Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Hope hopes

Mark Liberman at Language Log recently posted some thoughts about minimalist political slogans. Considering some slogans from both British and the American campaigns he notes that they conspicuously sparse and occasionally unintelligible.

He gathers all the slogans he can find for the Republican and Democratic candidates and concludes that "Among the 9 slogans in both parties, there is not a single verb (leaving out the quasi-adjectival participle forms proven and experienced)." But this conclusion overlooks one unlikely play on words and another that's more likely to be intended--tho I wouldn't argue the point beyond the felicitous possibility.

John McCain's campaign slogan:

  • "Courageous Service Experienced Leadership Bold Solutions"

The only likely reading is of three claims: 1. his service is characterized by courage 2. he has experience with leadership 3. his solutions are bold. But an unlikely reading could be paraphrased as "(the) courageous service did experience leadership (and) bold solutions". It doesn't make enough sense to get past a possible but unlikely reading.

Ron Paul's campaign slogan:
  • "Hope for America"

The primary reading of this one is as a claim that Paul offers hope: hope exists for American because of Ron Paul. But of course hope might be a verb. And the slogan could easily be a command. Consider it Paul's response to various questions/prompts: Who's going to benefit from the election? Will this country be like the America of old or some nefarious foreign regime? What will be the strongest world power in the future?

...(perhaps) Let's hope it's America

It would recall John Kerry's slogan "Let America be America Again". Maybe that's a better argument against this as an intentional turn.

How likely is it that a slogan chooses such an ambiguity. Unless both meanings are equally powerful and equally positive, ambiguity can be a dangerous thing. Take for instance the Walgreens slogan that claims the store chain exists because life isn't perfect. Is that really what you want us to think? that in a perfect world you wouldn't exist? How about telling us that life is far from perfect but Walgreens gets us a little closer...or we're nowhere near perfect but Walgreens is working on it...or something that doesn't sound like we're the product of human fallibility!...right?

Buffy's telling me to sit down and

I really like the ambiguity in Jimmy Carter's slogan "A Leader, For a Change". Both readings make a nice point. "For a Change" is a nice way of both offering a new horizon (there will be change with the next leader) and judging the past administration (having a leader will be a welcome change). It's a nice play on words. So nice that I'm quite sure it was intentional.

And of course political slogans like to float around sans verbs. A list of 45 slogans (here) offers 21 with clear verbs and one (Harding's "Return to normalcy") that could be a verb or a noun. Just like Paul's slogan it's either a promise or a command. You there! Return to normalcy this minute!

The second possible meaning of Paul's slogan is unlikely because it sounds too meek--even pessimistic. Don't accomplish anything anything--don't fight for anything--just sit there and hope. But then neither reading smacks of the cock-sure strut that we heard in such slogans as "All the way with LBJ" "Pour it on 'em, Harry!" or "Vote Yourself a Farm".

Friday, October 26, 2007

Getting your turds wisted

Some of the most offensive jokes I know use an implied spoonerism as the punchline. Certain answers to the question 'What's the different between X and Y' easily evoke the same phrase with some inverted onsets. Especially when the words in the punchline aren't too common or are similar to conspicuously offensive words.

And the relative frequency of spoonerisms as a speech error is good evidence that word sounds are organised in a manner that makes onset inversion one of the easier switches.

But similar sounds can easily invert even if one an onset and the other is a coda. Even if the syllable onset is word internal.

In the office the other day Ed our renaissance scholar was admitting the daunting task of submitting writing to our esteemed professors. One professor--last name Ross--is known for speaking his mind and not suffering foolishness. "I definitely feel the presure...pressure with Ross. I do feel the presure."

Buffy looked over at me. I looked up at her. "You're going into his blog" she announced to Ed.

I've chosen "presure" to represent his pronunciation with the alveolar [s] instead of the postalveolar fricative [ʃ]. I was sad to hear that he didn't actually flip the [s] and [ʃ]. He caught himself before he completed the phrase--corrected the pronunciation of pressure--and proceeded to say "Ross" instead of "Rosh" as I was hoping to hear.

But when I told him that he paused and suggested that he might have in fact said "Rosh."

"No" I assured him. "I was hoping you would."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. I was disappointed when I heard you pronounce the [s]."

But he did offer another interesting error. When he repeated pressure it flipped back to the alveolar fricative.

