The Symptoms and Warning Signs of Framework Psychosis—Dr. Pill, M.D. SpecGram Vol CLV, No 2 Contents Cartoon Theories of Linguistics—Part 14—Gricean Implicature—Phineas Q. Phlogiston, Ph.D.

Murphy’s Law as Applied to Field Linguistics

James Crippen

The last living speaker of the language you want to study either had a laryngectomy or lost all of his teeth last year. You will not be informed of this until a week after you arrive. The speaker’s family will be horribly offended by your wanting to leave, and once you return home they will write you depressing letters for years afterward.

Either the phonetic symbols you need for your dissertation are typeable in your word processor but you lack a font for them, or the symbols are available in a font but cannot be input in your word processor.

A job for a field linguist specializing in your area will always open one month after you leave for the field and will close two weeks before your defense.

The primary sources for your language are only available in person at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and photocopying or photography is not permitted. In addition, they were written in Portuguese by a native speaker of Serbian.

You will contract dysentery within one month of arriving at your field location, no matter how careful your precautions. The symptoms will persist until you return home.

Within one month of arriving at your site, the transportation company which got you there will go out of business. If you are on an island, the WWII-era boat you arrived on will sink.

Your language will have at least two different morphemes which have similar gloss abbreviations, forcing you to use numbers to separate them.

The power converters you brought with you are for the other part of the country that runs on 52 Hz 133 V power, and the part of the country you’re in runs on 65 Hz 204 V power. Additionally, the importation of power converters has been banned to encourage the development of a local industry.

Your committee will always include at least one member who has no idea where the country you visited is located.

At court for a traffic violation, the local magistrate will decide you are a spy and take all of your field notes for review. You will get them back one week before your dissertation defense.

There will always be one word class in your language which doesn’t fit any of the normal ones but is too substantial to be dumped into the “adverbial” or “particle” buckets.

You will always run out of batteries in the middle of recording an incredible conversation featuring structures and words you’ve never heard before. The situation will never arise again and your elicitation efforts will be for naught.

It will become obvious to you a month after arriving that a linguist visited the area last year and did extensive work with your informant. He will publish before you return from the field.

If you are male, you will be blamed for the pregnancy of a young girl in a neighboring village, despite the fact that you have never been there. You will be forced to pay bride-price and take her in along with an officious aunt and three of her nosy cousins. The girl will admit that it was her secret lover a week after you escape.

If you are female, you will suddenly stop menstruating and start to show all the signs of pregnancy with no idea how it happened. Ugly rumors will tear through the village, and your informant will avoid you for fear of accusations. After abandoning your work and rushing to a distant hospital, it will prove to be due to stress and gastrointestinal intolerance for a local favorite food.

Every time you attempt to record fine phonetic detail, someone will ride by on a motorcycle, start up a chainsaw, or the village rooster will begin crowing incessantly.

Your defense will be completely derailed by two of your committee members arguing over data you presented that has a tiny impact on historical reconstruction in the family.

Your main informant will always be more interested in learning English from you than in teaching you their language.

You will come down with the one infectious disease for which you were not immunized because “it’s not likely you’ll ever catch that”. The only treatment available will be from a drop-out homeopathic doctor who grows marijuana nearby, and whose drug collection is largely composed of stolen veterinary pharmaceuticals.

A month after arriving, your last working microphone will short out.

You will discover to your dismay that you are allergic to the local favorite intoxicant. This will only become apparent the following morning when you have a session scheduled with visiting elders from a distant location.

There will be at least three phonemes in your language that you can’t differentiate, whether by ear, by spectrogram, or even by sagittal ultrasound imaging. Your informants will insist that they are different sounds, and will prove to you that even two year olds from a different language community can tell them apart.

Every elicitation session will be interrupted by some trivial event, such as a chicken laying an egg, a child stubbing their toe, or your diarrhea acting up again.

Most of the texts you collect will later turn out to be from a neighboring group in a different language. Your informants will give them to you because they feel that their neighbors’ stories are more interesting and exciting than their own.

Every member of your committee will propose a different and conflicting way to describe your language’s verb phrase. Whichever way you choose, at least one professor will be unsatisfied and will complain loudly and obnoxiously during your defense.

Joseph Greenberg will somehow get a copy of your data before you defend and will propose that your language is clearly descended from proto-Nostratic, causing your defense to consist largely of acrimonious debate completely unrelated to your work.

Your informant’s worst enemy will steal your personal diary and give it to the local police. In it you will have once described a local official as a pig, an idiot, a fascist, or some other unfavorable term. The police will continually harass you until you leave the country.

Three quarters of your elicited words will turn out to be borrowed from a neighboring unrelated language that coincidentally has a similar phoneme inventory.

You will be unable to find the one sentence you elicited to explain a particularly thorny feature that you put off until a week before your defense. Later it will turn out that you wrote it down in a notebook that you forgot in the bottom of your luggage.

The Symptoms and Warning Signs of Framework Psychosis—Dr. Pill, M.D.
Cartoon Theories of Linguistics—Part 14—Gricean Implicature—Phineas Q. Phlogiston, Ph.D.
SpecGram Vol CLV, No 2 Contents