It Was a Dark and Stormy Noun...—1987 Edition—The SpecGram Puzzle Elves™ SpecGram Vol CLXXI, No 4 Contents The Vowel Space DVD Boxed Set—Advertisement

The SpecGram Inquisition—Trey Jones

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 fifth interview, with Editor-in-Chief Trey Jones, is below.

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

TJ: When I first discovered SpecGram, I was but a grad student in the linguistics department at Rice UniversityI wasn’t yet a proper computational linguist (if such a thing exists). I found out about SpecGram from my neighbor in grad student housing, Tim Pulju, who was in the same department, and was Editor of SpecGram at the time.

I’d been writing short humorous pieces about various subjects that have come up in my life since high school. So, in a sense I’d written for Speculative High School Student, Speculative Mathematician, and Speculative Computer Scientist before Speculative Grammarian, even though those publications, sadly, never existed.

So, of course, I couldn’t pass up the chance to have up to a dozen people reading my humorous linguistic scribblings. Tim was pretty happy, too, because I already had a few articles ready to submit, and I wrote a lot more, knowing I had an outlet for them.

You are often blamed/lauded/tarred and feathered for the shift from paper to online publishing. What was your role in the process?

TJ: SpecGram went into hiding/hibernation after the relevant parties left Rice. Being a computational linguist (if such a thing exists), I’ve always been reasonably tech savvy. I decided around 2000 that this internet thing was going to be around for a while, and it was a cheap and easy way to disseminate SpecGram to a wider audience (potentially multiple dozens of readers!).

“Kids, learn that lesson wellgo into a field with little competition and you can be number one!”

I negotiated with Tim for the rights to SpecGramthe final details are privileged information, but it was reasonably cheap, certainly less than two figures. I set about digitizing the back catalog (with a lot of help from my wife Joey Whitford and my friend Kean Kaufmann, who are both significantly better typists than I am).

I also enlisted all of the previous contributors to SpecGram (and earlier sister publications, Psammeticus Quarterly, Babel (not that one, the other one), and The Journal of the Linguistic Society of South-Central New Caledonia) who I could find to help out with proofreading and such.

As we got close to finishing the digitization process, I got really full of myself and decided I could promote myself to Managing Editor and we could publish new issues. Keith Slater was, in particular, very supportive early on, and has always been a good source of ideas and assistance. So, we did it, and the first new digital issue came out in January of 2004.

I would like to point out that I have never abandoned our roots, and SpecGram is still fundamentally a print publication. Every issue is in fact printed, bound, and distributed to our very, very exclusive group of print subscribers (again, less than two figures).

Could you explain what the SpecGram podcast and especially Language Made Difficult consist of and how they came about?

TJ: Around 2009 I started listening to more and more podcasts. It’s a fun way to pass the time when you are physically occupied but the language processing centers of your brain are not involvedwhile jogging, driving, doing menial tasks, grading papers, writing essays for school, etc.

Since I’m always looking for new ways to expand the SpecGram empire and bring our readers and fans more enjoyment, I decided we should try having a podcast. Being a tech savvy computational linguist (if such a thing exists), I knew I could handle the technical aspects of it.

At first I limited the podcast to article recordings because we have a steady supply of source material, and a reasonable number of volunteer readers (though we are always looking for more!).

David J. Peterson, conlanger extraordinaire, has always been one for overly outlandish ideas, and he originally envisioned the SpecGram podcast trying to become “The Daily Show of linguistics”. We shot him with four or five tranq darts, and once he’d calmed down enough we talked about what we could actually accomplishand thus our talk show, Language Made Difficult, was born.

On the other hand, I don’t think there’s really much contention for the title of “The Daily Show of linguistics”, so maybe we have achieved that goal, simply by virtue of a complete lack of competition.

Kids, learn that lesson wellgo into a field with little competition and you can be number one! Alternatively, ruthlessly eliminate any competition in your field until you are the only one left standing. Here at SpecGram we do bothso you won’t even think about trying to break into satirical linguistics if you know what’s good for you.

There is now a book of some of the best SpecGram content. Could you explain how that came about?

TJ: Ah, yes, The Speculative Grammarian Essential Guide to Linguistics. (Now available in ebook-like PDF form!) Twenty-five years in the making, and it took another twenty-five years off my life. (Technically, I’m now undeadprobably a lich or a philosophical zombie or something.) It was a labor of love and/or lunacy.

It all started during the recording of Language Made Difficult. Between takes we were discussing the creeping deflation of what qualifies as publishing “creative works” in academia. In English departments, for example, publishing a book of essays or poetry certainly qualifies. What about blogging? Well, it might be better for the environment, but is it really creative writing of the right caliber?

Of course, we jumped to “What about writing for SpecGram?” No, probably not, especially not if you do it under a pseudonym. But what about editing a SpecGram book? That’s much more tangible than a mere blog, and no one can really put any boundaries on creative expressionand if they try you make them sit through four minutes and thirty three second blocks of John Cage until they get over it.

It seemed like a good idea, so we did it. I got much better at distance collaboration with the other editors and contributors, and I got really good at cyberstalking people we hadn’t heard from, in some cases, for decades. It was a lot of work, especially for me since I had to format the whole thingbeing the tech savvy computational linguist (if such a thing exists) of the groupbut it has been fun and rewarding.

Does that make you a proper author now?

TJ: I’m tempted to say no, because the book is self-published, and somedays I barely feel like a proper computational linguist (if such a thing exists), but then I look at the ebook dreck that you can buy for 99¢ online, and I think, yeah, it’s a proper book with proper spelling and proper punctuation and proper proofreading and proper formatting and I’m a proper author all right!

Here in the UK, there is a debate over open access research, where scholars have to pay for their papers being published in journals. SpecGram has adopted an alternative model to support itself, could you explain this?