That leads me to the following mysteries:

It's not clear that the first [s] was a result of switched segments. He corrected himself and perhaps it was regressive assimilation (over a long distance) from the [s] in Ross. Maybe he was never going to say Rosh. That's not as fun.

The [s] in the last performance of pressure didn't precede an occurrence of Ross--so progressive assimilation from the already pronounced "Ross" is likely. But it's more exciting to think that it was a partially realized inversion--the other half of which was never going to be pronounced. If so then even tho the second "Ross" wasn't going to make it to performance it was still part of the organization and structure of his sentence. And we saw its ghost by the appearance of the coda [s] in the 2nd syllable onset when he said "presure" [pɻɛsɹ̩ ] instead of "pressure" [pɻɛʃɹ̩ ].

An inversion through phonemic haunting perhaps?


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

An technicality at worst

I'm not sure I want to write this post. Ben Zimmer's study of (and commentary on) language is impressive reasonable thorough precise entertaining and...good.

And he has been kind enough to leave a few comments here. For all--our thanks. So I don't want to protest too much.

In his wholly reliable style he recently posted over at Language Log about Victor Washington's case against the NFL. Washington seeks fuller retirement benefits because of his injuries. The NFL doesn't want to pay out so much. Washington's plan offered higher benefits if he suffered "a football injury" and the NFL is sticking to the argument that his several injuries don't entitle him to "Level 1" benefits. (Follow this link to read the story.)

The sentence that caught my attention was the following observation by Zimmer regarding arbitrator Sam Kagel's use of "a" instead of "an" in the phrase "a injury."

"The legal emphasis on the word a would apparently be lost if it underwent the regular addition of the epenthetic consonant /n/ to create an before a word beginning with a vowel like injury."

His suggestion makes sense regarding the rhetoric. I'll buy it. I'm not sure about his analysis of the a/an alternation as epenthesis: the /n/ being an additional letter. It is additional if we say the underlying form of the article is a. But historically the form was an which was realized as a before most consonants. In that case "an" alternates with "a" by deletion of the /n/ coda. So at most this is a pure technicality.

But let's say that for the sake of a clear point Zimmer is using the wording of the retirement/disability plan as the underlying form. Since the plan uses the phrase "a football injury" we'll say our input is "a"; and from that form to its reflex in the phrase "a(n) injury" we would expect that /n/ would be added because the new phrase places the article before [i] instead of [f]. But I'm still not sure I'd call it epenthesis in that case.

And I'm not sure that I wouldn't.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Problem 1 with prescriptions: they assume disease

I've started collecting the writings of powerful prescriptivists. Many are familiar. Some are new to me. But among the opinions of both familiar and new writers I keep finding surprising claims that leave me shaking my head.

Many of their arguments are effective. I would have hailed and lauded them several years ago. Then I started to study language and I found many of my ideas foolish. But I don't think I would have ever agreed with something like this statement that Mark Halpern (one of the recurring voices) makes in a footnote to one of his pieces.

Those of us who regard the patois of the Black ghetto as inferior do so not because we think it lacks "internal logic"-if it did, it could not serve as a medium of communication at all-but because it demonstrably lacks the means of expressing many ideas and shades of meaning that standard English possesses.

I literally gasped when I read this. Really. I inhaled audibly--mouth agape. Is he choosing to ignore the fact (or is he merely unaware) that mainstream English also lacks the "means" of expressing what other varieties can?

But it gets worse. When I read the following in the same footnote I physically backed away from the computer--my heartbeat noticeable faster. Briefly addressing the accusations that prescriptivism is often based on racist principles he scoffs--claiming that the desire to erase all variation is the opposite of racism.

If prescriptivists were racists, we would want to perpetuate the disadvantages of Blacks, not remove them; cultural elitists we may be, but elitists who want others to share our lofty status.

The mind boggles (and is boggled despite Jacque Barzun's objections).

Halpern focuses most of his criticism against leading linguists like Geoffrey Nunberg and Steven Pinker who respond to some of his claims but have other more important things to do. I'm early enough in my career to work on shaping it against such egregiously arrogant and bigoted claims.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Flat out acceptance of emerging variant forms is always a little tricky. My last post contained the line (regarding the spelling of vocal chord): "What makes it acceptable? Well ... the fact that it's accepted" and I knew right away it was too broad a statement. Too broad for me even. Perhaps my follow-up line "Sometimes linguistics is just that simple" unfairly overshadowed the fuller claim that there are always complicating issues and linguistically relevant inquiries involved in the discussion of spelling and semantic change.

