Did Daniel Wemp really say that? Using corpus linguistics to evaluate the likelihood that Jared Diamond�s reported quotes in The New Yorker were ever spoken

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Daniel Wemp smiles at photographer and imediaethics researcher Michael Kigl, in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, July 2008. Kigl quickly located Wemp, even though New Yorker fact checkers failed to do so. Wemp adamantly denies Diamond's quotations that convey most of the facts in the New Yorker tale were ever said by him. Dr. Douglas Biber's conclusion that the words Diamond quoted were in all likelihood academic writing and not speech, supports Wemp's claim with science.

Many of the noun phrases in the New Yorker quotes are especially surprising because they contain multiple modifiers (adjectives or nouns as pre-modifiers, and relative clauses or prepositional phrases as post-modifiers). It is rare in conversation for a noun phrase to have two or more modifiers, while this pattern is relatively common in formal academic writing (with over 20% of noun phrases having multiple modifiers). It thus is highly noteworthy that such structures commonly occur in the New Yorker quotes. Many of the examples listed above are of this type:

a stone quarry from which the Ombal enemy was throwing stones
a night raid in which we sneak into an enemy village
a strong young man in his prime
a spear wound on the back of your leg
a single outnumbered enemy
tall and handsome man
quick but correct decisions
endless cycles of revenge killings
The original cause of the wars between the Handa and Ombal clans

Several of these noun phrases have a very complex structure, with multiple levels of embedding; for example:

The original cause [of the wars [between the Handa and Ombal clans] ]
The way [that we come to understand things [in life] ]
all the stories [that grandfathers tell their grandchildren] [about their relatives [who must be avenged] ]

In general, such structures are extremely unusual in speech but common in writing. However, the examples given above are even more unlikely to occur in speech because they often occur in the subject position of a clause. There is a very strong tendency in English conversation (and speech generally) for the subject noun phrase to be short and simple, usually a simple pronoun, as in

Yeah, he went.

Even when an utterance is longer, the subject noun phrase is almost always short, as in:

I don’t think I can go next week.

The LGSWE reports that more than 70-80% of the subject noun phrases in normal conversation are simple pronouns, and more than 90% of the subjects are a simple noun phrase with no modifiers.

In contrast, what we find in the New Yorker quotes is long, complex noun phrases as the grammatical subject, as in:

[The original cause of the wars between the Handa and Ombal clans] was a pig that ruined a garden.
[The way that we come to understand things in life] is by telling stories, like the stories I am telling you now, and like all the stories that grandfathers tell their grandchildren about their relatives who must be avenged.

Structures like these are found in academic writing, although they are not especially common; rather, even in writing, it is more common to use a relatively simple noun phrase as the grammatical subject. However, such structures are virtually unattested in normal speech, and so the Diamond quotes are highly unusual as representations of speech in this regard.

There are other features in the New Yorker quotes that are unusual, being much more typical of writing than speech. One of the obvious features is the repeated use of passive voice verbs in the quotes (e.g., was felt, be considered, be remembered, be forgotten, be avenged, etc.). Passive voice verbs are generally rare in conversation, but approximately one-third of the verbs in academic writing are passives. The transcribed statement of DW also includes some passive verbs (several about the article ‘being published’), but not with the same density as the Diamond quotes.

A final noteworthy characteristic is the use of to-clauses. Apart from the semi-fixed expression want to (and to a lesser extent would like to), to-clauses are much more common in writing than in speech. However, the Diamond quotes have a very high density of these constructions. What makes this pattern especially noteworthy is the specialized types of to-clauses found in the New Yorker quotes. In particular, two of the constructions that occur repeatedly in the New Yorker quotes are structures that rarely occur in normal speech:

1)Noun + to-clause
the opportunity [to see who really are the best marksmen]
the necessary experience [to make quick but correct decisions]

2)‘extraposed’ to-clauses controlled by an adjective
it’s not acceptable [to set fire to the hut]
it’s already extremely dangerous [for us to penetrate enemy territory]
it will be easy [for the enemy to kill you]

Here again, these structures are relatively common in formal writing, but it is highly unusual to find such structures in normal speech.

In sum, the grammatical characteristics of the New Yorker quotes are much more typical of formal writing than of actual conversational speech. In fact, many of these grammatical characteristics are extremely rare in speech. This fact is all the more striking in that there is a whole suite of ‘literate’ features which appear commonly and pervasively throughout the New Yorker quotes.

It would be less noteworthy to find just one or two examples of ‘literate’ grammatical constructions in speech. Corpus research does not show that such features are impossible in conversation. However, corpus research does show that such features are rare and exceptional in normal conversation.

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Did Daniel Wemp really say that? Fact Checking Jared Diamond

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