Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira SpecGram Vol CLVI, No 3 Contents Call for Manuscripts—Announcement from Panini Press

Where No Researcher Should Tread

By Cowell R. Augh, Ph.D.
The Academy of Northeastern State University College and Technical Institute


We, the linguistic community at large, owe a great deal of thanks to our esteemed colleague Quentin Popinjay Snodgrass for alerting us to the dangers of lexicalism. A hero of his stature doesn’t come along every day, and it would be wise of us to pay close attention to his adviceand, may I say, it is my general belief that many of us have done just that. There are those, however, who either remain ignorant of the horrors of lexicalism, or deny its ability to corrupt the minds of students and academics alike. “Everyone in my department abhors lexicalist theories of grammar!” chortles John T. Department Chair. “Why should I remain on guard?” In times of war (for, realistically, what is this if not warfare?), though, one must be prepared for anythingespecially when the enemy appears in the guise of an ally: language itself!

“Natural” Language?

The goal of a linguist is to discover the One True Framework, and to then apply it to natural language to see what happens. It is to this lofty goal that I and many others have devoted our lives and our livelihoods, and not a one of us has ever regretted it for even a moment.1 As the chair of the Linguistics Department of the Academy of Northeastern State University College and Technical Institute (go Fightin’ Figs!), it is my job to ensure that our professors, our researchers, our graduate students, our undergraduate students, and our office and custodial staff are dedicated to the One True Goal, and no other, and I defy any academician to claim that the opposite is true.2 Indeed, I hope it won’t sound boastful, but I dare say that our department has been a leader in the fields of morpheme-ology and morpheme-onomy over the past eleven months.

And yet...

My resolve falters, I have to admit, but I know I must press on, so press on I shall!

It was
Case Russian Gloss
Nominative kniga book
Genitive knig of the book
an ordinary undergraduate morphology class. The instructor was one of our best, Prof. Scarlton Ragges, and all was going according to plan. I happened to be observing that day, and, I must say, I was pleased with all I saw. The students were tackling a familiar problem: the so-called “disappearing genitive” of certain Russian feminine nouns (at right).

It is a curious challenge to many undergraduates to explain this phenomenon, but they usually come to the right conclusion (namely, some variant of the much-celebrated “Pac-Man Morpheme” that eats the final /a/ of the root, first proposed in Morontz (1998)). Elementary, of course, but many of these undergraduates are just starting out, and sometimes the answers aren’t as apparent to them as they are to veterans like us.

Prof. Ragges was about to reveal the answer, as it appeared the class wasn’t going to get it, when one...“student” raised her hand. “What if the root is knig, and not kniga, like we hypothesized originally?” I suppressed a chuckle, and watched to see how our man was prepared to handle such impetuousness. “Well,” said he, “ignoring the fact that the nominative form of a noun is always the stem, as it is lexically neutral, if the genitive knig is the stem, how would you account, then, for the form of the nominative?”

“Well,” said she, “what if /-a/ is the nominative suffix?”

“A reasonable analysis,” he replied, and I knew what was coming next. “But, would that not mean that the nominative suffix /-a/ would be added to the genitive form knig? And if that’s the case, how can a noun be both nominative and genitive at the same time?!” A triumph, just as I expected. I turned to see what Little Miss Free Spirit would say to that!

And what followed turned my blood cold.

“Oh, I see,” she said (I’ll never forget the words. They’ll haunt me to the end of my days!). “But what if knig is just a stem? What if it doesn’t have any meaning? What if just when you use it by itself it’s the genitive, but when you add the /-a/ suffix, it’s the nominative? Why would you have to, like, add the meanings together? Maybe they’re not there until after the word is formed.”

And there it is. There it is! Need I even say it? Purely for emphasis, I shall: Lexicalism! Lexicalism in all its hideous audacity! Immediately, I canceled the class and sent the students home, and Ragges and I met together to discuss what, if anything, could possibly have gone wrong.

The Real Problem

Our specific example is simple enough to analyze for professional linguists (what could be simpler than a Pac-Man morpheme, after all?), but undergraduate students aren’t professionals yet. Their minds don’t work as expected, and as such, they can produce unexpected results. That is a given, I’m afraid, and can’t be avoided. But what are we to do? If it happened once, it could happen again. So what is the solution? I think by now, the solution should be obvious to even the casual reader: we must ban the Russian language from our classrooms!

But, think about it: that’s not good enough. What happens when a student can’t tell the difference between singular “fish” and plural “fish”, with the invisible plural suffix? And what about “children”? And consider this startling paradigm from Spanish: Paco > Paquito; Carlos > Carlitos. Naturally, the first -it is a suffix, and the second -it- is an infix, but how might this appear to the untrained eye? And what of the peculiar morphological alternations of Arabic? What of the terrifying Amerindian languages of North America? What of Estonian? What of Estonian?!

We must take the only path open to us. We must ban the study of natural languages throughout linguistics. Natural language is too unruly, too unpredictable to be trusted. Irregular constructions may lead to irregular thinking, and that we simply cannot allow.

In class, then, professors may use a constructed language that illustrates the principles of morpheme-ology and concatenative semantics. You may use Esperanto, but be aware that even it features some odd irregularities.3 Your safest bet is to use a language constructed or approved by Dr. Snodgrass himself. By restricting our students’ access to aberrant linguistic phenomena, we can assure ourselves that their fragile minds will be preserved intact, and our field will not be tainted by impure and imprudent ideas!

Naturally, we will need to continue our own research into natural language to determine the nature of Universal Grammar. Thankfully, though, none other than Grand Admiral Chomsky has provided us with an avenue. After all, to understand the nature of Universal Grammar, we need study only one natural language, and no other. I propose that that language be Turkish: the language that comes the closest to the “one morpheme = one meaning” ideal all languages should aspire to. I propose that a committee be formed to oversee access to the Turkish language for the purposes of research, and that Dr. Snodgrass himself chair this committee. I humbly submit myself as vice-chair, and have a few good suggestions as to who could fill the remaining spots. Regardless, I do urge all linguists worldwide to immediately abandon research into and the analysis of all natural languages, until you hear from either myself or Dr. Snodgrass that it is safe to do so.

Take heart, linguists, and have no fear: We shall triumph!

1 That is, not a one of us who has never had the opportunity to become rich and famous, which is, of course, the one true goal of all human beings, linguists included.

2 Of course, Dr. Snodgrass is the lone exception: If you say it is so, good sir, who are we to question that it is indeed so?

3 If cigaredo is “cigarette” and cigaredujo is “cigarette box”, how can pomo be “apple” and pomujo be “apple tree”, and not “apple box”?! I strongly suspect that L.L. Zamenhof was a closet lexicalist!

Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira
Call for Manuscripts—Announcement from Panini Press
SpecGram Vol CLVI, No 3 Contents