Nancy Friedman rightly notes:

But teaching, writing, editing, and proofreading are not "that simple." Those of us who ply those trades can't afford to be descriptivists. We need guidelines.

The discussion of usage will responsibly call attention to the important difference between a mistake and a variant form. And variant forms may or may not belong to different registers. And those forms that belong to different registers can be either conspicuous or inconspicuous. And of course we can investigate to which groups they are and are not conspicuous.

So writing guituar instead of guitar is pretty clearly an error. There may be a jocular or purposeful use of the extra 'u' but I would bet that most people that choose to include it know that it should be recognized as a mistake. And it's not that common anyway. It gets fewer Google™ hits than a lot of other likely mistakes.

And writing kewl instead of cool is rarely a mistake but it is probably a purposeful use of a nonstandard spelling convention meant to capture a pronunciation. Those who use the spelling probably intend it to be noticed but they probably don't intent to appear unaware of the standard spelling, nor do they intend to appear to be pretending to be unaware of the standard.

By the time we get to cord and chord it's hard to know what awareness there is of the standards. Friedman asks in her post "[Does] Michael Covarrubias write vocal chords and free reign?" There's a wonderful nuance to her point with this question. I have spoken flatly and openly about descriptivism as a necessary approach to language analysis but what changes when I move over to language use?

Now I may be somewhat of a smartass with a lot of my writing. I knowingly write 'tho' instead of 'though'--I avoid commas as much as possible (which really frustrates Buffy)--I often switch back and forth between -or and -our in words like colo(u)r hono(u)r humo(u)r--I'll put metre and center into the same sentence and 4 pages later I'll use meter and centre if I can fit them in.

I don't know if Friedman remembers but a few weeks ago she noticed that in a post I had written "vocal chords" when reporting a Jeopardy! clue. She asked if the spellings were now "interchangeable" and I had to admit that I added the 'h' unwittingly. So I changed the spelling to "cord". And I will right now admit that I'm splitting hairs when I argue that even tho the spellings occur with almost identical frequency they are not truly interchangeable. There are people who notice the difference. There is a historical emergence of one form. There is an incongruity between the use of 'cord' as the conventional spelling for a cable or rope or rope-like structure comprising several strands, and the use of 'chord' when that type of structure is described as part of the vocal apparatus in humans. I've long been aware of that incongruity and yet I overlooked it when I chose the latter while writing the post in September.

When Friedman called it to my attention I called it a typo and I changed it. And now the fine folks at OUP have chosen to report and represent the equal occurrence of the two spellings. Will I go ahead and leave the 'h' in there when I notice it before publication? Probably not unless I'm talking specifically about the spelling.

It's not fair to say that I don't judge differences in usage. Let's agree for the sake of my current point that judgment does not equal derision. By being aware of forms there is some judgment going on. I'm certainly not impartial to variations in pronunciation and usage. There are many phenomena of language production that fascinate me and which I admire. Every language and dialect has some impressive phonotactic features and constraints. Whenever I hear about or learn a new one I judge it and then appreciate that the differences exist. That doesn't mean that I consider one language or feature or dialect or phoneme or construction a superior form.

But I also know that choices and variations in spelling, pronunciation, syntax, semantics, volume or font size communicate various things to various groups. So I do have to judge the ability of any word, phrase or passage to communicate what I hope to say.

Friedman asks an important question. "[I]f we can't find [the guidelines] in respected dictionaries, where shall we turn?" A good dictionary that earns your trust by giving as much relevant and reasonable information as possible is a treasure. Find a dictionary that lists variant forms along with information about each form including which is an emerging and which is traditional. Such a dictionary will also include information regarding register and common regard.

And of course there are also style guides. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage may share its view that dichotomy is overused and bifurcation is preferred while most of my favorite dictionaries don't see that as their business. And the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook have interests in affecting usage that Merriam-Webster doesn't have. Style guides are concerned with the language choices made by writers over whom they preside.

A good dictionary is having too much fun trying to figure out what is happening to spend too much time arguing about what should be happening.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

There's a change on the air

Today was National Dictionary Day. And on ABC news Ben Zimmer was given a chance to agree on national television that vocal c-h-o-r-d is an acceptable spelling.

What makes it acceptable? Well...the fact that it's accepted. Sometimes linguistics is just that simple.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Was Björn Borg born bored?

Recently on another blog I read a comment offering a few typical observations and almost interesting comparisons of online networks. Then the commenter alerted the post writer to a spelling error with the following admission: "It's actually the reason I'm writing this now."

