To be clear, Scott AnderBois is not a fan of singer Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2012 megahit “Call me Maybe,” but as a linguist he readily acknowledges that the lady sure can throw around a discourse particle.
The discourse particle is the “maybe” that Jepsen and her co-writers tacked on to soften the imperative “call me.” AnderBois studies them and their functions in human communication.
“These are things that are kind of like the glue that holds conversation together,” said the newly appointed assistant professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences. “They are things that are analogous to um and uh, like, well, and perhaps. They are things that when you are speaking with someone you use rampantly to convey all sorts of subtle social meanings.”
The idea that people would subtly manipulate their speech to convey a meaning is hardly confined to English, and therefore neither is AnderBois. He also studies the Yucatec Maya language and spends part of every summer in Mexico doing fieldwork.
This year in his summer travels he was focused on those discourse particles. The Yucatec Maya version of Jepsen’s song would probably use the word “wal,” instead of “maybe,” although it has subtle but important differences in meaning.
“The inventory of discourse particles differs wildly from language to language,” AnderBois said. In fact for some other uses that English might cover with “maybe,” it would be more appropriate in Yucatec Maya to use the word “míin.”
In another project, AnderBois is using the Yucatec Maya language, spoken by roughly a million people, to study propositional attitudes. These parts of speech declare one’s mental state about a possible circumstance.
In English, gradations of attitude come with distinct intonations and verbs — “I think that it will rain” or “I believe that it will rain” or “I imagine that it will rain.” But in Yucatec Maya, AnderBois said, speakers can use the same verb, “tuklik,” for all of them.
While the words might not always vary as much as in English, what does vary in Yucatec Maya to convey different ideas are the constructions of sentences. For example, the language is not wedded like English to a subject-verb-object ordering of sentences. Instead, that is driven by the discourse.
“All six word orders are possible,” AnderBois said. “Which one you use is driven largely by your discourse function — which thing is the thing you are focusing on at the moment.”
Moments do matter. For AnderBois the moment he became exposed to and enamored with linguistics came unusually early because of a program between his public high school in Boulder, Colo., and the University of Colorado there. He got the chance to take two classes a year at the university. The only constraint was that the classes not be in areas already taught at the high school.
He wanted to extend his math education, so at first he just stepped up to the next level of calculus. He didn’t enjoy that particular class, but his mother, considering how much he liked math in general and his Spanish classes, suggested linguistics as an intersection of the two.
“I took introduction to linguistics at the University of Colorado and I just loved it,” he said. “I kept taking linguistics classes in college and majored in it.”
He earned his bachelors degree at Dartmouth with a minor in Spanish, graduating magna cum laude in 2005. He went on to the University of California – Santa Cruz, earning a masters degree and ultimately a Ph.D. in 2011.
He became introduced to Yucatec Maya while at Santa Cruz. There is a strong community of speakers in San Francisco and surrounding areas. Most speakers there also speak Spanish fluently, as does AnderBois.
Although Providence is not a major outpost in the Yucatec Maya diaspora — it does have a population that speaks the distantly related K’ichee’ Maya tongue — AnderBois was nevertheless attracted to Brown.
“One thing that’s really exciting to me about Brown is its strength in Latin American studies and Mesoamerican studies,” AnderBois said. “I’m very excited to be joining a department that’s not just a linguistics department. Linguistics as it grows up has a lot to learn from cognitive science and lots to teach cognitive science.”
One can already imagine the multidisciplinary discussions, perhaps full of discourse particles and propositional attitudes, in which new insights about how we convey meaning to each other are born.