Archive for the ‘pondering’ Category


A couple notes on diglossia

October 17, 2011

Let me preface everything I’m about to say by first checking my privilege: I’m a white American. I’m affluent enough to up and move ten thousand miles without putting my whole family in serious financial peril. I natively speak English, and have never been forced to learn a second language because of my place in situation. I have never worked for minimum wage in the United States. I went to college mostly on loans.

Next, let me complicate my privilege a little bit: I’m the racial minority where I live. I do not have permanent residence here. The work I do puts me in a sometimes-fluctuating legal status, even though I am a legal alien. I’m the linguistic minority, and share no language with the government of the country I live in. I rely almost entirely on my employer and my bilingual friends to help me with legal and financial transactions. I’m learning, but I work full time and cannot devote enough time to the language to make a serious scholarly effort at it– my efforts are all pragmatic, all focused on getting me through my day-to-day routine.

This does not remove my white privilege, nor does it change the (quantifiable) fact of my linguistic privilege– I am employed because I speak English. That is the primary reason I am employed. My degree, my skills, my personal qualities are all secondary to this.


So! All that said, my kindergarteners are weird. Just last week, I got switched into a K2 class– what Americans would expect as normal kindergarten age, around four or five years old. They’ve had one year of school already, in K1, which is essentially preschool-with-high-expectations. After a year of ESL immersion in K1, my K2 kids are basically fluent in classroom English. They know the alphabet, they know all the objects in the room, they know most of the verbs we encounter every day (sit down, clean your bowl, go get a tissue, stop hitting your classmates, be quiet, don’t put your shoes there, color nicely, be careful not to drop your crayons, etc etc). They comprehend surprisingly complex syntactic constructions from me. They’ll parse conditionals, embedded clauses, WH-clefts, all sorts of bizarre shit that I can’t always explain analytically. They speak to me in English. They stutter almost exactly like American kindergarteners stutter. They get too excited to form words slowly, and garble everything together– exactly like American kindergarteners. There are very few times when I don’t understand them because of a language barrier. (I even understand some very basic child-uttered Chinese, like wo mei yo “I didn’t do it/I don’t have it!” and bu yao “I don’t wanna!”)

For the most part, they also speak to my Chinese co-teacher in English, and she does the same to them. This is where it gets interesting, though– for emotional concepts, or confusing things, the kids or my co-teacher will switch into Chinese. It’s just easier for them, and it’s not so impolite to me that they’d get in trouble. When she’s trying to figure out why someone’s crying, or trying to explain a difficult new task that we’re doing, Chinese is just smoother. My co-teacher will usually translate anything that I need to know, so I’m not terribly out of the loop. My kids will usually remember not to try to speak Chinese with me, though when they’re very emotional they sometimes forget.

With each other, the kids mostly speak Chinese. They speak it when they’re playing, or coloring and trading crayons, or gossiping, or teasing. There are only two situations in which I’ve ever heard these kids speak English to each other: either they’re bossing a classmate around (for general bossy reasons, or repeating my directions to get them to hurry up), or they’re calling them out for some perceived slight. English is the language of instruction and discipline, to them; this is what they use it for with me, so it’s what they use it for with each other. I’m constantly surprised with how consistent this is– I’ve seen similar behavior in my elementary students, and it gets more cemented the longer they’re in this format of school. Chinese is what you use for an emotional conversation; English is what you use for an official one. This is a kind of bilingualism that has the diglossia very finely cut, so the slices are almost translucent. They’ll change between sentences, but the code-switch is so controlled by this factor that I can sometimes figure out what they’re saying just by the fact that it’s not in English.


Anyways. It’s a thing. Thoughts, internet?


[*]Lem (once again) reads me when I him

August 29, 2011

Stanislaw Lem, author of Imaginary Magnitudes, source of the “eruntics” portion of this blog’s title, also wrote The Futurological Congress, which I am currently in the middle of. Here is a passage, from pretty late in the game. (If you’ve read any Lem, though, you know it’s impossible to be spoiled, so don’t worry.)

