Linguists Need Prescriptivists (and probably Pig Latin, too)—Dr. Illiamway Afiresay, hDPay, Dr. Iamwill Iresaf, DPh, and Dr. Willopiamop Safopireop, PophopDop SpecGram Vol CLVI, No 1 Contents A New Publishing House—Announcement from Panini Press

No Escape From the Bremley Bump

Don’t Try Linguistic Analysis in the Privacy of Your Own Treehouse

by Milton B. Radley, Ph.D.

Most contemporary theories of grammar assume a general organization in which linguistic pieces, or linguons, are drawn from a place called the “Lexicon” and are then “bumped” up to the surface, where they become language:


While it’s uncontroversial that some sort of “bump” must occur to turn amorphous Language into well-formed language, the “Syntactocentrist” position is of course associated with a stronger claim about how the “bump” works, as given in (2).

  1. Syntactocentrism: linguons are drawn from the Lexicon and bumped to the surface by means of complex syntactic “rules” which tell the bumping mechanism the order in which words are to be bumped. Presumably, this “syntax” also informs the bumping mechanism about the order of affixes, though it is unclear what (if any) role it plays in phonology.

So Syntactocentrism claims that the bumping mechanism is informed by a series of rules which constrain how (and, apparently, when) linguons may be bumped up to the surface. The leading idea of Syntactocentrism may be summarized as follows: Everyone agrees that there has to be some sort of bumping mechanism which takes the stuff in our brain and turns it into language. There also has to be a mechanism to block matter bumped to the surface that isn’t well-formed (=the “goalie”). Perhaps the bumping mechanism and the goalie are one and the same. That is, perhaps both bumping and blocking occur all at once, and can be referred to as “syntax”.

The underlying suspicion behind the leading idea of Syntactocentrism is this: bumping and blocking are not separate processes. This paper brings the reader the following news: Syntactocentrism is dead, deceased, demised, decayed, defunct, de-everythinged. The underlying suspicion was wrong and the leading idea didn’t work out. It was bound to happen. The error the Syntactocentrists made was in assuming (quite wrongly) that they were linguists, rather than computer programmers.

0. What They Did

It can be observed that, in language, we have examples such as those that follow:

    1. The man sees a cat.
    2. The man sees a rat.
    3. The man sees a mat.
    4. The man sees a prostitute.

The Syntactocentrist sees this, and detects a rather simple pattern: The man sees a N. Taking this to be a general rule, the Syntactocentrist creates a syntactic rule that can be used to “generate” language. In this instance, one may replace N with any noun, producing sentences like:

    1. The man sees a bat.
    2. The man sees a gnat.
    3. The man sees a hat.
    4. The man sees a corpse.

Well and good. But if we take this rule seriously, we could also produce the following:

    1. The man sees a cats.
    2. The man sees a orphan.
    3. The man sees a animosity.
    4. The man sees a cumin.

What to do?! Well, as it turns out, the Syntactocentrist does not create a list of rules of impermissible sentences, but simply creates more specific rules. How? By specifying that the only permissible nouns, for example, are those that make senseor, in other words, the only sentences that work are the sentences that work. This may do for a King’s Quest adventure game for the Apple ][GS, but within the realm of linguistics, I think we can do a bit better.

1. The Only Alternative

Wilfred Bremley’s Remarks on an Autumn Remembered (1854) is often identified as the birthplace of Syntactocentrismin particular, his quote on page 783:

  1. “And it is with...sadness that I recall that...the scrub jay cannot nest alone.”

To the Syntactocentrist, the scrub jay represents syntaxthat is, the combination of the bump and the goalie. As Bremley was given to flights of fancy, early Syntactocentrists may be forgiven for treating this as a metaphor. But as Rodolov (1902) observed, archaeological evidence suggests that it was an actual scrub jay that Bremley saw that autumn eve in 1853. Thus, at its very core, the Syntactocentrist enterprise is without merit, and serves absolutely no purpose in the scientific study of language.

What Bremley really discussed in Remarks... is summarized by this quote: “It is patently obvious that what Mrs. Reinig ought to have done is to have set out a tray for the...children, that they might sup outside. Really, it does wonders for the constitution. I might have suggested it to her [myself], had I not been upstate in attendance of a marvelous lecture series on the mating habits of Aphelocoma cœrulescens [i.e., the Florida scrub jay]...” (Bremley, 1854, p. 69) That an actual scrub jay was intended can no more be denied than the sun’s superiority to the moon.

