Posts Tagged ‘memetics’


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.)


So, seriously, how many?

July 5, 2010

I am bored, and sitting on a bench, and decided to start asking google some questions. As you do.

First question: how may linguists DOES it take to change a lightbulb?

Possible answers:
Nine, though by this answer my entire department only counts as one person.
One. Plus a photographer, I guess.
One, but apparently this one’s more of a grammarian prescriptivist type. (It’s at the very bottom of the page, after several dozen other jokes misusing my job title. Such as it is.)

And, my favorite, a new question altogether.

Okay, I am a nerd and am going to stop now.


To begin:

June 25, 2010

There is, within the confines of my mens, an abstraction of the world by which I percieve it– the world, that is. Since there is no way to actually process the physical world into meaningful semantic categories of analysis without abstracting, I abstract. It is the first step of removal. There are ways to undo this process– language, especially referential language, is a way of externalizing that inner world in which “I,” or my first-level abstraction of myself, reside, by turning these thoughts into physical actions of my body which can code and then be decoded by other people back into their own abstraction of the physical world. However, since there is an inherent and inalienable gap between my first-level abstraction and the physical world, there is no way of ever knowing that the signifiers and signs I choose to use in my physical actualization of my abstraction will be construed to signify the exact same set of conditions and categories when some listener percieves and decodes the physical language into their own idea of the world.

This, my darlings, is the semantic gap. It is a yawning chasm which has long woken me up at night, shaken me from myself in terror. It is also the gap that some choose to stare into, in hopes of seeing beyond; the notion is that it is possible, and indeed preferable, to encounter the truth of the world without mistaking that truth for the abstraction we use to represent it.

This first-level abstraction doesn’t always cause the big problems, though. We then further abstract the first model, which is our understanding of the physical world as it exists in categories and events, into a second model, which is our story of ourselves. Our second-level abstraction is the way we categorize for analysis more complex things, like emotions and philosophies and dreams and imaginations and free will as it pertains to events in the world. It is drawing connections between categories, drawing causal links and formulae to help us understand what is ultimately too massive and unorganized to otherwise be comprehended; our whole idea of the world as it exists is too big, so we sort the piles of “things that are grass” and “things that are me” and “events of breathing” and “events of falling” into “things that are objects” and “things that are events” and “things that I like.” That last one is excessively complex, because it requires both a conception of “I,” which is some prototypical me-ness sublimated from a series of events and things that I’ve observed in the world, and it also requires a conception of “liking,” which is some prototypical emotion sublimated from a series of events and things that I’ve observed in the world.

Let me back up one step: people are not people. People are a series of events and things.

Let me back up one more step: I’m on this road trip, see.


regarding wildfires and more Homer

January 15, 2010

Translation Theory notes from Jan. 15, 2010
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no longer care about these stray indents

January 13, 2010

Translation Theory notes from Jan. 13, 2010
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