Linguistic Diversity and the Dream of the Universal Language—Chris Nsiwander-Sic SpecGram Vol CLXVI, No 2 Contents Davie Dunnit’s Disparaging Dictionary—Advertisement

The Nasal Tone: An Honest Tale

by Barb Tyd-Laika, Lady Bri-kab-at
and Tessie Chopp Durnford, Duchess Of Dripperton

One of our favourite places for a “Speculative-Grammarianstyle” afternoon is at the home of our dear friend, Sir William Jones, XIV. At 94, he’s full of strange tales and bizarre first-person accounts of the adventure of his life, which includes migrations, linguistics, and more vodka than you can swizzle a stick at. His stories are characterized by his habit of using oddly distinct language and gesticulating wildly while ranting for hours on end.

He spouts out the most amusing and befuddling advice, such as “Avoid tender wombats, zen praeteritio, monophthong fortition, and trace gags,” “Guard against elephants and language therapists,” and “Buy Google stock.”

His views on the field of linguistics are also entertainingly skewed. “There are nothing but grim captains in pragmatics these days!” he says. “In the final accounting teaching functional linguistics isn’t worth it,” he bellows. Of course, he doesn’t think highly of any school of linguistics, claiming that it has become more of a team sport than an academic endeavor. He likes to say that “Most ‘teams’ are, in fact, a matter of ‘semantics’. Everyone is really on their own!” Then he always chuckles and adds, “Any extras are syntax!”

When speaking of defining dialects, the Old Grammarian says “As grim as an army, perhaps, but I don’t need a navy, or an ovary, to be a real language!” We have never known what that means. But back in his heyday he did some fine old work on fieldworknot actual fieldwork, mind you, but meta-fieldwork. For example, he famously discovered that several PhD students had skimped on their analyses, which turned out to be nothing more than English phonetics in sheep’s clothing.

He likes recounting conversations with foreigners who spoke English so badly that he feared “the idea of them using actual English causing lethal surprise” to their interlocutors.

When he strays outside linguistics, the results can be even more mind-bending. Not so far from the fold, he wrote a scathing indictment of the excesses of modern philology in 1974, and was forced by the university to write a retraction in 1982. He concluded with the line “Still, academia is better at linguistics than it is at philology.” His “apology” lit off a firestorm of criticism. He has no regrets, though: “Academia is certainly a curious enterprise. Tenure is precarious, despite what you may have been told.”

Farther afield, his etymological Islamic theology has gotten him banned from several middle eastern countries, and the response was, unbelievably, far more negative from a generative crowd at an MIT linguistics colloquium. He’s been banned from there, too.

World literature is a passion of the Old Grammarian, too. “Japanese lit is a jet plane to the world of the weird and tentacly!” Though he bears no animus to most Ainu authors, he finds their works “too obscure”! He considers all the Romance languages to still be degenerate forms of Latin, a premise he picked up from a college sweetheart. “Speakers of the Spanish dialect can’t help it,” she said, and he was convinced.

The pair even worked at the Romance Reunification Literary Magazine. For a year they helped to integrate fresh recruits; they found housing for the newcomers, wrote some French, and loved life. However, it is a discourse that he caused his heart to forget, for the most part. She abandoned him for a professor of Romance and Semiotics. As in domestic imprisonment he lingered at home, alone for months. He said he spent a month anagramming her name, until he realized that no great man has anagrams on the brain, and he broke out of his funk.

He eventually found new love, and married his wifeAnna Maria Shipley, XIVin 1944. “It was love at first analysis,” he likes to tell. “I’d been analyzing some recalcitrant data, and had postulated four underlying nasal sounds. Anna glanced at the data, whereupon she told me three phonemes would suffice. And they did! And they still do!”

The happy couple still chortle over that data. They even have peculiar guffaws they only use when laughing at that particular joke. It was startling at first: a sharp intake of breath, then a short laugh through the nasal cavity, resonating loudly. His gallant light nasal giggle was filled with real admiration for his wife. Her dark nasal had real snark in it, but it was an affectionate pixieish snark.

William is still productive, and he works like a horse. His most recent book argued that the words pidgin and creole corresponded with leading political party candidates’ positions on immigration in a meaningful way. It was a stressful project, and it kept Anna worried. At the time, she said, “It often leads him so far from the nasal side of life that he forgets to laugh.”

No such worries with his current book, which looks at the far more amusing use of grammar in satirical linguistics journals. Anna, like us, approves with a most hearty snort!

Linguistic Diversity and the Dream of the Universal LanguageChris Nsiwander-Sic
Davie Dunnit’s Disparaging DictionaryAdvertisement
SpecGram Vol CLXVI, No 2 Contents