Thursday, February 17, 2011

A joke to go with the previous post.

Once upon a time there was a kindergarten class that went on a field trip on the school bus, and, as they were ready to go home, the bus wouldn't start. The driver opens the hood and looks inside trying to determine the problem, and then one child comes up and says:

- I know why we aren't going anywhere!

- Fine, now go play with the kids, - replies the driver, and, since he can't see anything broken, but the bus still wouldn't start, he calls road assistance. They take a couple of hours to arrive, and, as they're checking out everything from gas tank to battery, and everything seems to be all right, they hear the same child say:

I know why we aren't going anywhere!

"What can this little nuisance know?" - think the men, and tell the child to go, erm, play with other kids again. But no matter what they do, the bus still doesn't start. So the road assistance leaves, promising to locate another bus for them, and arrange to tow their bus to service, but the time passes, and help is not in sight. So the desperate driver goes under the bus again, checking this and that, and the same child goes on: 

I know why we aren't going anywhere! 

The driver is so desperate by the time, that he begins to think, who knows? Maybe the child's dad is a mechanic? Maybe the child overheard some grownups discussing the problem and remembered the solution? Maybe the child has some supernatural powers? It doesn't hurt to ask, does it? So the driver stoops and says:

- O.K., if you know what's wrong, tell me!

- It's all because the bus won't start! 


My wife remembered this joke as we were talking about the bad science yesterday.  Thank you, Sunshine! From now on I shall refer to the kind of "discoveries" I wrote about in the previous post as the "I-know-what's-up-with-the-bus solutions". 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Substitution of notions

appears to be an acceptable way of making discoveries in linguistics. 

Like Engels’s “explanation” of how the language originated. There are numerous theories thereof, like language started with imitation of bird cries, with shamans faking an address to gods, etc. etc. etc. Most of them really don't make sense, but Engels came up with something that makes me gasp with disbelief ever since I first read it while preparing for the Introduction to Language Studies exam. Language, says Engels, originated because... can I have the brass band and the drum roll now please ? ...humans at some time in time felt the “need” to say something to each other! 

What a perfect bluff! Of course language originated from the need to convey information, but how did it get from a simple signal system common to all social animals to the complicated structure we're using now? No answer. Engels simply substitutes “how” with “why”. 

All right, strictly speaking, Engels wasn't a linguist, and it's only a matter of politics why his "discovery" was repeated again and again by Soviet linguists. But the method stuck. For example, Olga Akhmanova, one of the most internationally renowned and quoted Russian linguists, tried, among other things, to explain the nature of the supra-phrasal unity, a.k.a. the paragraph. The question is, what are the language properties that provide the unity and force the speaker/writer to mark it with a pause of specific length (or the indented line / missing space sign in written speech)? The answer? The supra-phrasal unity is there because we signify it with one of the above-mentioned signs. 

Excellent! Why do you drive a car to work? Too far to walk? Mass transit undeveloped? Enjoying the process? No, that’s all wrong, I drive to work because I get to the car, start the engine and shift into gear!