It's a shame to see a conversation about interesting ideas turns into a prosaic editing session. And the spelling error in this case is actually an interesting example of a reduplicative coda. The spelling of smorgasbord as smorgasborg is relatively common. Below I list the Google™ hit results for "smorgasbord" and several misspellings


The 4th spelling above is even attested in the OED as an erroneous spelling--reasonably related to smørrebrød/smørbrød/smorbrodt: Danish and Norwegian for a type of sandwich.

Does the g occur more commonly or naturally as a coda? Certainly -org would not be more common than -ord -ort -orn or -ork. Tho I'm not going to take the time to count right now. The -g spelling even gets almost 40 times as many hits as the pretty obvious and completely homophonous spelling pun smorgasbored. And if a 'fingerslip' typo is at work here a much more common spelling string like -ore would probably show up more than just 6 times. There's even a January 1964 review in Time Magazine the 1963 film The Prize with the headline/title Smorgasbore (less than enthusiastic).

I'll go so far as to say that it isn't really a typo. I've heard this as a pronunciation as well and this pattern in the orthography looks like a reflection of the pattern in the phonology.

An interesting result: schmorgasborg gets 2,210 hits--more than schmorgasbord which gets 1630; and shmorgasborg (522) gets almost as many as shmorgasbord (682).

Is it contamination by the cybernetic organism⇒ cyborg ⇒ borg compression? Not likely.

The best explanation seems to be an echo in the final syllable. [Update: A better term of course is reduplication. See Neal's comment for a link to Kie Zuraw's paper on "aggressive reduplication".)]--perhaps combined with an impression of -org as a Scandinavian syllable. But then why do we only find 33 hits for smorgasbjord? Wait. Only 33 hits? That actually seems like pretty good evidence of the Scandinavian effect. I wish I had the time to investigate how often smorgasborg occurs in use by people who have followed tennis since the mid seventies.


A bit of a digressive epilogue: The commenter I mentioned tacks the common complaint onto his spiel: "p.s. one of my pet peeves is the misuse of 'your' and 'you're'... how is it that people can't figure out when to use each one???" (peevologist is really so appropriate a term).

People do know how to "figure" it out. People know the rule. They know the difference between the words. But spelling is closely tied to the 'mind's ear' which helps explain why words like to and too are used interchangeably as are there their and they're. I've committed the error many many times. Many. I will commonly interchange where and wear but it's less common for me to confuse them with were. It happens but not as often.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A bigger fish is Fry

There's some unevenness here.

On one end of the scale: I've been posting on here for almost 2 and a half years. I have a handful of kind readers and a pinch of occasional commenters. I get a lot of accidental browsers and few searchers who are asking a questions that I have specifically set out to answer--I've put up more than 200 posts. The highest comment total on a single post: 12.

On the other end of the scale: Stephen Fry has been posting for just under a month. Highest comment total on a single post: 292 (the other post has 278). He has posted twice.

Of course he has earned the attention with his fine contributions to acting and writing. Tho I'm not sure I can appreciate his recent contribution to writing: He calls his lengthy blog essays blessays.

I wonder if he's purposely going for the effect introduced by 'bless' showing up in the portmanteau. And I'm not sure why he doesn't just go with "post" or "entry"--the subject of my recent "postry". (That's probably worse than "blessay" but it's so close to the Spanish word for dessert that I'm keeping it.)

And what about "blisquisitions"? Bliss + inquisitions?

But his writing is good enough to support these slightly (and only possibly) presumptuous connotations.

Appropriately--his second post is all about being famous. At least he's qualified.

(via The Greenbelt)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Randomly offensive numbers

I was going to respond to Casey's David's and Daniel's comments regarding intelligence on the last post. But I'm not sure I could go much further than the standard discussion of the Stanford-Binet and all criticisms and defenses of its reliability and accuracy then I could mention Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences and I'd have said nothing new or very interesting.

So how about another quotient. If intelligence is so hard to pin down and measure how much more difficult would it be to measure the amount of offense intended or taken by different words? The folks at Random House believe it's possible to quantify both.