“[…] without a couple of good, stiff shots I couldn’t be a futurologian today!”

“A futurologist?”

“That word means something different now. A futurologist makes profutes, prognoses, prophecies, while I deal exclusively with theory. This is a completely new field, unknown in our day. You might call it divination through linguistic derivation. Morphological forecasting! Projective etymology!”

“Never heard of it. How does it work?”

To tell the truth, I had asked more out of politeness than curiosity, but he didn’t seem to notice. Meanwhile the waiters brought our soup and, with it, a bottle of Chablis, vintage 1997. A good year.

“Linguistic futurology investigates the future through the transformational possibilities of language,” Trottelreiner explained.

“I don’t understand.”

“A man can only control what he comprehends, and comprehend only what he is able to put into words. The inexpressible therefore is unknowable. By examining future stages in the evolution of language we come to learn what discoveries, changes and social revolutions the language will be capable, some day, of reflecting.”

“Amazing. How exactly is this done?”

“Our research is conducted with the aid of the very largest computers, for man by himself could never keep track of all the variations. By variations of course I mean the syntagmatic-paradigmatic permutations of the language, but quantized…”

“Professor, please!”

“Forgive me. The Chablis is excellent, by the way. A few examples ought to make the matter clear. Give me a word, any word.”


“Myself? H’m. Myself. All right. I’m not a computer, you understand, so this will have to be simple. Very well then–myself. My, self, mine, mind. Mynd. Thy mind–thynd. Like ego, theego. And we makes wego. Do you see?”

“I don’t see a thing.”

“But it’s perfectly obvious! We’re speaking, first, of the possibility of the merging of the mynd with the thynd, in other words the fusion of two psychic entities. Secondly, the wego. Most interesting. A collective consciousness. Produced perhaps by the multiple dissocation of the personality, a mygraine. Another word, please.”

[…]”But these words have no meaning!”

“At the moment, no, but they will. Or, rather, they may eventually acquire meaning, provided [they] catch on. The word ‘robot’ meant nothing in the fifteenth century, and yet if they had had futurolinguists then, they could have easily envisioned automata.”

A little deterministic, yes, but god I like that this is a thing. Wish I’d found this book when I was taking that cyberpunk class, I could write a million papers for it right now.


linguistic entropy and me could have a bad romance

October 6, 2010

I’m working on a paper right now for my “senior seminar” independent study in literature that involves me making the head of the literature department read Chomsky. So I’ve assigned myself, in this, the task of writing a squib next week about UG as an analogy for narratology. Meanwhile, my housemate is doing some work in phonology class that leads towards (but not exactly to) OT.

So, all that plus some pumpkin ale and listening to Bad Romance over and over has led to an exciting new pet theory, which I shall now inflict on y’all: The Gaga artistic project is a realization of the asymptotic approach of poetic language towards the removal of all constraints within optimality theory.

My argument is mainly in the use of lyrics like the “ra ra ah ah ah” line (as it is typically transcribed by non-linguists), which is essentially a repetition of minimally marked phonemes (schwas and glottal stops) within a minimally marked prosodic template (heavy single syllables, and one trochee; in short, bimoraic feet). This line is not semantically void, and the phonological patterns which it takes to the extreme do color the rest of the pronunciation of the lyrics in the song. When I can talk my pet phonologists into doing so, through threats or bribes, I will show some more detailed data which demonstrate this. The point is, this kind of poetic/linguistic representation of entropy is essentially the eventual conclusion (which, since it is an asymptotic approach, no language will ever reach) of markedness constraints.

