June 6th, 2006

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Personal note....

If I don't post today, please blame it on Providence -- we've only been getting three- or four-minute breaks between whopping thunderstorms since about 4:30 this morning. I'm sneaking this note into one of those breaks...
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Sampler, from Newsletters Past....

It has stopped thunderstorming here, finally -- I did some forcible contemplation along the lines of "May that rain go where it's needed, for once," as requested -- and I can now post without fear of electrifizzication. So.....

Newsletters Past Sampler

1. Forbes magazine is so cute! Neologistically speaking. As in "Sock, We're Gonna Make You a Star," by Kiri Blakeley, all about the spotted sock-puppet-dog in the Pet.com commercials (agented by the same man who turned Taco Bell's talking chihuahua into $155 million dollars worth of licensed merchandise in two years). The piece says:

"The sock puppet was a master salesthing from the get-go"; it mentions a writer complaining that "the spokespooch" was an imitation of an idea of the writer's own; elsewhere, it calls the critter a "spokespuppet." It poses the question of whether "the sock has legs."

This was on page 68 of the 6/12/00 issue. I challenge its creator to produce a wildly popular and lucrative master salesthing based on a pair of underpants or a bra. A sock is too easy.

2. Yes, Virginia, there is touch dominance.....

Among my colleagues in linguistics there are some who tell me they don't believe that touch dominance exists, or that they don't believe it can be spotted in sequences of real-world language (those I call Touch Mode sequences), or both. It has been suggested to me vigorously that the concept is only science fiction of my own creation. I understand their dubiousness; people are always claiming to have "discovered" Inner Entities & Outer Whatnots, on slim evidence. Dubiousness is a healthy sign; I'm for it. However, I'd like to offer here in my defense a chunk of correspondence that I received recently (with minor details changed or deleted to preserve the writer's anonymity). It reads:

" I am sorry that things got delayed... I need another hour to finish this up and then I will brain dump in the next day or two the items we discussed.... I don't want to get in your way; I'm just trying to get my hands around this chunk that got dropped on me. Since you know the material inside and out, I would love feedback on the databases you have worked off of in the past and/or that you feel would suit the task at hand. About [X], I don't want to get stuck over such issues, as important as they are to make. I am more interested in potential roll-out. I will link with headquarters, but I thought for now I would first drop you a quick note. I know sometimes the email can drag on a conversation and I truly want you to feel that you have all relevant information in order to
move forward."

The only plausible closing comment I can think of is: How does that grab you?

3. "The usefulness of science fiction for teaching is obvious. It appeals to young people who are uninterested in reading, it takes advantage of strong loyalties to popular-culture complexes such as Star Trek and Star Wars, and it gives teachers tools for countering typical student resistance both to 'literature' and to scientific methods and principles." Then, three reasons why sf is great for teaching linguistics. "First, because you are free to invent your own science fiction languages, you can be totally in control of data without sacrificing any of your scholarly principles. Second, even if you restrict yourself to languages already constructed by others, no native speakers of these languages exist to challenge your judgments. Third... science fiction languages get you past many of the knee-jerk negative reactions that students have to linguistic information, because you are using languages that carry no political freight. ... No existing human languages, including the students' native languages -- which may be passionately despised by them as a classroom topic -- can give you that advantage." [That's me, in "Waterships All the Way Down: Using Science Fiction to Teach Linguistics," pp. 159-166, Language Alive in the Classroom, edited by Rebecca S. Wheeler and published by Praeger in 1999.]

4. "Nobody expects a French impressionist painting to look much like a real cow; instead, it suggests ways of looking at cows. SF should do this."

That's Gregory Benford, in "Heavy Lifting: The Many-Volume Series," pp. 3-6 of the Fall 1995 SFWA Bulletin; on page 6. I'm not at all sure I understand what it means; I'm sure it doesn't mean that science fiction should suggest ways of looking at cows; I keep looking at it, and thinking "I don't know what it means but I'm sure it's important." If we left off "SF should do this" we could add it to my collection of all-purpose emergency responses, which at the moment includes only "You can't tell which way the train went by looking at the tracks." When facing hostile language, therefore, especially when you give not one hoot about the subject of dispute, look intently at the speaker and say (with grave neutral intonation): "As Gregory Benford has pointed out, nobody expects a French impressionist painting to look much like a real cow; instead, it suggests ways of looking at cows." I suspect it would be even more effective in French.

