Motivation

So on EL&U, I pretty often encounter the claim, under a question of some usage or other, that certain usages are the consequence of "lazy speakers", who "would otherwise" use some (fuller, more complex, more difficult to pronounce, longer, whatever) construction, but in order to save effort or energy, they use a (shorter, simpler, elided, contracted, phonetically compressed, whatever) construction.

Theorem

That is, I am asking about theories that these (typically) native speakers know what the proper thing to say is, but consciously choose to say something else because it's "easier to pronounce". This is not attributed to their dialect or sociolect or some other group-level account, but to individual speakers saving energy or effort.

Examples

Two recent questions on EL&U where this theory was raised spring to mind.

  1. The first exchange was under question related to the usage of whom, where the relevant part of the comment chain between a commentator (C1) and myself (M) went:

    [C1] Some say that the virtual demise of "whom" is yet another example of the 'dumbing-down' of the language, and that it's no wonder the French think we're nits (or is it nuts?)

    [M] Pretty sure people have been caviling about the "dumbing-down" of English since Chaucer, or before. It's a perennial myth. As for the French, which is more nuts, accepting the world is what it is, or trying to legislate evolution?

    [C1] What's evolution got to do with it? It's lazy speech, simple as that.

  2. The more recent exchange (with a different party, C2) was under a question by a non-native speaker asking about the idiomaticity of explain me vs explain to me.

    [C2] Consider that most people are lazy in their speech, but some lazier than others. It takes considerable effort to say "Explain to me ...", but is much easier (and more natural sounding) to say "Explain tuh me ..." From there it's just a short step to "Explain duh me ..." or "Explain t'me ..." The "duh" or "t'" sound is very easy to say and very easy to shorten almost (but not quite) into nonexistence. It's actually harder to say "Explain me" than it is to say "Explain d'me", so it's rare that the remnants of "to" are completely eliminated, just chopped down to near nothingness.

    [M] This concept that there exist "lazy speakers" has apparently gone viral; the pathogen is spreading out of control. People who say "explain me" are not taking shortcuts; they're taking the wrong path, misled by signs in their own language. If there are native speakers who use it in their dialect, it is just that: their dialect. Not "lazy".

    [C2] You miss the point. They feel that they are saying "Explain to me", they're just not making an effort to enunciate clearly.

Now, to be clear, I don't find it implausible that this has happened at some point in time.

I am skeptical that "lazy speech" can be used as an account for a regular pattern of speech, where the non-native OP can expect to meet, in his life, some meaningful number of native speakers who drop the "to" consistently because they are "speaking lazily".

Question

I am, to put it mildly, skeptical of such accounts for usages.

My instinct, as a non-linguist, is that if a native speaker uses some pattern at odds with the standard or prestige dialect, it is almost certainly part of their local dialect or sociolect; it's not an individual conscious or unconscious decision to conserve energy or streamline phonotactics: they are simply imitating the speech to which they've been exposed.

Similarly, I don't find it sensible to describe a speaker substituting who where whom would have been used a decade before they were born as lazy, simply they haven't encountered "whom" in those contexts, so they haven't been trained to use it so.

Am I off the mark? What is the general disposition of the linguistic community towards the concept of "lazy speech"?

Are there established linguistic theories which or at least prominent linguists who incorporate "laziness" of individual speakers as a feature?

In other words, is "lazy speech" a thing?

  • Good question, but I think a more positive or neutral way of phrasing it would be by contrasting normal speech with careful speech. Consider the English word /ðə~ði/ – b a Oct 22 at 23:06
  • @ba Thanks. I can't read IPA though, sadly. I am a mere pretender. As for "careful", "normal", and "lazy" speech: lazy is not my descriptor. I'm bridling against it. I'm ok with careful vs normal, so long as we understand careful to be the exceptional case. If a person (say) drops "to" in "explain to me" in normal prose, then he's not being lazy, he's employing his daily dialect; if he in certain more formal contexts includes the "to" (aka as an exception), then he's not being "not lazy", he's simply switching registers. – Dan Bron Oct 22 at 23:09
  • 2
    The word "the" is usually pronounced with a schwa in fast speech, but pronounced the same as thee in careful speech, but I don't think you would describe the schwa pronunciation as lazy – b a Oct 22 at 23:15
up vote 5 down vote accepted