Meanwhile, I’d argue that a similar thing happens in the syntax/semantics realm with Kenji Siratori’s book Nonexistence, a book which many from my Cyberpunk class with Professor Godzich reported to be essentially gibberish and (to a bunch of literature majors) thus a little traumatizing. Originally I sort of agreed, but later found this essay on the matter, which I quite enjoyed. To extend further the idea of reading like a nonhuman entity, I would argue that this smorgasbord of synesthesic symbols comes a breakdown of the links between writing and sound, and furthermore between language and meaning. By introducing to a linguistic creature (say, a hundred lit majors) a pattern of things that resemble linguistic behavior but in fact are not language, you cause an upset. Why did no less than three students cry in Professor Godzich’s office that week, and seriously consider switching out of their literature majors altogether? Because the very foundational assumption of their field– the assumption that linguistic material signifies semantic content– was being directly challenged.

It’s that assumption that holds OT together against entropy, too: to combat the markedness constraints that should push us all into “rah rah ah ah” territory, there are faithfulness constraints which bind sound-signifiers to semantic units which they represent. You cannot, within the faithfulness constraints, stray too far from the original signifier without confusing the heck out of your listener. When, however, you strip the semantic connections, as both Gaga and Siratori do, you can get either meaningless sequences of wordlike things (Nonexistence) or you can get meaningful sequences of unwordlike things (Bad Romance).

This isn’t actually going anywhere, if you’re curious.

Um, also I think UG is neat. The end!


Another brief linguistic interlude (now with meat)

August 8, 2010

So I was eating a burger, right? I’d never had Five Guys before, so someone insisted I try it, so I was eating a burger and it was bigger than my FACE and was sort of too much for me. I said to my companion at the time:

“Augh, I am being conquered by meat!”

After giggling to ourselves like twelve-year-olds for like twenty minutes, we resume eating. Later, though, she says to me, “How’s the meat-conquering going?”

And I pause, and think about this, because I was pretty sure that the meat was conquering me, not the other way around. But she didn’t see anything wrong with the sentence she’d said, even though the reading was pretty clearly the exact opposite of what the pragmatic context would demand.

Now, I keep running into this because I still haven’t really sorted out gerunds or gerundives in a real methodical way, so I have no grammar to deal with this as of yet. However! I do know that it gets pretty weird when there’s a passive involved:

(1x) # How’s that ((you)) meat-conquering going?
[How’s that you-conquering-meat going?]

(1a) # How’s that meat-conquering ((you)) going?
(1b) * How’s that getting conquered by meat going?
(1c) * How’s that being conquered by meat going?

(1x) is the normal sense of how gerund-compounds work: the object moves to the front of the verb, and the subject is unpronounced. Other examples:

(2) Book-reading is the best path to literacy.
(3) Cigarette-smoking is terrible for your lungs.
(4) Beer-drinking makes you smell funny the next morning.

In (2)-(4), we see that the objects of the gerundicated verbs (shut up, I get to make up words when I want) all get appended to the left of those verbs. In (1), we’d assume that the pattern would go the same way.

Now, what’s really fascinating to me is that my companion opted to pronounce (1x)/(1a), and did not notice any sort of semantic error until I pointed out. (1b) and (1c) are both syntactically horrific, though, and I think it’s fascinating that a speaker will opt for a semantic error over a syntactic one. I have an inkling (not yet solid enough to be a hypothesis, even) that this will prove to be a very consistent pattern among different kinds of speakers. Keep your eyes and ears out for more of these and let me know, yes?


Syntactic methodology in rural Virginia

July 30, 2010

So it’s time for a thought experiment! I’m driving through rural Virginia. Really really rural. Really really Virginia. And there are signs here (I’ll add a picture whenever I can get one without causing an accident) that read:

(1) Stop for SCHOOLBUS loading or unloading CHILDREN.

Leaving aside the inexplicable EMPHASIS, I considered briefly the loading or unloading children phrase.

