Fun with Linguistic Symposia

Academic symposia are great fun if you don’t have a reputation to defend. Listening to a presentation can be informative, but the true entertainment value arises when you watch numerous ivory-tower types begin to shred one another’s theories.

This bit of doggerel has been floating around in my humor files since the 70s (first pulled off a chain printer), and deserves to be appreciated by a new generation of linguists.

With no further ado, I present to you a collection of (allegedly) real interactions documented at early gatherings of linguists. First up:

A Taxonomy of Argument Schemata in Metatheoretic Discussions of Syntax
Name That Tune

I. Logical Argumentation

  1. If A = ¬A, then my position is true.
    Therefore, since A = ¬A, …
  2. A: ¬p.
    B: Since you agree that p, …
  3. P is absurd, therefore q.

II. Now you see it, now...

  1. Your argument supports my position.
  2. I’m aware of these putative counter-arguments, but…
  3. Let me rephrase that so that it agrees with my position…
  4. I think that is true, but I’m not sure it means anything.

III. The Reasoned Response

  1. I don’t see the argument.
  2. I don’t like your example.
  3. That’s not a problem in my theory.
  4. It’s my opinion, and it’s very true.
  5. I still say that…

IV. Papa Knows Best

  1. You say that, but you don’t believe it.
  2. You believe this, but you won’t say it.
  3. What you really believe is ____, and I agree with you.
  4. Our disagreement is merely semantic.
  5. Don’t be misled by the similarity between A and A. It’s merely a superficial identity.

V. Audience Participation: Let’s take a vote!

VI. The Pre-emption

  1. You’re right, but I said it first!
  2. What you say is wrong, and I said it first!

VII. The Putdown

  1. You can’t do it either
  2. That’s true, but uninteresting in the ____ sense!

VIII. Advancing to the rear

  1. I knew that analysis was wrong before I proposed it.
  2. Of course my analysis is wrong in detail – *all* analyses are wrong in detail.

IX. The Principled Argument

A: Shut up!
B: No, *you* shut up!
A: No, *YOU* shut up!


But wait, there’s more!

An Ancillary Guide To Understanding a Syntax Conference

 What the Speaker Says  What the Speaker Means
These examples are from Dyirbal, a widely discussed language, so I will assume familiarity. I don’t know the language well enough to answer questions, so don’t ask any.
When you stop to think about what you said, it doesn’t say anything.  I don’t understand it.
Some examples are vague; the others are simply wrong. I can’t quite put an argument together, but I still want to attack yours.
No one has ever studied “X”. I haven’t studied it, and neither have my friends.
I may have to retreat (there is a possibility), which is a wise thing to do when you are wrong. I assure you that you are a good guy if you say that you are wrong.
Nobody is going to be converted to another side at this conference. This is not a tournament in which someone will win the main prize. This is my excuse for not accepting anyone else’s argument, regardless of how valid it may be.
It is significant in an “interesting” way. I could possible squeeze an article or two out of it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve attended one of these conclaves, but I have no doubt that such things are still heard if you listen closely.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

18th Century Language Map of Asia

1741 Language Map

(Full-size image available here.)

This intriguing linguistic map of Asia by Gottfried Hensel (Asia Poly-Glotta Linguarum Genealogiam, 1741) was found at Maps on the Web.

“The map presents the Lords Prayer in Asian languages and attempts to trace each back to Hebrew as was common at the time. Some interesting items are the scripts of Japan, Siberia, Mesopotamia, and eastern Anatolia. Also Southeast Asia using the Arabic script and Uzbeks using Chinese logographs is a unique sight.”

Now, I’m no linguist, but… oh, wait, I *am* a linguist… that “Japanese” script looks like sheer garbage. The only clue is the Latin inscription below it, which reads “these are written using the Brachmann method.” I have found no modern references to this. It could be some sort of phonetic transcription, which is odd given that various Chinese scripts are represented and the author of the map is no stranger to ideographic writing.

Recognizable are old variants of Hindi (again, a “Brachmann” version), Dravidian script (called “Malabar” here), Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldaic, Chinese, Georgian, Syriac, Farsi, and Armenian.

