigeto

    I am in the midst of organizing the 24th Japanese/Korean Linguistics conference, and couldn’t resist commenting on this thread. I don’t think I should provide raw numbers (yet), but we had the following ratios (rounded):

    phonetics/phonology: semantics: syntax = 3: 4: 6.5

    So if we combine syntax and semantics (note that phonetics and phonology are combined), that means we received only one third of “S-side” abstracts. Even this was not a bad ratio, I think. The main reason could be that me and Haruo Kubozono are (a part of) the organizing committee. I don’t know, but in dealing with the abstract selection process, I do feel underrepresented.

    And in no way am I implying anything negative here, but at the last FAJL meeting (Formal Approaches to Japanese Linguistics), there was only one real P-side talk (plus my invited talk). There is a simple fact that most Japanese linguists work on the S-side, and the FAJL situation simply reflects this fact.

    Another factor may be that more and more work in phonology can now be presented at “phonetics conferences”, like Speech and Prosody and ICPhS. Since they “publish” 4-page papers, that may attract some people’s attention.

    I wish I had more to say about this situation.


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