5. A Network member sent me something innovative and interesting -- a book by R. L. Trask and Bill Mayblin, titled Introducing Linguistics, published in 2000 by Totem Books (USA) and Icon Books (UK); ISBN 1-84046-169-1. If ever anything represented the interface between science fiction and linguistics, this book is it. It's a graphic trade book (in the sense of "graphic novel"); no pages of straight text -- every page with cartoons and collages, many of them prominently featuring Noam Chomsky... It introduces an array of basic concepts and terms from contemporary linguistics, roughly one to a page or a couple of pages; page headers are things like "Sign Languages" and "Skinner's Thesis Attacked by Chomsky" and "Linguistic Nativism" and "Conflicting Speculations." The Sapir-Whorf (linguistic relativity) hypothesis gets four pages.

This is a clever book -- and like so many clever things, it's not politically correct. I was particularly offended by the use of a Navajo sandpainting to introduce the concept of linguistic relativity on page 31. Like using a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe to introduce the concept of the phoneme, and having her do the talking. [It really bothered me, yes; however, I'm picky about these things.] It goofs here and there. For example, the page that has all the Innately Cooperative Women talking around a table, flanked by a page of men talking around a table. Instead of showing the men bellowing at one another and waving their fists (which would have been the other half of the stereotype), it illustrates its BOGSAT page with the Innately Rational and Systematic Men stereotype.The text part of the book is difficult enough to satisfy linguists and annoy the sf readers who've had no linguistics courses; the graphics part of the book is entertaining enough and outrageous enough to annoy linguists and pacify those same sf readers. Admirable balance, no question. Recommended. [BOGSAT = Bunch of guys sitting around a table.]

6. "Who could be more impoverished than the man who, on hearing news of a former teacher, exclaimed in a tavern: 'That old cow? She used to make me read. Said I couldn't graduate till I read all she wanted. Well, I showed her; I haven't read a book since.' "

[From Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Houghton Mifflin 1993) on page 51.]

7. People send me lots of Bubba/redneck/hillbilly jokes; always they are offensive, rarely are they funny. But a grammar joke is so rare that I'm going to quote you this one; it's still offensive, but it's clever offensive. Here you go:

Q: "Where was the toothbrush invented?"
A: "In Arkansas. If it were invented anywhere else it would have been called teethbrush."

[We'll ignore the fact that the person who came up with this doesn't know his/her concordance du temps, is trying to show off his/her grammar expertise with an "if it were" in a sentence where it doesn't belong, and
is unaware that the "correct" sequence is "if it had been invented anywhere else it would have been called teethbrush."]

8. From a review of Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean, by Jenny Blackford, in the NY Review of Science Fiction for 5/2001, p. 19:

"Another feature of the world setup, connected with the author's explicit scheme of oppositions, is that the Sharers do not understand transitive verbs -- and simply cannot understand the concept of a person performing a helpful or harmful action without being equally helped or harmed. This type of grammar-is-worldview writing (the expression of the well-known Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) reached its outrageous pinnacle in Samuel R. Delany's splendid Babel-17 in 1966; since then popular linguistics has generally relinquished its grip on sf. But in A Door into Ocean, we are told that, for the Sharers, all action is shared, and must have an equal and opposite reaction. You cannot frighten someone, but only share fear. You cannot teach someone, but only share learning. The Sharers say that soldiers 'share death' (kill others). Sharer women, on the other hand, share Unspeaking...."

9. Thanks to those who sent me marvels from The Antarctic Dictionary. Including "snotsicle," which does not have to be defined, and "moop," which does. A moop is someone "disoriented by changing patterns of light and dark in polar regions."