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 students
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-
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-
Returning to the question of how we knew which words to put in which slots in a Mad-
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.”