Silly talk about phonology

Over on Language Log, Mark Liberman contributes a phonetician’s anecdote to the “silly talk about science” genre:

Person at party: “Someone told me that you know how to interpret spectrograms. That’s so interesting! Could you teach me?”
Phonetician: “Well, sure, it’s not hard to learn the basic techniques.”
Person at party: “That would be so exciting! I’ve always been sensitive to communications from the spirit world, and with the help of scientific instruments, I can only imagine…”

As Mark clarifies, it’s a play on how “spectrograms” sounds like “spectre-grams”. (Get it?)

At the end of the post, Mark asks for contributions: “if you have any good silly-talk-about-linguistics stories, send them to me and I’ll add them to this post.” I’m sending Mark one, but I have another one that is (a) rather lengthier than what I think Mark is looking for and (b) more suitable for phonoloblog anyway. So here goes.

First, the set-up on how I overheard this. I attended the Maryland Mayfest in 1995, which was all about language acquisition/learnability. (If you bothered following the link, you’ll note that web archiving for Mayfest programs, etc. unfortunately did not begin until 1997 with the Hopkins Optimality Theory Workshop.) There were phonology-oriented talks by Bill Turkel & Doug Pulleyblank, Bruce Tesar & Paul Smolensky, and Elan Dresher. One night Stephen Crain and Rozz Thornton hosted a party at their house, and after most of the beer and guests were gone, a few people were gathered in a circle outside, telling stories in that semi-awkward, academic-at-a-party sort of way. Dresher in particular was on a roll — anyone who’s read any of Elan’s GLOT International pieces knows he can be pretty damn funny — but he was sort of shying away from telling one story in particular. The way I remember it, Smolensky knew the story, said that he liked it a lot and coaxed Elan into telling it. (I thought at the time that Elan must have written/published it somewhere and that Paul had read it, and that may in fact be true, but I haven’t been able to find it with Google.) So here’s what I recall about the story; if anyone (Elan?) reads this and can correct any mistakes I’m making in the retelling, let me know. (But don’t write to tell me that you think the story is fictional; I’m sure that it is, but it’s still a good one.)

Often when Elan would travel to a conference, he would take a cab to the airport. Almost invariably, the cabbie would strike up a conversation with Elan, asking him where he was headed. Elan would mention that he was going to a conference; the cabbie would ask him what kind of conference. Elan would say that it was a linguistics conference, and the cabbie would of course then ask the usual “Oh, so how many languages do you speak?” type of thing. After several experiences like this, Elan kinda got tired of it and began to answer the questions a little differently: maybe it wouldn’t be a linguistics conference, or maybe it wouldn’t even be a conference — little white lies to avoid the inevitable.

Several conferences later, Elan got tired of being dishonest. He found himself in another cab on the way to another conference, and the conversation went something like this:

Cabbie: “So where are you headed?”
Elan: “To a conference.”
Cabbie: “What kind of conference?”
Elan (bracing himself): “A linguistics conference.”
Cabbie (after a brief pause): “So what do you think about Optimality Theory?”

(In case you’re curious, a somewhat less vague sense of what Elan thinks about Optimality Theory — or rather, a somewhat less vague sense of what he thought back in early 1996 — can be gotten, in the same entertaining fashion, here.)

One thought on “Silly talk about phonology

  1. William J Turkel

    I remember that! (But I had forgotten it until I read this. Eric’s description that “after most of the beer and guests were gone, a few people were gathered in a circle outside, telling stories in that semi-awkward, academic-at-a-party sort of way” is dead on.)

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