A Lost Chapter from <i>The Little Prince</i>—Olaf Olafson SpecGram Vol CLII, No 1 Contents An optimality-theoretic account of split-ergativity in Southern Quiznos—Hans Forz

How To Make A Linguistic Theory*

Assemble a judicious

“Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”
—Samuel Johnson

amount of grammar, preferably English grammar since you’re aiming at readers of English. (If you feel there might be a market for linguistic theories written in Cebuano, by all means, give it your best shot.) Be sure to include passive constructions, accusative-with-infinitive constructions, and constructions with front-shifting. Leave everything else to future research (don’t worry, you’ll never have to actually do it).

Set up two levels of linguistic representation; call them Level 1 and Level 2, or even better, Level Alpha and Level Beta. This is to divide your explicanda into two conceptual domains so you can let one explain the other. Leave these levels and all constructs supporting them undefined; these will be your Theoretical Primes. Define everything else, however, not only as rigorously as possible but using as many symbols from the predicate calculus as you can understand.

Be sure to leave undefined the notion “mu.” Now make “mu” a unit at both undefined levels. For each “mu” use ordinary English spelling, but in upper case letters on one level, and in lower case letters on the other. Use abbreviations with upper case; for example ERG, PRO, +ITAL for “ergative,” “pronominal,” “borrowed from Italian.”

From this point on you need a graphics expert. Draw guitar strings (don’t call them that, of course) from units on one level to units on the other level. Count and classify the various

“Learning preserves the errors of the past, as well as its wisdom. For this reason, dictionaries are public dangers, although they are necessities.”
—Alfred North Whitehead

arrangements of strings you need for the amount of grammar you began with; then pronounce all other logically possible arrangements of strings forbidden by Universal Constraints. Give each constraint a handy name, such as “The Adjustable Bridge Constraint,” “The Open-String Pull-Off Constraint.” Always capitalize and use “the” with constraints.

At this point it will be proper, though not absolutely necessary, to bung in a bit of data from other languages. Since ultimately theories like yours can be constructed only by trained linguists who speak natively the languages they are examining, frankly, the Second Coming will be upon us well before you’ll really have to think seriously about other languages. Besides, you have this neat argument:

Premiss 1:

If my theory won’t account for English, then it won’t account for all languages.

Premiss 2:

My theory won’t account for English.



With regard to marketing your theory, this is a cinch because of the way the academic world works. Your theory won’t work, even for English, right? That’s a foregone conclusion. But for twenty or thirty years, other people will make such a good living patching it up that they’ll praise you as a genius even while they’re bashing the daylights out of you, since without you, where would they be?

Make occasional references to Kuhn.


* This manuscript was found in an empty xerox-paper box at Harvard University. Within the history of linguistic science we believe it dates from the early medieval period, but we do not really care much.

A Lost Chapter from The Little Prince—Olaf Olafson
An optimality-theoretic account of split-ergativity in Southern Quiznos—Hans Forz
SpecGram Vol CLII, No 1 Contents