I have never seen any publication in linguistics where a fact about language data is attributed to laziness. There is no linguistic concept of laziness. When a person uses "who" rather than "whom", "ain't", or "me" in a conjoined NP ("Me and Bob went swimming"), we do not attribute this to laziness, we attribute this to grammar differences. The closest you will come is that some linguists refer to the concept "ease of articulation", whereby one might hope to legitimize the judgment of laziness. However, this phenomenon is not about laziness, it is about resolving conflicting requirements.

The problem with "ease of articulation" is that nobody knows what it actually refers to. The most common use of that way of talking about speech pertains to foreign language sounds, for example the Arabic consonant ħ is "hard to pronounce". This is not technical parlance and would almost certainly (hopefully) get filtered out of serious academic publications, but I bet you can find a number of informal uses of that kind. What it means is, "I have a hard time pronouncing ħ", which is probably because the person needs more practice, that is, the problem is cognitive and not physiological. There is no measured sense in which Arabic ħ and English th differ in the number of microjoules expended in articulation: ħ is as easy to pronounce as θ, if you know how to pronounce them.

There are articulatory or aerodynamic scenarios within a language which can conflict with the goal of a certain acoustic output. For example, in pronouncing the word "phonebook", the tip of the tongue theoretically raises first for "n" and then the lips approximate for "b". But speaking this way requires deviation from the normal articulatory plan. Consequently, lip closure may actually precede tongue raising, so the word often sounds like "foambook". Starting to form "b" in the oral cavity at the same time as the "n", or starting "b" just a little after "n", makes "n" sound like "m". You may have to substantially retard the normal rhythm of English speech in order to avoid this articulatory overlap: you have to do something more than you normally do.

Attributing natural phonetic evolution to "laziness" is a negative value judgment: saying that your neighbor is lazy because he is reading a book rather than cutting the grass means that he chooses to not do the thing that he should do, because it takes less effort to do the other thing. An alternative term that could be applied to an action requiring less effort is "efficient". Linguists don't (or shouldn't) make value judgments about what form of language people should use, we simply describe what form of language they do use.

Leaving to the side the question of how these so-called "lazy" constructions arise, once they exist in a person's dialect they are free to use them. More than that, they are often expected to be used due to the cooperative principle (also known as the Gricean maxims). Rather than being lazy, the cooperative principle says that in most contexts, and as long as everyone shares the specific dialectal constructions, then everyone benefits through efficient clear speech.

Maxim of manner

Supermaxim:

  • Be perspicuous.

Submaxims:

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

Yes, linguists as well as others appeal to laziness in describing many phonetic changes in conversational speech. Very often, however, laziness is not a sufficient explanation, for there is an element of conventionality connected with the change.

I agree (if I understand you) that the loss of the word "to" in "explain to" would not likely result from the loss of the "t" due to laziness and then the "o", for the same reason, even though in other examples both those things might happen. Instead, "explain me that" for "explain that to me" would be interpreted as a syntactic variant, like the loss of "to" after a verb in certain indirect object or benefactive constructions: "explain that to me" -> "explain to me that" -> "explain me that". This latter change has nothing to do with phonetic laziness, so far as I know.

  • Thanks, let me digest this. Meanwhile, can you quote / reference some formal / academic works by linguists appealing to laziness? Ideally with laziness as a focal element of the work (or the relevant section of the work). – Dan Bron Oct 22 at 23:10
  • Oh, and if you're inclined, I'd appreciate an analysis of the first exchange on "lazy speech": is the increasing obsolescence of "whom" attributable to laziness in some meaningful sense? – Dan Bron Oct 22 at 23:35
  • No, I can't give you references to theories based on laziness (though perhaps others can). Eliminating "whom" in favor of "who" requires loss of the word-final and syllable-final consonant. Such losses are common in historical sound change. Syllable-final consonants are generally weakly articulated, requiring less effort than syllable initial consonants, so I think it is plausible that there is a connection between the loss of final "m" and laziness. – Greg Lee Oct 23 at 3:17

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