Rejuvenated Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira SpecGram Vol CLXV, No 3 Contents Everything psychologists wanted to know about linguistics but were afraid to ask—Prof. Dr. Harold Twistenbaum

On a Recent Application of Game Theory to Linguistics Education

Mongo Yalbag
Lecturer and former Associate Professor,
Department of Automotive Collision Repair Technology,
University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton

I recently undertook teaching an evening adult continuing education course on contemporary linguistic theory. Guided by the inspiring words of Gleb Bliglerov, “Game theory is without a doubt the most promising approach yet discovered for understanding all of the human sciences, and any scholar who ignores it will be swept into the dustbin of history within the next decade and have to work thenceforth churning through the leavings of the broom of science” (73), I strove to apply game theory to the exposition of linguistic theory for my studentsand with remarkable results.

The course was organized to begin with the basic insight of structuralism, the paradigmatic versus syntagmatic organization of linguistic elements. This topic was introduced and practiced through a number of Mad-Libs books in the college library, and easily led back to Noam Chomsky’s statement that “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously” with which I had begun the lecture. The students immediately realized with a gasp and an “Ah ha!” that such a sentence could only have been produced in a game of Mad-Libs, and I shared with them the story of Noam Chomsky’s historic Mad-Libs game with Che Guevara, Pablo Picasso, and Marilyn Monroe in 1955 in which he created it and realized its significance for linguistics.

Their interest whetted, I turned in the next lecture to the lexicon. As they had previously studied the organization of words into sentences, the lecture began with the question of where the words in a game of Mad-Libs came from, and after considering various possibilities (the dictionary, the tongues of angels, Ancient Greece and/or India, Atlantis, and Mars) this segued naturally into the question of the arbitrary association of sound and sense. To examine this issue further, we then spent the next two hours playing with special IPA Scrabble sets (obtained from Xerus & Ratufa, Cambridge MA), and the lecture was concluded with an exercise in which the students worked in groups producing words in competitive Scrabble play and entered them into a randomly selected Mad-Libs page. The results were humorous and enlightening, and set the stage for the next lecture on word classes and phrase structure.

Returning to the question of how we knew which words to put in which slots in a Mad-Lib game, we practiced phrase structure with Tinker-Toy sets in which all but three holes in the cogs had been filled with Elmer’s glue a few months before by a budding two-year-old syntactician of the X-Bar persuasion. This automatically restricted the students to binary branching, and introducing different cogs and rods of different sizes allowed them to practice binary branching with different word classes.

We then turned to the topic of transformations from underlying to surface form, which we practiced with the word game in which one word is turned into another by changing one letter at a time under the constraint that all intermediate forms must be meaningful words. This was most fruitful, as one of the students later reported that as she was doing her homework, her idiot savant son followed along and spent the next two weeks applying the game in succession to the copy of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure she was reading for an English literature class. He produced the complete text of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, showing that the two novels, despite their striking differences in tone and subject, are underlyingly identical. At my suggestion she gave him a copy of the Vulgate, from which he in similar fashion produced the complete text of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. Unfortunately, before the Obligatory Contour Principle was to be investigated through bocce ball, this significant result led to the class being put under interdict by the local parish (confirmed by the bishop) and to an investigation by Child Protective Services after adverse publicity on a local AM radio station was picked up by several newspapers of the state. A fuller discussion of the results is currently in press at Speculative Classicist.

Despite being cancelled, prohibited in the future, investigated by several outside agencies, and its instructor being officially reprimanded by the administration and the state education board, demoted, and docked a semester’s pay, the class was a rousing success. It is an object lesson in the importance of applying new and innovative techniques to old hats, and it reminds us of how to properly reply to the common criticism (voiced, for example, by a student in the first lecture) that all linguists do is sit in their office playing games with words: “Could you have invented Scrabble? Yeah, I didn’t think so.”


Bliglerov, Gleb. “Game Theory and the Human Sciences,” Speculative Praxidologist 7:62-73 (1957).

Rejuvenated Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
Everything psychologists wanted to know about linguistics but were afraid to askProf. Dr. Harold Twistenbaum
SpecGram Vol CLXV, No 3 Contents