So imagine, for a moment, that I’m the DA in… what county am I in? Harrisonburg, or somesuch. Imagine also that I am faced with a man, let’s call him Joe, who is contesting a traffic ticket he got for passing a schoolbus unsafely about 100 feet after one of these signs. Joe claims that he was under the impression that he was required to stop for a schoolbus only when he was loading or unloading children.

Mind, we know logically that this is highly stupid. Most judges would just tell him that, fine him, send him to traffic school, and buy the trooper who pulled him over a beer after work. This judge, however, has a deep weakness in his heart for proving that the letter and the spirit of the law are somehow matched. So he takes me into a back room, and tells me that if I can prove that the defendent has no linguistic excuse (assuming he’s a native English speaker, and we will for the moment do just that) to have misinterpreted the sign, then he’ll take me and all my linguist buddies out for drinks after this.

Once I am appropriately motivated, I of course start in on the syntax of the sign. Now, I have not yet personally tackled gerunds/gerundives in my syntactic exploits, so I don’t totally know what to do with the [loading or unloading childred] chunk. For now, I declare it an adverbial PP, with the head [while] assumed to be silent. This fits in with both readings:

(2a) (You) stop for schoolbus (while) (it is) loading or unloading children.
(2b) (You) stop for schoolbus (while) (you are) loading or unloading children.

The defendant claims that (2b) is a reasonable reading of (1), while I must prove that syntactically (2a) is the only reasonable reading. How shall I do this? Well, PPs are quite mobile, aren’t they?

Now, in the adverbial PP above, we have the head P selecting as its complement an entire TP which just so happens to be in the present progressive. This means that somewhere in that TP, there’s a VP, and somewhere in that VP, there’s a subject to the verbs. This is, at some level, what we’re after– but more importantly, we’re after the ability to move or delete that subject, since it obviously does not appear in the surface form.

One way for me to test this would be to test a series of similar sentences that have the anaphoric structure of (2a) and (2b), to see which would be more likely to allow for the deletion of the second subject. This would provide very strong evidence in my favor: [schoolbus] is the closest noun to the deleted subject, which strongly implies that pragmatically it would be the most favorable. However, the fact that (2b) is a felicitous sentence at all suggests that this is not enough to fully prove (2a)’s dominance.

Back to the PP mobility issue. As an adverbial PP, the structure should be able to adjoin directly to the VP (stop for schoolbus) on either side. Let’s test this:

(3a) (While) (it is) loading or unloading children, (you must) stop for schoolbus.
(3b) (While) (you are) loading or unloading children, (you must) stop for schoolbus.

Interestingly, this stifles the deletability of the head P (while) and the subjects:

(4) *Loading or unloading children, stop for schoolbus.
(4x) While unloading or loading children, stop for schoolbus.

In (4), we find that we can’t delete the head P at all. If we retain it, however, we get (4x), which has a very strong (if slightly nonsensical– but that’s the defendant’s problem, not mine) reading that You is the subject of the loading/unloading. This is once again a proximity thing in terms of the anaphora: you is at that point the closest possible subject. This is some stronger evidence in favor of proximity deciding the pragmatic content of the deleted subject.

This is the tricky bit. We put the court in recess while I go find a bloody mary. (Sobriety is for those who don’t have to write about syntax.)


two points don’t make a line in the gap

July 23, 2010

When did the Gap become all I am interested in talking or writing about? It’s sort of getting embarrassing. Ah, well, I’ll stop soon.

So, on twitter, a mild non-debate. Benladen, one of my esteemed colleagues who keeps what I consider one of the weirdest blogs ever, also known as That Guy Mark Yudof Kicked Out of Twitter for a while, posted this:

next time you think something is “beyond words” or you’re experiencing something “past language,” please fucking die you idiot


I retweeted it, which is what Ohhhlala, a good friend of mine, responded to thusly:

There are ways of communicating “beyond words.” A soft touch, a kiss, a smile, tears. And more often, those are more powerful than words.


