In Briefs—A Letter from the Managing Editor SpecGram Vol CLVIII, No 1 Contents On Leaving a Trace—John Miaou

Letters to the Editor

To the editors of SpecGram:

How many linguists does it take to pick up a box from the ground?

Thank you,
Ms. Kerripaula Nirawan
Dept. of Linguistics and Name Science
Orvall Oryan School for the Onomastically Challenged


Dear Mrs. Nirawan,

Provided the box isn’t very heavy, most linguists are able-bodied adults of average build, and very few should have any difficulty lifting a box off the groundor, more specifically, the average linguist would have no more trouble lifting a box off the ground than the average human being. Why would you think otherwise?



Esteemed colleagues and other editors of Speculative Grammarian!

I recently re-read Jerry Fodor’s 1975 book The Language of Thought, and stumbled, yet again, over the sentence “Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight”. As back in the ‘70s, when I first frowned at and then upon it, I had the distinct sensation of my Wernicke’s area deciding to escape the confines of my brain or else commit suicide. Being a native speaker of English of a rather educated level, who has been metaphorically born on the steps of St Mary’s church, I understand that in Fodor’s illustrative sentence recursive embedding of relative clauses should be recognised. No such thing is, however, recognisable, at least not to me.

Is there, in the History of Linguistics, any colleague who has succeeded at parsing this example?

Expectantly yours,
J. A. Rodoff
Master of St John and Mary’s Hall
Professor of Intricate Theoretical Syntax
University of Cambridge


Dear J,

We’re afraid that we have to tell you that the emperor has no clothes; or perhaps that the bulldogs have no fight left in them. Are you familiar with the non-word “dord” that appeared in a dictionary of some repute many years back? The definition was “density”. Someone misread the correct, abbreviated, term, “D or d”, and thus an error crept into the dictionary. Similarly with “Bulldogs bulldogs bulldogs fight fight fight.”

Oh, you may see explanations along the lines of “Bulldogs [(that) bulldogs [(that) bulldogs fight] (do in turn) fight] (do themselves also) fight.” with a semantic structure similar to “Chihuahuas [that poodles [that dachshunds often bite] frequently annoy] sometimes bark.”, but that’s hogwash.

With correct punctuation, the meaning is clear: “Bulldogs! Bulldogs! Bulldogs! Fight! Fight! Fight!” It’s a Yale athletic team cheer, fed to Fodor fourth- or fifth-hand by a colleague at Yale as an “interesting example” of center embedding, or palindromic passivization, or some such. In reality, it is merely a repetitive chant about which some college football fans are overly enthusiastic.

Sorry to burst your bubble, Sparky.
—the “other” Editors


Speculative Grammarian accepts well-written letters commenting on specific articles that appear in this journal or discussing the field of linguistics in general. We also accept poorly-written letters that ramble pointlessly. We reserve the right to ridicule the poorly-written ones and publish the well-written ones... or vice versa, at our discretion.


Dear Sirs or Madams,

Whilst looking at a simple sentence, pondering its formation from two smaller sentences, a linguist of my acquaintance wordnapped an interrogative who and forced it, against my will, to be a relative pronoun who, leaving me with only a trace. I protested that this was not allowable, not cricket.

I have from a reliable source (myself) that MIT, deep underground, has developed or is working on a word spin inferospectrographometer to determine the spin of given pronouns or indeed any word-total-look-alikes (such as gerunds/participles). I should like to introduce my who into said machine, to prove conclusively that it has up spin, and is therefore interrogative.

My question to your readers is thus twofold: Is my reliable source correct and can they arrange the experiment?

Yours very sincerely,
Peter Rodgers


Dear Reliable Source,

We would, in theory, be very glad to answer your questions, but in order to reliably do so, we would need to know what you precisely mean by ‘reliable’. In practice, though, we are unwilling to go on record with respect to such politically sensitive topics. If you don’t see why that is the case here, please leave the field of linguistics immediately.

We would also like to know whether you are planning, by using said machine, to establish the field of LabSyn. In this case, we could not take the responsibility to overtly support a movement which stands in such a stark contrast to the usual dogmas in the discipline. We would however be willing to recommend that undercover experiments on any kind of movement figure under the heading of ‘motor control studies’.

Given that our response is more CYA than FYI, and after careful consultation with our legal staff, we have passed your query on to a small set of specific readers vetted by our lawyers. The only responses we got are provided below.

Introspectively yours,
Unspecified SpecGram Staff Member(s)


Dear Mr. Rodgers:

While there is evidence that MIT toyed with design specifications for such a device, they immediately ran into what came to be known as “The Hypostasis Barrier,” an issue akin to some of those discussed by Heisenberg. Basically, the instant one attempts to study the particle-properties of a word, the word becomes noun-like (e.g., “We are studying the properties of ‘who’.”). Measurement devices thus invariably detect zero up/down spin, although left/right spin may remain detectable in term pairs such as “revenue enhancement” vs. “tax increase.”

Dr. Trigo Kokintz,
Director, Phenomenological Research
Institute of Grand Fenwick


Dear SpecGram Editors:

I have discovered through the grapevine that Dr. Kokintz is bandying about his ill-considered “Hypostasis Barrier” theory again. Ignore him. McCawley (1967) clearly established that quotations, and hypostasis in general, are completely irrelevant to linguistic theory. After all, if hypostasis and quotation were linguistically relevant, then exocentric constructions would exist, and they quite obviously can’t.

PS: Please don’t print this.

Dr. Bjorn-Bob Weaselflinger,
Oceanographic Institute of Nevada-Kairo


In Briefs—A Letter from the Managing Editor
On Leaving a Trace—John Miaou
SpecGram Vol CLVIII, No 1 Contents