On a scale of "Disparagement" from 0-5 some words are ranked based on the "degree of intent to offend." A possibly offensive word like welsh or gyp gets a zero because it is rarely intended as a disparaging term. A word of mild disparagement like nerd gets a one. The levels as they set them forth:

  • 0 - Not intended to offend, even though it may (Oriental, welsh [welsh on a deal], lady)
  • 1 - Intended to show mild disapproval (egghead, nerd, grind)
  • 2 - Rarely intended to offend, but indicates a lack of sensitivity (the little woman, harelip, cripple)
  • 3 - Sometimes intended to offend, sometimes not, but there is a more neutral word that is better to use (haole, Canuck, goy)
  • 4 - Intended to offend or show contempt (spaz, honky, pansy)
  • 5 - Intended to offend and hurt (faggot, nigger, ofay)

And they suggest a parallel "Offensiveness" scale for the "degree of offense taken."
  • 0 - Rarely taken as offensive (guys [when used to refer to women], Moslem [instead of Muslim], cover girl)
  • 1 - Taken as showing mild disapproval or lack of respect (housewife, Miss [instead of Ms.], old maid)
  • 2 - Usually taken as insensitive, rather than as completely offensive (Eskimo, deaf-and-dumb, dame)
  • 3 - Easily taken as offensive (Indian giver, baby [when used to address a woman], redskin)
  • 4 - Usually taken as offensive (dyke, Okie, wetback)
  • 5 - Taken as offensive and hurtful (cunt, Hebe, gook)

This is isn't as far as they go. The quotient is actually a combination of the two scales based on an interaction of the intended and taken offense. The average of the two scores gives us the OQ. The page provides commentary on each example but here I'll provide only the term and its OQ:
  • gyp: D=0 O=2 OQ=1
  • Nazi, as in "soup Nazi": D=1 O=3 OQ=2
  • girl, when used about a woman: D=1 O=3 OQ=2
  • Holy Roller: D=3 O=3 OQ=3
  • pickaninny: D=2 O=5 OQ=3.5
  • city slicker: D=3 O=2 OQ=2.5
  • boy toy: D=4 O=2 OQ=3
  • half-breed: D=3 O=4 OQ=3.5
  • queer: D=4 O=3 OQ=3.5
  • cracker D=4 O=4 OQ=4
  • nigger D=5 O=5 OQ=5

My initial reaction is disbelief. Then I go to a charitable view figuring some sense of 'degree' of offense is a worthwhile consideration. The discussion gives good attention to the issue of decorum, which I hold as a vitally important consideration when discussing offensive speech.

But this whole thing loses me with the introduction of numbers and averages. Every one of these numbers can be not just mitigated but flat out shattered when audience and relationships and discourse and and other persistently independent variables are introduced.

Of course there's no chance that Random House is going to start listing who is likely to be offended based on who is using a term. Tho a short paragraph at the bottom of one graph explains that some terms that are higher on a disparaging scale are so low on the offense scale that they don't even get a label.

Certain terms, such as liberal or right-winger, are practically spat at people of the opposite persuasion, but those against whom the epithets are directed are more likely to respond, "Yes I am, and I'm proud of it." Such terms are not labeled either Disparaging or Offensive in Random House Webster's College Dictionary, since the degree of offensiveness changes depending upon context.

Of course Random House is prudent to have some sort of system guiding the labels they use for the words they include. But is this system--and its implication that there are some words that don't vary based on context--is based on an ideal image of how aware people are of the language they use and how knowingly they work with everyone's connotations with every word. In reality there are such drastically mobile sensibilities involved--these numbers are too hopeful.

One more consideration. Why is zero not used for words that are not at all derogatory? Are there some words that are a 'minus' on the scale? Or are some words simply not allowed to be rated on this scale? And what about a word like niggardly that has nothing to do with offensive speech other than the phonetic similarity? Its use is often used with absolutely no intention to offend and it can elicit nigh on the strongest reaction of offense taken. Is it an OQ=2.5 usually offensive word? Yeah -- it probably is actually.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Suffer the children

Jon Stewart is very funny and very intelligent. I'm really just guessing about the "intelligent" part because I'm not that sure what intelligent means. But I'm pretty sure that he is very capable of considering data, identifying patterns and understanding logic to knowingly hold opinions and arguments to a high standard before he agrees with them.

And he's quite good with words. He shapes his jokes well and if I'm to believe Will Shortz he's quite good with the crosswords.

But he's made a few missssteps when he chooses to talk about grammar. A few years ago he gave a commencement address at his alma mater William and Mary where he said "We declared war on terror -- it's not even a noun, so, good luck." Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log called him on it back then. So here I can simply say that terror is definitely a noun.

