Manny's Reviews > The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
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Feb 03, 2009

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bookshelves: linguistics-and-philosophy
Read in January, 1999

There's a joke in this book that linguists really like. An English woman has just got off the plane at Boston's Logan airport. She takes a cab, and starts questioning the driver about where to obtain various local delicacies.

"Oh yes," she says in her posh English accent. "Could you tell me where you can get scrod here?"

And the driver replies, "You know, you don't often hear that in the pluperfect subjunctive!"

__________________________________________

Another linguist joke, for people who haven't already heard it. The guy is visiting the university, and managed to get himself thoroughly lost. He goes up to an academic-looking type and asks politely,

"Excuse me, do you know which building the linguistics department is in?"

"It's generally considered incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition" replies the academic.

"I'm sorry!" says the visitor. "I mean, do you know which building the linguistics department is in, asshole?"

__________________________________________

An American grad student and a German grad student are talking about their dissertations.

"I've nearly finished mine," boasts the German. "It's in four volumes!"

"Wow!" says the American, impressed. "What are they?"

"Well," says the German. "The first one is the background, the second is the experiments, and the third is the analysis."

"What about the fourth?" asks the American.

"Oh! That's just the verbs."

[You may need to know something about German word-order to find this amusing.:]

__________________________________________

It's the day after the Great Vowel Shift, and this guy goes into a bar.

"Can I have an ale?" he asks.

And the barman replies,

"I'm sorry sir, the fishmonger is next door."

__________________________________________

I wondered where the Great Vowel Shift Joke came from, and - how could I not have guessed? - it turns out to be the work of the late, much-lamented James D. McCawley. Specifically, it comes from his piece "Linguistically Noteworthy Dates in May", which I reproduce here for your delectation:

May 2, 1919. Baudouin de Courtenay concedes defeat in his bid for the presidency of Poland.
May 3, 1955. Mouton & Co. discover how American libraries order books and scheme to cash in by starting several series of books on limericks. The person given charge of this project mishears and starts several series of books on linguistics. No one ever notices the mistake.
May 5, 1403. The Great English Vowel Shift begins. Giles of Tottenham calls for ale at his favorite pub and is perplexed when the barmaid tells him that the fishmonger is next door.
May 6, 1939. The University of Chicago trades Leonard Bloomfield to Yale University for two janitors and an undisclosed number of concrete gargoyles.
May 7, 1966. r-less pronunciation is observed in eight kindergarten pupils in Secaucus, N.J. The governor of New Jersey stations national guardsmen along the banks of the Hudson.
May 9, 1917. N. Ja. Marr discovers ROSH, the missing link for Japhetic unity.
May 11, 1032. Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II orders isoglosses erected across northern Germany as defense against Viking intruders.
May 12, 1965. Sydney Lamb announces discovery of the hypersememic stratum, setting off a wave of selling on the NYSE.
May 13. Vowel Day. (Public holiday in Kabardian Autonomous Region). The ceremonial vowel is pronounced by all Kabardians as a symbol of brotherhood with all speakers of human languages.
May 14, 519 B.C. Birth of Panini.
May 15, 1964. J. Katz and J. Fodor are separated in 5-hour surgery from which neither recovers.
May 17, 1966. J. R. Ross tells a clean joke.
May 18, 1941. Quang Phuc Dong is captured by the Japanese and interned for the duration of hostilities.
May 19. Diphthong Day. (Public holiday in Australia)
May 20, 473 B.C. Publisher returns to Panini a manuscript entitled Saptadhyayi with a note requesting the addition of a chapter on phonology. Panini begins struggling to meet the publisher's deadline.
May 21, 1962. First mention of The Sound Pattern of English as ‘in press’.
May 23, 38,471 B.C. God creates language.
May 26, 1945. Zellig Harris applies his newly formulated discovery procedures and discovers [t].
May 27, 1969. George Lakoff discovers the global rule. Supermarkets in Cambridge, Mass. are struck by frenzied buying of canned goods.
May 29, 1962. Angular brackets are discovered. Classes at M.I.T. are dismissed and much Latvian plum brandy is consumed.
May 30, 1939. Charles F. Hockett finishes composing the music for the Linguistic Society of America's anthem, ‘Can You Hear the Difference?’
May 31, 1951. Chomsky discovers Affix-hopping and is reprimanded by his father for discovering rules on shabas.
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03/01/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-37 of 37) (37 new)

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message 1: by Trice (new) - added it

Trice wasn't it Winston Churchill who, in response to someone who criticized his grammar usage, said something like, "That is something up with which I will not put."


