An Optimality-Theoretic Account of the History of Linguistics: Past, Present, Future—Book Announcement from Psammeticus Press SpecGram Vol CLI, No 2 Contents Review of Whettam’s Linguistics: an extraordinarily short introduction—A. Crostic

Book Review

Pulju, Timothy. 2006. An Optimality-Theoretic Account of the History of Linguistics: Past, Present, Future. Lanzhou, China: Psammeticus Press.

It is a great sorrow to those of us who remember the glory days of Psammeticus Pressthose fabled days when it was the leading linguistics publisher in the
class HelloWorldApp
  static void Main()
    System.Console.WriteLine("Hello, world!");
— C#
worldnay, what is more, in the entire history of the worldit is, I repeat, a great sorrow to us to witness the depths to which the beloved imprint has sunk with the publication of this lamentable volume. What could have possessed PsPress’s current chairman K. Winnipesaukee Slater III, a meek man, to be sure, and mild, but still a reputable scholar, and not, so far as we know, entirely devoid of common sense nor of the finer aesthetic feelings, to defile his company’s good name by foisting upon an unsuspecting public this lunatic political screed thinly disguised as a bit of historico-linguistic scholarship? Could it have been the same mysterious force which, for reasons unknown to me as much as, dear reader, to you, is currently causing me to write sentences of such inordinate length and medieval floweriness as to make one feel that this essay, far from being a 21st century book review, is in fact an excerpt from a 19th century British novel intended for a feminine audience?

Probably not. More likely, Mr. Slater owes Pulju money or something like that. Or maybe Pulju has compromising pictures of Mr. Slater with a woman not his wife. No matter. The point, if I can remember it, is that this book is very bad. To begin with, it is full of errors of fact; e.g., Pulju seems to think that Noam Chomsky’s first name is actually Avram. This might be an innocent error, but his claim that Leonard Bloomfield (whom Pulju inexplicably calls “Morton”) was alive and writing about the history of the English language in the 1960’s must be deliberate fabrication. I grant, however, that it’s possible that Pulju himself is not the fabricator,

    WRITES ("Hello, world!*N")
since I strongly suspect, attribution on the title page notwithstanding, the Pulju did little if any of the actual writing of this book himself. We all know full well that many lazy celebrity authors, the sort of so-called historians who regularly appear on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, don’t do their own writing. Instead, they get low-paid research assistants to do the actual work while the authors-of-record sip latté at Georgetown dinner parties. Now Pulju, while not by any means a celebrity author, and certainly not even worthy of being invited onto a low-rated local cable show, let alone The News Hour, is nevertheless very lazy. It strikes me as very unlikely that he would undertake to write a whole book himself if he could blackmail PsPress into hiring someone else to do it for him. Indeed, the text of this book gives sound support to my suspicions, seeing as the writing is more or less comprehensible even though the ideas are idiotic. In support of my claims, I cite the following passage, chosen at random from the book:

I have not abandoned this basic tenet. However, I wish to distinguish EXTRAlinguistic structures from METAlinguistic matters. The history of the field is certainly amenable to description in a relational network (as is anything and everything), but such a description, while studiously erudite and clearly transparent, lacks the deliciously harsh irony of an optimality theoretic description which reveals the inevitable fate of optimality theory and stratificational linguistics. Perhaps I risk giving away too much.

I can absolutely assure the readers of this review that Pulju did not write the passage quoted above.

hello_world() -> 
        io:fwrite("Hello, world!\n").
— Erlang
It reads, instead, like an attempt by some low-paid and untalented PsPress flack to imitate Pulju’s dreadful and (thankfully) inimitable prose style.

Nevertheless, it may well be that the ideas in the book are Pulju’s (though it is entirely possible that he had nothing to do with the book at all (and it’s even possible that the book doesn’t even exist, and the whole thing is just a fraud perpetrated by Slater and some of his henchmen at PsPress (but I don’t for a moment believe, no matter whether I’ve heard the rumor from numerous reputable sources or not, that the reason Slater is now living in China is that he fled this country to avoid being prosecuted in the Enron scandal (but if I were wrong about that, it might mean that Slater’s meek and mild demeanor (mentioned above) masks a vicious money-grubbing heart, and that the reason PsPress has changed gears so dramatically recently is that it’s in essence been taken over by a band of transnational gangsters)))). Certainly, the not-very-well hidden Marxist subtext of the bookhistory proceeds according to fixed laws, we can describe the future as well as the past, the revolution is on its wayaccords well with Pulju’s fervent, if not very coherent, radical leftism. It is also noteworthy that the fold-out tableau which is the literal and figurative centerpiece of the book turns out to be, if you rotate it 60 degrees clockwise and stare at it long enough from the proper distance (and it also helps if you drink some tequila), one of those Magic Eye thingies where there’s a hidden picture to be seen in the seemingly random collection of dots, lines, and splotches. Only this time, instead of a picture of a bunny or kitty or something, the secret image is the following sentence, written out in big, sloppy, rather disturbing-looking red
SVENDSK HelloWorld >> skriv("Hello World!") <<
— Svendsk
letters: “Stick it to the man!” Said image makes it seem likely that whether he wrote the book or not, Pulju at any rate approves of its main message, which, as summarized in Ch. 15, is a fervent plea for people in their fifties to overthrow the current order in linguistics by checking all of the linguistics books out of all university libraries and then never returning them. (Somewhat curiously, Pulju places more stock in the revolutionary potential of persons in their fifties than he does in that of the youth upon whom most revolutionaries depend).

Once you eliminate the tedious political claptrap which constitutes the bulk of the book, you’re left with a largely erroneous and never enlightening account of the history of linguistics, composed by someone who clearly doesn’t understand Optimality Theory. Thus, I will not waste any further time on discussion of the text itself, but I would like to mention one bizarre phrase on the advertising flier that accompanies the book: “Pulju’s meteoric career”. Normally, such a phrase is meant
: HELLO  ( -- )  ." Hello, world!" CR ;
— Forth
as a compliment; if that was the intention here, then either PsPress is lying or they don’t know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, perhaps they meant that, for the academic equivalent of a few seconds, Pulju’s career was briefly visible if you happened to be looking in just the right direction, though even so it provided no useful illumination or enlightenment to the observer, and that since that brief period his career has burned out and plummeted earthward in fragments, where it now lies ignored and indeed forgotten. If that’s what they meant, well then at least PsPress got one thing right.

Reviewed by TJP, Lecturer in Linguistics and Classics, Dartmouth College

An Optimality-Theoretic Account of the History of Linguistics: Past, Present, Future—Book Announcement from Psammeticus Press
Review of Whettam’s Linguistics: an extraordinarily short introduction—A. Crostic
SpecGram Vol CLI, No 2 Contents