Scrub jays aside, Bremley maintained throughout the course of his life, as have his students, and their students, and so on, that without a distinct bumping mechanism, successful linguistic communication is precisely as likely as an orphan seeing his parents alive again, as will be shown in the next section.

2. How Humiliating It Is to Be You, Syntactocentrist Imbecile!

Consider the following example copied directly from the pages of the latest Syntactocentrist manifesto:

    1. Alec corrupted the student body.
    2. Alec’s corrupting the student body drew cheers.
    3. Alec’s corruption of the student body drew cheers.

No problems so far, they snicker, but, lo!

    1. The race places athletes.
    2. The athletes placed.
    3. The race’s placing the athletes riled millions.
    4. *The race’s placement of the athletes riled millions.

The explanation of these bizarre examples of “natural” speech is a bit convoluted. In this world the Syntactocentrists have created, certain oft-cited verbs contain magical properties (those not cited in Syntactocentric texts presumably fall under the domain of Bremley [which leaves us, I should add, the lion’s share of language]). Basically, what it amounts to is this: The verb “place” contains feature X which predicts that (8d) will be bad. What evidence is there of this, you ask? The mere fact that (8d) is bad, of course!

Leaving the world of pseudo-science behind us for now, though, let us consider Bremley’s goalie. When a sentence like (8d) is bumped up to the surface, it is blocked by the goalie, and never surfaces. This explanation is simple and satisfying. Consider, also, that the goalie, as a sentient being, allows us to further predict the following, about which Syntactocentrist soothsayers are silent:

    1. (7) Alec corrupted the student body.
    2. (4) Alec’s corrupting the student body drew cheers.
    3. (6) Alec’s corruption of the student body drew cheers.
    4. (0) The students corrupted.
    5. (-18) Alec began corruptioneering the daffodils.

Specifically, the facility with which linguons are bumped towards the goal differs from phrase to phrase. Has the Syntactocentrist any way of predicting that (9d), a “bad” sentence, is actually not quite so bad as (9e)? Of course not! In their black and white world, it’s a wonder they can tell their mittens from their bald spots! Bremley, of course, allows us to determine the skill with which a series of linguons are bumped towards the goal. More skillful shots will pass by the goalie with ease, while less skillful shots will be blocked. By determining the relative skill of the shot, one can give a skill-rating to the discourse as a whole, and use that to determine the relative intelligence of the speaker (after all, no sentence is uttered in isolation, absent of a speaker). And (mind, this is the crucial part) if the bumping mechanism and the goalie are unified, the interplay between the two, and the resultant data illustrated in (9), is lost. All this we’ve had for years, and the Syntactocentrists want us to instead spend our time pruning trees? Ha!

3. The Final Nail in the Coffin of Syntactocentrism

In a very real sense, I have shown, here, that “Syntax”, as it’s called, is little more than a fairy story. By unifying the goalie and the bumping mechanism, Syntactocentrist “linguists” have missed the entire point of language and linguistic analysis. Any investigation into or even contemplation of Syntactocentrist theories is, at the very least, an utter waste of time, or, at worst, a great evil that must be dealt with in a harsh and brutal manner.

It is important to note that I am not claiming that there are a priori reasons to reject the unification of the goalie and the bumping mechanism, or that the separation thereof is conceptually superior in some way. I will scream in agony if I read or hear anyone summarizing this paper as, “Radley argues that ‘linguists’ have missed the entire point of language and linguistic analysis by unifying the goalie and the bumping mechanism.” I challenge any reader of this paper to find even a single instance where I have mischaracterized Syntactocentrist theories of language, or referred to them pejoratively as computer programmers. The great failure of Syntactocentrism was a simple one: it was created to be a theory of language. That was its only problem. Had it been a theory of schizophrenia, or haberdashery, it might have done very well, and made some genuinely fascinating predictions. The question is not which theory is simpler, or more pleasing: the question is which theory is the only one that has even the remotest chance of being anywhere near anything approaching the realm of rationality.


Linguists Need Prescriptivists (and probably Pig Latin, too)—Dr. Illiamway Afiresay, hDPay, Dr. Iamwill Iresaf, DPh, and Dr. Willopiamop Safopireop, PophopDop
A New Publishing House—Announcement from Panini Press
SpecGram Vol CLVI, No 1 Contents