Manny I believe it was "Nonsense, up with which I will not put". As he wittily pointed out, the rule about clause-final prepositions is crap.


message 3: by notgettingenough (last edited Apr 17, 2010 03:54PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

notgettingenough I asked my mother this morning if she had any good linguistic jokes. None came to mind, but she's always full of good advice and she did say to me before I hung up 'Remember to never split your infinitives.' My mother is very easily amused, even by my low standards.


message 4: by Aerin (new)

Aerin Huh. I just bought my friend a birthday card with the same joke, except it's two teenage girls in a cafeteria:

"Where's your birthday party at?"
"Don't end a sentence with a preposition."
"Where's your birthday party at, bitch?"

Which in turn reminded me of an incident that happened in art class at my (Catholic girls') high school:

Classmate, who has finished her art project: "Where should I hang it at?"
Art-teaching nun: "Ahem! We speak proper English here! We do not end sentences with prepositions!"
Classmate, after some thought: "Where at should I hang it?"


message 5: by Brad (new)

Brad Crack me up.


message 6: by Trish (new)

Trish C'mon, Manny, certainly the review should be 4 stars at least for getting you to crack a smile. I especially like the first one and shall use it soon, being as I am, from Boston.


message 7: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Manny wrote: "I believe it was "Nonsense, up with which I will not put". As he wittily pointed out, the rule about clause-final prepositions is crap."

Manny, wrong. He was telling his idiot speech writer to use better English. Not funnying a rule. The speech writer was supposed to have written something along the lines of "That is something I will not tolerate" and mangled it, hence Churchill writing that absurdity.

Yeah, and I'm a preposition pedant, too. So shoot me.


message 8: by notgettingenough (last edited Dec 13, 2010 02:21AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

notgettingenough G N wrote: "Manny wrote: "I believe it was "Nonsense, up with which I will not put". As he wittily pointed out, the rule about clause-final prepositions is crap."

Manny, wrong. He was telling his idiot speec..."


Actually, it has been established that Churchill did not say this. Sorry to spoil the party. Ben Zimmer did the research:

The earliest citation of the story that I've found so far in newspaper databases is from 1942, without any reference to Churchill:

The Wall Street Journal, 30 Sep 1942 ("Pepper and Salt"): When a memorandum passed round a certain Government department, one young pedant scribbled a postscript drawing attention to the fact that the sentence ended with a preposition, which caused the original writer to circulate another memorandum complaining that the anonymous postscript was "offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put." —The Strand Magazine.

Churchill often contributed to London's Strand Magazine, so it seems unlikely that the magazine would fail to identify the unnamed writer as Churchill if he were indeed the source of the story. Attributions to Churchill only began to surface well after the war's end.

In Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log


Reminds me of Wilde exclaiming after a friend's witticism (paraphrasing) 'I wish I'd said that' to which the friend replied, 'Oh, you will say it, Oscar....'


message 9: by Scribble (new)

Scribble Orca Thank you, NGE! Just goes to show how things travel by word of mouth far and twisted from the source. I'd read more or less the same thing elsewhere (and made the urban myth assumption instead of checking the facts) but with the attribution to Churchill.

Having said that, I will not put up any other defence in support of my untenable position and attachment to those little words which grace the beginning of a phrase.


Lindig I'm a big fan of Steven Pinker.


message 11: by [deleted user] (new)

lol i remember that part, i was constantly telling that joke to people


Manny I think the ban on splitting infinitives is one of those silly prescriptive grammar rules perpetuated by English teachers. The Wikipedia article is quite sensible. As they point out, the English infinitive used to be one word, hence couldn't be split. But now that it's two words, there is no reason why they have to be kept together, and many distinguished modern authors split infinitives.