Fascinating in any case.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

What do languages *sound like*?

Having occupied myself with languages for most of my life, both professionally and by avocation, I’ve had the chance to learn a handful, encounter many, and speak with people about them all over the world.

Every now and then a discussion crops up about this or that language being attractive, another language being harsh and unattractive. Dutch and German particularly tend often to fall on the cacophonous side.

I think German in particular gets a bad rap for sounding rough and bellicose because of the actions and people it was associated with during the last century. I’m convinced that the relative sound of a language is entirely dependent on what we’re used to. You want harsh? Listen to a Poujadiste screaming at a tax collector. There are sounds in Arabic that make German sound positively musical. As for German, have a listen to Mozart’s “Ruhe Sanft” aria, and you’ll hear true beauty.

On the other hand, even as early as the 1500’s Emperor Charles V may have codified the sound of certain languages (I say “may have,” because the only source is secondary – Girolamo Fabrizi d’Acquapendente’s 1601 “De Locutione”):

Unde solebat, ut audio, Carolus V Imperator dicere, Germanorum linguam esse militarem: Hispanorum amatoriam: Italorum oratoriam: Gallorum nobilem. Alius vero, qui Germanus erat, retulit, eundem Carolum Quintum dicere aliquando solitum esse; Si loqui cum Deo oporteret, se Hispanice locuturum, quod lingua Hispanorum gravitatem maiestatemque prae se ferat; si cum amicis, Italice, quod Italorum dialectus familiaris sit; si cui blandiendum esset, Gallice, quod illorum lingua nihil blandius; si cui minandum aut asperius loquendum, Germanice, quod tota eorum lingua minax, aspera sit ac vehemens.

“When Emperor Charles V used to say, as I hear, that the language of the Germans was military; that of the Spaniards pertained to love; that of the Italians was oratorical; that of the French was noble. Indeed another, who was German, related that the same Charles V sometimes used to say: if it was necessary to talk with God, that he would talk in Spanish, which language suggests itself for the graveness and majesty of the Spaniards; if with friends, in Italian, for the dialect of the Italians was one of familiarity; if to caress someone, in French, for no language is tenderer than theirs; if to threaten someone or to speak harshly to them, in German, for their entire language is threatening, rough and vehement.”

These sources distilled themselves over time into the shorter, but misattributed quote, “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to Women, French to Men, and German to my Horse.”

It must be remembered that these characterizations were being supposedly made from the point of view of a native Spanish speaker.

Is it possible that some languages sound harsh because of certain intrinsic linguistic qualities? Not only possible, it’s documented. I first heard the “Bouba/Kiki” Effect in 1978 when it was presented at a linguistics conference by Adam Makkai, although he used the 1946 variants of “Maluma” and “Takete”.


When shown these two figures and asked to identify which one is “maluma” and which one is “takete” – and the words are presented in such a way as to avoid immediate association of one word with one figure – 88% of normally-developing individuals will associate the jagged shape with “takete” and the softer shape as “maluma.” (people on the autistic spectrum only 56% for some reason.) From these experiments it is evident that some linguistic sounds (typically stops, gutterals, affricates, and back vowels) are considered “harder” and others (liquids, glides, and front vowels) are considered “softer.”

Have a look at Tolkien’s linguistic creations:


Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!

Black speech:

Ash nazg durbatulûk,
ash nazg gimbatul
ash nazg thrakatulûk
agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.

You need have no understanding of these synthetic languages whatsoever to imagine that the speakers of the first one might live in a world of softness and light.


The other? “Ashes and dust and thirst there is, and pits, pits, pits.”


So there is justification for considering languages that use these kinds of sounds as being harsh and angular in feel, but when we are raised with a language, these considerations tend to become less important, or not important at all; those who do not concern themselves with literature, song, or poetry generally do not think about what their own language sounds like. And where there exist linguistic theories that the language we speak molds our world view and hence our personalities, there are no socio-linguistic absolutes: I know some really unpleasant French speakers, and some truly lovely Dutchmen.

Today I saw the question, “What does English sound like to people who don’t speak it?” The best representation I’ve seen of that is a delightful video by Adriano Celetano – “Prisencolinensinainciusol.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.