Thirteen Untranslatable Words—Michael Covarrubias SpecGram Vol CLXX, No 3 Contents Dreaming in R—A Psycholinguistical Statistical Reverie—“Doc” Yoomin Terrean

The SpecGram Inquisition—Pete Bleackley

with Inquisitor Generalis Jonathan Downie

Earlier this year Associate Editor Jonathan Downie made the bold move of interviewing several members of the editorial board and distilling the information, stories, and rumor he got in the process down to a one-page article in The Linguist (“Can you take a joke?”, 53.2 April/May 2014). Unfortunately, while the distillation process resulted in an intoxicating final product, it removed all the pulpy goodness of the interviews, too. To rectify that situation, we’ve arranged with Jonathan and his interviewees to publish his full interview notes. His second interview, with Assistant Editor Pete Bleackley, is below.

You are a serious computational linguist (if such a thing exists). What made you first decide to contribute to SpecGram?

PB: Computational linguistics lies at the intersection of my professional interest in AI and my personal interest in languages. As to whether I’m a serious computational linguist, well, I’ve had the odd go at analysing the Voynich Manuscript, so you could say incurable.

As for how I got involved in SpecGram, it’s all David Peterson’s fault. A few years ago he sidled up to me on the Conlang list and said “Psst, wanna read this article I’ve written?” (this was before he was famous, of course). It’s hard to sidle online, but the man has rare talents.

Anyway, after reading a bit of SpecGram, I thought it would be fun to write something for it. However, the idea sat on the back burner for a while. Then, David did a stint as a guest presenter on the Conlangery Podcast. One week, he was expounding on his favourite topic, why conlangers should take linguistic theory with a pinch of salt (never mention morphemes to Davidlast person who did, all we found was hoofmarks), and the thought came to me “Children don’t know any theory when they learn to speak.” Then I imagined the sort of person who’d respond to that with, “Well, they jolly well should do!” and I had the idea for my first article.

“Children don’t know any theory when they learn to speak.”

“Well, they jolly well should do!”

You seem to be a big fan of constructed languages, could you explain what these are?

PB: A constructed language (conlang), is any language that has been deliberately created rather than naturally evolved. There are three main genres. The first is artistic languages, languages created as a work of artthese are what I do. Famous artlangs include Quenya and Sindarin, Klingon, Na’vi, and Dothraki. Then there are auxiliary languages, created as a means of international communication. Esperanto is the best known. Auxlangers are a fractious lot, forever squabbling about which language is best suited to bring about world peace. Finally, there are engineered languages, which aim to rigorously implement some design goal, such as Lojban, which has a grammar based on predicate logic, or John Quijada’s Ithkuil, which aims to maximise information density. These tend to be the furthest languages from the naturalism most artlangers aim for.

What effect(s) do you think SpecGram has had on the linguistics community as a whole?

PB: With any luck, it might have given them a good laugh.

Have any of your colleagues ever reacted (positively or negatively) to one of your SpecGram pieces?

PB: Not really. I gave a former colleague a link to my first article, and he thought I hadn’t written it. Didn’t realise that “Noah McMosky” was a pseudonym.

What is your favourite linguistics area to satirise and why?

PB: Linguistics tends to attract a lot of daft ideas, some of which get taken seriously. So there are all sorts of places you can get satirical ideas from. My usual method is to come up with some idea you’d have to be a complete idiot to believe, and then write in the character of that idiot.

SpecGram recently celebrated its tenth online year. What do you think are the reasons for its longevity?

PB: Firstly, there’s no end of funny things to say about linguistics. Secondly, the SpecGram team are a good crowd who tend to spark ideas off each other.

Lastly, if you could pick any linguist, alive or dead, and poke them until they wrote a SpecGram piece, who would it be and why?

PB: I’d like George Lakoff to write us something on the funny side of cognitive linguistics. And JRR Tolkien would be good, if we could only get him to keep the length down.

More to come...

Thirteen Untranslatable WordsMichael Covarrubias
Dreaming in RA Psycholinguistical Statistical Reverie“Doc” Yoomin Terrean
SpecGram Vol CLXX, No 3 Contents