German separable verbs, as you point out, often have to be separated, and there's certainly nothing wrong with doing that in English either.


message 13: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Grayejoy In the 18 May 1992 issue of The Times it was stated that 'The most diligent search can find no modern grammarian to pedantically, to dogmatically, to invariably condemn a split infinitive.'


message 14: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Manny-

Do you read the books you review, or do you sometimes get a review under the incorrect book? I was just wondering where Pinker was in your review. Maybe 13 years is too long to recall the argument of a book. Or is Pinker just another DFW grammar nerd and not a linguist?

When the snark quiets down, HERE is a recent piece by Pinker in regard to the descriptivist v prescriptivist debate:


Manny When I haven't read the book, I say so! This "review" just happened. I posted the first joke, which actually is in the book, and then I added another one, and then another. Sorry :)

If you want to see a real linguistics review, look for example at Language Interrupted.


message 16: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Manny wrote: "If you want to see a real linguistics review, look for example at Language Interrupted. "

Thanks Manny. I suspected there be competency in evidence here somewheres. Me was just curious because of this recent review of this book about fallacies in regard to language-related trivia: The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language.

And as a general orientation for myself while reading your language-related reviews, do you distinguish between the kind of linguistics done by chomskian/pinkerian/generative gammar v. comparative linguistics? My sense is that your interest lies more on the side of compariative and less on the MIT school side. I don't want my bull-headed ignorance to misunderstand your reviews, which I will be forthcomingly perusing.


Manny I work in computational linguistics, so mostly phrase-structure grammars. Take a look at my what-i-do-for-a-living shelf...


message 18: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Manny wrote: "I work in computational linguistics, so mostly phrase-structure grammars. Take a look at my what-i-do-for-a-living shelf..."

Thanks for that. I'm all for helping us layfolk better understand arcane areas of research. Just as on off the cuff recommendation, if you are at all interested in debates in the philosophy of language, Hilary Putnam's Renewing Philosophy I recall being very insightful. It's available, in its entirety I believe, on google books. But that's just today's free association.


Manny I have never read any Putnam, though I keep meaning to. Thanks, I will take a look!


message 20: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Manny wrote: "I have never read any Putnam, though I keep meaning to. Thanks, I will take a look!"

I feel like I'm being pedantic here, but I was surprised to not find Chomsky on your shelves. His On Language would be a good one to look at, I believe. But anyhow if not. . . Also there's the Chomsky-Foucault debate on human nature which is one of those classic meetings of great minds.


Manny I know, I know... I hate to say it, but I am just not that keen on Chomsky. His syntactic theories are so hard to turn into software, though a few valiant people have tried...


message 22: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Manny wrote: "His syntactic theories are so hard to turn into software"

; )

I guess then my question would be why is it difficult to do so? That's my philosophy of language/mind question which needn't be the first question. But if it's true that Chomsky's generative grammar accounts for human language acquisition, what does that say about AI attempts, etc.? Only just that you'd seem to be in a good position to address that kind of question. So, any way, it would be a question of the status of projects like AI, which is not necessarily the kind of thing you are working on. You seem to be involved more in a 'machine syntax' rather than a reproduction of human language capacity, or perhaps 'interface' might be an apropos term.


message 23: by Nathan "N.R." (new)

Nathan "N.R." Gaddis Here's one for you, Manny:

Essays on Pāņini by D D Mahulkar


Chris I read this part on an airplane and laughed obnoxiously loudly for about 5 minutes.


message 25: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Oh, my, Manny! Why did you do this to me? Now I am sitting here crying, being made fully aware about the deficiencies of my meager ESL skills.

I didn't understand the first joke, even though I had a hunch what the cab driver took "scrod" for. Yet where, the heck, is there a pluperfect subjunctive in this sentence??

I also didn't understand most of the Linguistically Noteworthy Dates in May.

Now I am sitting here with a severe case of inferiority complex. If this turns into something chronic, it will be all your fault. :-(


message 26: by Lilo (new)

Lilo I suppose all of you know the following joke. I'll tell it here for just in case that somebody doesn't.

A young American woman walks over a subway air-vent, in N.Y. The air blows her skirt up high. An Englishman passes by. He assumes that the young woman must be embarrassed. So, as a perfect gentleman, he wants to ease her embarrassment and says: "Kind a airy, isn't it? The young woman turns around and replies: "What did you expect? -- Feathers?"


message 27: by Jim (new)

Jim Here's my favorite linguistics joke (actually the only one I can remember):

A linguistics professor is holding forth in class:

"In English, a double negative forms a positive. In Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However, in no language does a double positive form a negative."

