SpecGram Vol CLII, No 3 Contents Letters to the Editor

...The Monkey Chased the Weasel

A Letter from the Managing Editor

I was originally going to use this space to debut a revolutionary new social-scientific grand-unification theory, which brings together not only linguistics, anthropology, and literature, but also history, economics, political science, psychology, and even criminology, law, medicine,

education, ethics, philosophy, geography, and a few of the relatively small number of worthwhile aspects of the study and practice of art. This theory was revealed to me by a six-foot-five leprechaun of mixed Mohawk/Onondaga descent who I found myself seated next to on the “Phonemes я Phun Phloat” in this year’s Iroquois League St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The “SSGUT” (pronounced /wizl/), as its originator named it, is an amazing synthesis of everything the social sciences have been trying to achieve for the last several centuries, and can be expressed simply in probably no more than one and a half written pages. As the only living person who knows the details of the theorymy Native American friend, after quickly and clearly explaining the theory to me, claimed not to have told anyone else of this revolutionary insight right before slipping in the light rain, tumbling off the float, and being run over by the tailgating “Morphosyntax for Documentary Linguists” float behind us; she was killed almost instantlyI thought it a fitting tribute to such a once-in-a-generation mind to share this revolution with the entire world in this prestigious forum.

However, several letter openers, copy editors, and other mail-room primates in the employ of SpecGram have begged me instead to discuss the sordid details of “Tad von Thessperpool’s Austrian Phoneme Dutch-Auction Bidding War,” as mentioned in the letters to the editors in this issue. If you find this story less intellectually fulfilling or scientifically revolutionary than details of the above-mentioned theory would likely be, blame them.

In the late 1480’s, Tad von Thessperpool was born in Vienna to a Magyar mother and a father of proud Austro-Prussian heritage who claimed to trace his non-Prussian lineage back to a Roman soldier named Thespian Pullum who lived somewhere south of the Danube in the first century BCE. As one might imagine, young Tad’s childhood was one filled with familiar familial tales of military prowess, viewed through the somewhat skewed lens of his putative personal history. By 1509, Tad, in his early twenties, had come to the complex genealogical conclusion that he, not Maximilian, was the rightful heir to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor. Of course, no one listened to him, as he had no real wealth, no military might, and no common sense. He did, however, have a keen ear for languages, and was passably fluent in a handful of German and Austrian dialects, Magyar, Czech, Croatian, Latin, Greek, and several other tongues.

After a year or more of ineffectual political and religious muckraking, Tad realized he was getting nowhere with his bid to become the Holy Roman Emperor. By 1512, he was barely making a living tutoring the spoiled children of Vienna’s elite in a variety of languages; the content of his lessons regularly took on a dangerously political slant, and he was chased off more than one Austrian estate by hounds. Such intellectual vigor in the face of authority made Tad a natural choice to head the very small Vienna Bureau of Speculative Grammarian, and he was installed at that post in 1513. However, by early 1514, the steady flow of funds from SpecGram headquarters in Erfurt had dried up, as they were beginning to have serious problems of their own.

It would have been clear to most by the end of 1514 that it was time for SpecGram to close up shop in Vienna and time for Tad to move on. But Tad persistedhe persisted in his belief in the linguistic mission of SpecGram and in his belief that the Archduchy of Austria itself was behind a conspiracy to keep him, personally, from success. In early 1515 Tad conceived of a diabolical plan to infuse cash into the local SpecGram coffers, while inflicting political damage to the ruling Habsburgs: in 1513 Tad had purchased a used printing press on the black market in Stockerau, in which had mistakenly been left a seal used for authenticating official proclamations. Tad’s plan was to use that seal to sell the German language to the Austrian people.

The first “official” proclamation, circulated on handbills at the Vienna Opera House,

Open O-E Ligature
explained that Austrian dialects of German were, in general, looked down upon by German speakers throughout Europe as debased, in part due to the lax speaking habits of Austrians and in part due to the corrupting influence of non-German-speaking peoples inhabiting the region. A second proclamation, circulated during intermission at the opening performance of the Vienna ballet season, outlined a costly plan to restore the reputation of Austrian German, funded by a tax on certain phonemes peculiar to Viennese and other Austrian dialects. The third and final proclamation, circulated at the opening ceremony of the Vienna Polo Championship and Charity Golf Tournament, contained the details of the phoneme tax, and appointed one “Tadeus Thespian Pullum” as “Official Phonemic Tax Collector of the Archduchy of Austria”.

The plan was simple. The right to speak each particular and particularly Austrian sound was to be purchased by each speaker, with the price starting as high as Tad dared go, and lowered gradually until some speaker was willing to pay, setting the price for all. Proofs of purchase (with an official seal) were to be carried at all times, lest illegal use of unlicensed phonemes earn an incautious speaker several months of jail time. A modern descriptivist would call the assumptions behind this plan unreasonable. A modern phonologist would call them factually incorrect. A modern boiler room financier would call them brilliant.

News of the action spread like wildfire throughout the upper circles of Viennese society, with all the vicious social scheming that entails. The auction began early in the morning, with the initial price for the voiced variants of /p/, /t/, and /k/ going quickly for roughly US$1700 each in today’s dollars. By the early afternoon, a fierce bidding war had broken out between several

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noble families, each seeking to set a price so high that others could not afford a complete phonemic inventory. Tad rode the wave of petty hatred and free-flowing cash to ridiculous heights, sometimes doubling and trebling the opening price of successive phonemes. By evening, the “Viennese a” (Cf. German zwei, Viennese zwa) sold for around US$1,400,000 and the “vocalized liquids” (Cf. German viel, Austrian vüü) for approximately US$1,900,000. Per speaker.

Only a few of the absolutely wealthiest families could afford all phonemes for all members. Some went so far as to mortgage nearly everything they owned. One family swore only to converse in Italian from that day forward. Tad printed proof of purchase papers like he was printing money, which, in essence, he was.

Some days later, a number of noblemen accosted a mill-worker for speaking sounds he could not possibly afford, and demanded that a constable arrest the poor man for illegal and unlicensed speech. Of course, law enforcement officials had no real idea what was going on, and, after initially detaining the miller, eventually let him go. Within a few days, everything became clear, but Tad had absconded with almost US$150,000,000 in today’s dollars (with an additional estimated US$1,000,000,000 in phoneme licenses reserved but unpaid for). In doing so, he abandoned the Vienna Bureau of Speculative Grammarian, though the head office in Erfurt received an annual anonymous donation of a quite tidy sum until its closure in 1537; many editors over the years have attributed those donations to Tad’s ongoing largesse, and I, too, like to think it so.

The Viennese nobles did come to resent the Habsburgs’ inability to protect them from such chicanery for a short while, but nothing of any more import than harsh words over afternoon tea came of itthose most affected were now least powerful. The only lasting effect, beyond Tad’s financial enrichment, was the spread of his peculiar auction stylewhere prices are set high and lowered until a buyer is foundto tulip traders in the Netherlands, whence comes our modern term, “Dutch Auction”.

Letters to the Editor
SpecGram Vol CLII, No 3 Contents