Now, I’m in a bit of a pickle, because I mostly don’t think anyone’s an idiot, especially on this topic. But I do think there are a couple main points regarding the first tweet which need to be better articulated:

1. Language is an infinite resource. Lexicographers and English majors really don’t like hearing this, but there’s no actual rule about who has the authority to create new words and use them. Which words survive and which never get out of a circle of five assholes on a street corner is sort of up to usage and spreading patterns, but there’s no law that you have to have a PhD in Literature to be allowed to coin words. People do it all the time. Moreover, there are mathematically infinite combinations you can make with existing words, because syntax is iterative and recursive, so you can keep adding on those similes and prepositional phrases with adverbial content until you are literally blue in the face, and there’s no language cop gonna pull you over for speeding.

2. Reality is totally subjective. A bold statement, but not a new or inventive one. To be clear, I do ssssssort of believe that there is some external, objective reality off of which we all base our subjective models in our heads, but since the ones in our heads are the only ones we can prove to actually exist, we’re sort of stuck. Language is one of the mechanisms we use to try and physically realize some arbitrary symbolic code representing the reality in our skulls, so that someone else can interpret those symbols and try to piece it together in their own skull. If we ever encounter a thing, an event, or an idea that doesn’t seem to be able to be expressed in words, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any words for it, just that we don’t have words in our particular understanding of language. Also, see point 1.

Now, on the other side, some equally important points:

3. Not all communication is language. Not every tenuous bridge over that scary two-layered gap between two humans is going to be made of language. Besides the basic so-called “body language” (which has no grammar and the vocabulary of which is largely intuitive but that’s not my specialty and I’m not getting into it), there’s still music, art, dancing, throwing rocks at people… these are all ways of communicating that are not within the mathematical abstract body that we can adequately call language. Are there things in the world that can only be symbolized or actualized in the world by way of throwing rocks at someone? I actually don’t know; that level of specific abstraction makes me suspect that throwing rocks would then become semi- or at least para-linguistic. Ish. Don’t quote me on that.

4. Language is a flawed tool. As demonstrated by all sorts of wonderful people totally misunderstanding me when I try to have serious conversations over text message, language alone is obviously not enough. Actions “speak” louder than words (and I use that cliche very carefully), and there are many things that would be misconstrued or not cleanly and clearly communicated in words that are very, very easily communicated by throwing rocks.

So, uh, there. For any confusion with my weird idiosyncratic gap metaphor I refer people back to my illustration of The Gap

Edit to add: In Ben’s defense, he immediately also posted this, which I then failed to retweet because I didn’t see it. It’s possibly the most crucial point in the whole debate.


brooklyn to manhattan (minding the gap)

July 22, 2010

I’m in New York City. Alone. It’s sort of trippy, not least because I’m moving around a lot each night. My car’s well out of the city, parked Somewhere Safe, and this is the first time in about two months that I’ve been this far from it. My van’s my home right now, and it makes me nervous not to be able to check on it constantly.

No matter. I’ve been riding the subway a lot, as one does here, and it is a peculiar kind of delight. I have, and always have had, a deep fear of the vestibules on trains; I think it’s some combination of dangerous liminal spaces and really loud noises, but I can barely breathe when the doors between cars are open. That said, that’s not the gap they warn you about on the subway; the announcer is always sweetly reminding you to keep your toes and fancy high heels out of the small gap between the train and the platform. That gap does not alarm me, because I know what’s down there: train tracks, cigarette butts, and a lot of gum. But the open vestibule does alarm me, because that gap still exists while we’re hurtling under the city at deafening speed, and because there is no guarantee of what exactly exists in that space.

My Gap Anxiety is a constant motif of this grand roadtrip of mine, but I have a hard time explaining it while sober. To save everyone a lot of angst, and myself a lot of liver damage, I’ve drawn a picture for y’all:

I am highly-trained in design and presentation. You can tell from my skillful use of Microsoft Paint.