Just last Thursday (4 October 2007) Stewart ridiculed George Bush for uttering the following lines:

"I wanted to share with you why I vetoed the bill this morning. Poor kids first. Secondly..."

(It all starts about 4 minutes into the clip.)

Jon rightly screeches to a halt on this one. "Wait a minute!" he demands "That's your whole first point? Poor kids? 'Here's why I vetoed the bill: poor kids first. Secondly...' No!"

I'm with him on this. I'm not sure what Bush even means with this line. Does he mean "first" as in his first reason is poor kids? Is he going to talk about poor kids first? Is he saying he's going to talk to poor kids first? Is he implying that he vetoed it because he's putting poor kids first? Is he just bumbling through a speech like we all do at times and does he over-apply his use of 'first' as we might all do with words at times? Probably. Would Bush's strategy and logic make sense even if his speeches were pristine? Not to me.

So Then Stewart adds the following request: "Throw me a verb! Give me a modifier! 'First: Ah those [bleep] poor kids'--something! Give me something!"

I'm guessing they bleeped over fucking as the modifier that Stewart thinks would make it a better argument. And of course the joke is that the argument wouldn't really be any better but at least it would be a fuller sentence. But a "modifier" (and by that I assume Stewart means an adjective since there's no verb to take a modifying adverb) isn't enough to make this a complete sentence.

And besides...wait -- poor is a modifier. Why does Stewart need a modifier if he has one already?

...probably because he wants to make the point that Bush's argument needs to go somewhere--anywhere. Well if Bush were to say 'Ah those f---ing poor kids' at least it'd be a forthright admission that he's willing to compromise the well-being of his fellow citizens by taking away more than just their civil rights.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

An exaltation of larks, a blog of blogs

Strategies for posting regularly:

  1. Keep a notebook full of ideas.
  2. Don't travel.
  3. When you travel don't go to a home city with one horribly unreliable internet service.

Instead of a notebook I write on my hand and arm.
My grad student bank account helps me abide by #2
This weekend I broke rule #3--but the free food (provided by parents) and free dental (provided by sister) make it worth it.

I need a quick post to get keep the keypad from rusting. So...

The word blog has legs. It's doing everything necessary to stick around. It's as easily a verb as it is a noun. It's morphologically prolific. It's relevant to more and more conversations.

A recent plasticity I've noticed: When using 'blog' as a noun I've only used it to refer to a website that comprises (or is comprised of) entries that I refer to as either 'posts' or 'blog posts'. Lately I've seen several bulletins titled "New Blog" or "Read My New Blog". When I go take a look I realize that these people are simply letting everyone know that they've put a new post up on their old blog.

Is this an idiosyncratic usage that just happens to be favoured by several of my acquaintances--or have others noticed this ambiguity of the form more widely?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

A sub-optimal output

Several weeks in a practicum I had suggested that a very basic introduction to Optimality Theory might be a worthwhile for the few students who might go on to study more linguistics. It seems to me that if the OT table makes enough sense that an introduction could work very easily. The general reception was cautious disagreement. It was definitely disagreement but it was cautious. I imagine the only thing that held people back from calling it a stupid idea was a regard for my feelings.

So I did a presented a quick mock lesson in class today. The assignment was to introduce a topic as if I was teaching an intro to linguistics course. I introduced OT as a model for the way we might make any decision--using the example of purchasing a car. I mentioned very highly ranked constraints (such as 'cannot explode on ignition') and lower constraints (such as 'must be red'). That part went fine.

Then I tied it into phonology where the names of the constraints had to change (unless there is risk of some word exploding on utterance--Monty Python comes to mind). This is where my lesson fell apart because I had made some assumptions about what students might ask. I never assumed they would ask why faithfulness constraints should be expected. And my fellow students put me on the spot asking 'why should we assume that nothing will be added to an underlying form?' and I made the fateful mistake of trying to argue that faithfulness constraints function on principle. As if we have a reason for expecting faithfulness constraints to play an important part in language without seeing them in action. How do we know that DEP-IO and MAX-IO are ranked somewhere? Only because that would explain some of what we see.

How do we know that an output form will in some ways correspond to the input? Because we see places where that constraint makes sense. Not because it should correspond. And obviously it doesn't always.

Two things you don't want to hear from a professor after you've done a presentation:

  1. As a student I was willing to accept what you said. As a phonologist I have some issues.
  2. It was certainly brave of you to try.
I'm not sure which one is worse.