A voice in the back interjects:
"Yeah, right."


Ehnaton Recently, I learnt a joke on Quora. Frederick Jelinek was a well-known researcher in the field of NLP and speech recognition. I believe Manny is well aware of him. Jelinek used to say "Every time I fire a linguist, the performance of the speech recognizer goes up".
It's hilarious indeed.


message 29: by Muath (new)

Muath Aziz I wonder how many strokes a linguisticsy gets listening to Trump


message 30: by Lilo (new)

Lilo Muath wrote: "I wonder how many strokes a linguisticsy gets listening to Trump"

I suppose they all drop dead.


Manny Ehnaton wrote: "Recently, I learnt a joke on Quora. Frederick Jelinek was a well-known researcher in the field of NLP and speech recognition. I believe Manny is well aware of him. Jelinek used to say "Every time I fire a linguist, the performance of the speech recognizer goes up".
It's hilarious indeed. "


If I remember correctly, he used to say "Every time I fire a linguist, the performance of the speech recognizer goes up by 2%, but unfortunately this method tops out after a while."

The whole community misses Fred, he was one of a kind. I was lucky enough to hear him speak at conferences a couple of times, and I treasure those memories - despite the fact that I'm very interested in using linguistic methods in speech recognition.


message 32: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel Wikipedia gives some background about the Frederick Jelinek quote.

I found the quote funny too, but then I learned it may have an actual basis in the nature of the problem. Chapter 4 of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future says:
"[Google's language translating] algorithms used what might be called a “Rosetta Stone” approach to the problem by analyzing and comparing millions of pages of text that had already been translated into multiple languages. [...]
In 2005, Google entered its system in the annual machine translation competition held by the National Bureau of Standards and Technology, an agency within the US Commerce department that publishes measurement standards. Google’s machine learning algorithms were able to easily outperform the competition—which typically employed language and linguistic experts who attempted to actively program their translation systems to wade through the mire of conflicting and inconsistent grammatical rules that characterize languages.
"



message 33: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel Perhaps if Alanis Morissette had used the Jelinek example in her song Ironic, she wouldn't have attracted so much criticism for misusing the term.


Manny Daniel wrote: "Wikipedia gives some background about the Frederick Jelinek quote.

I found the quote funny too, but then I learned it may have an actual basis in the nature of the problem. Chapter 4 of [book:Rise..."


You might want to look at Statistical Machine Translation and Crowdsourcing for Speech Processing . Very thought-provoking books!


Manny Daniel wrote: "Perhaps if Alanis Morissette had used the Jelinek example in her song Ironic, she wouldn't have attracted so much criticism for misusing the term."

I had not heard of the "Ironic" controversy. Excellent! :)


message 36: by [deleted user] (new)

Love this kind of humor and even understand 30% of it. Wish I knew a joke. .............................. Ummnn.


message 37: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel
Woo wrote: "Wish I knew a joke."
You inspired me to DuckDuckGo for some (every search engine name doubles as a verb now). This page of linguist jokes has some good ones.

And to Manny: thanks for the recommends. I'll add them to my to-read shelf. I read 54 books in 2016 (don't be fooled by Goodreads' inexplicable double-count of a book), and if I can maintain that pace I'll clear my to-read list in a few decades. I think I will have to up the pace.

I can't recall how I stumbled across the Alanis Morissette "Ironic" controversy, but I declare without irony that I'm happy I did. I even worked it into my latest book review, where I mentioned the dramatic irony resulting from inadequate preparation by the "Con" side of a Munk debate.

Naturally, now when I read authors who like to preface every other sentence with the word "ironically" (instead of trusting the reader to spot whatever contrast, conflict, or incongruity they are trying to highlight), I try to decide whether the sentence really does fit the definition of irony, or is merely ironic in the Alanis Morissette sense. "Ironically" seems to enjoy a level of popular overuse (or misuse) similar to that of the word "literally," which itself may be an instance of irony since "literally" often means "figuratively" (as in "I felt so ashamed that I literally died").


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