TJ: Yes, of course. SpecGram uses the Sugar Daddy Method of Financial Support.

I’ve been reasonably successful in my career as a computational linguist (if such a thing exists), and running a website isn’t all that expensive, so I pay for everything myself (with oversight from the Comptroller General). Everything else is done by volunteers, including our editorial board.

Other than that, the SpecGram book (now available in ebook-like PDF form!) and SpecGram merch are self-supporting. We sell enough merchandise each year to pay for the merchandise we give out as prizes, and we’ve sold enough books to pay for the minimal costs associated with producing the book, not counting all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into it.

Could you see any big scientific journals using that model too?

TJ: I’m not sure. Any journal attempting to do so would first have to find a Sugar Daddy who was sufficiently interested. Then the journal would probably have to drastically cut costs. At SpecGram we do that by using and abusing boatloads of interns. Eager, trusting, disposable interns.

SpecGram also regularly features student mistakes and cartoons. How have these been received by readers?

TJ: Both have gotten an outpouring of positive feedback.

Despite our best intentions, some of the cartoons we have published are actually educational, and we get periodic requests to include them in books or course materials. We usually agree, depending on the cartoon and whether we can track down the original author. They also get used without permission, especially by academics who should know better.

My favorite comment about the student pearls was from a couple of students who emailed me and closed with “We’ll try to stay out of ‘Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know’ in the meantime!”

What kind of people do you think read SpecGram?

TJ: According to an online aggregator of demographic information I stumbled across once, the SpecGram website is particularly popular with middle-income adult Hispanic females with kids who have gone to grad school (resolution of ambiguous attachment left as an exercise for the reader). I fear a paucity of data however, since I think anyone smart enough to enjoy SpecGram is smart enough not to just hand over their demographic info to some online data merchant.

SpecGram uses the Sugar Daddy Method of Financial Support.”

I believe our readers are largely similar to our contributors and editors (except a little lazier, since they haven’t gone to the trouble to contribute anything). We’re all people who like linguistics, and enjoy light-heartedly poking fun at the powerful and those we disagree with. We also like blowing off steam and geeking out.

In addition to being a bit lazy, our readers are either insufficiently educated, orprobably as likelygrad students who are not old enough to get the Stratificational Linguistics references. One of my all-time favorite online comments was this: “I love SpecGram, even though it makes me sad that after three years of university education in linguistics, I can only understand about half of it!”

Keeping grad students and undergrads in their place by making jokes they can’t understand. Life is good.

So, in summary, our readers are linguists and linguistics-adjacent people who are slightly less educated, slightly lazier, slightly busier, or with slightly less self-esteem than our editors, and who enjoy venting by geekily poking the powerful and/or the annoying in the metaphorical eye. Sounds about right.

Arguably, SpecGram really came into public consciousness with the campaign for the nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill to be accepted into the International Phonetic Alphabet. Could you give us the backstory to this?

TJ: I’m very proud to say that the nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill and accompanying symbol, the double-dot wide-o, are my creations. (Though, proving that there is perhaps nothing new under the sun, there is an “exotic glyph variant” of the Cyrillic letter O, called binocular O (), that has two dots in it, and looks very much like a double-dot wide-o. There are also monocular (), dual monocular (), and multiocular () variants. That’s a lot of creepy eyes staring up at you from a manuscript.)

When a proto-linguist takes a phonetics course, one of the things they learn is how to break speech sounds down into constituent parts. Conversely, they learn to build up actual pronunciations from a list of such parts. As long as you are familiar with all the parts, you should be able to recreate a reasonable facsimile of the whole.

So, one day I wrote “nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill” with the accompanying symbol on the white board in the grad student lounge at Rice. Various grad students came in, saw it, didn’t recognize it, and did the only reasonable thing they couldtry to produce it. The funny thing is that unlike most speech sounds, a pig snort really resonates your headit takes a lot of energy to get your velum trilling in reverse. So it’s not just an odd noise that you make when you sound it out. It’s a whole-head experience.

I’m happy to report that the phrase “nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill” has given me a grandiose sense of power now that this internet thing is as successful as I imagined it would be back in 2000. I get emails and read online comments about people sounding it out and surprising themselves and their friends, family, or a whole quiet library full of strangers. To be able to reach out through the ether and vibrate a stranger’s skull is a heady feeling indeed; pun intended.

Finally, since you’ve given me this platform to spout off about the nasal-ingressive voiceless velar trill, I’d like to rebut critics who have made arguments that i) it’s a uvular trill, not a velar trill, and ii) that a velar trill is impossible. First, a uvular trill is a snore, not a pig snort. Second, while an egressive velar trill is either impossible or too painful to be used regularly, the ingressive variety isn’t that difficult.

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

TJ: I hope SpecGram has encouraged the linguistics community to take themselves a lot less seriously. The politics of linguistics has occasionally been fairly ugly, and it’s been that way for a long time. Being able to poke fun at those in power, and at ourselves, relieves a good bit of stress.

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

TJ: You mean my real-life colleagues in my job as a computational linguist (if such a thing exists)?

Fortunately I haven’t ever had a notably negative reaction to a piece. I have a handful of times had people tell me about some funny linguisticky thing they found on the internet, only to discover that it was something I wrote. I find that hilarious.

My favorite positive story involves going to an interview and discovering that my potential new boss had one of my SpecGram cartoons posted on his door. I did get a job offer, and I’m sure knowing I had a reasonable sense of humor helped.

What is your favourite linguistics area to satirise and why?

TJ: Historically, sociolinguistics has been the go-to satirical whipping boy, though recently documentary linguistics has been subbing in from time to time. Honestly, though, I never really liked poking fun at either of them. But it’s good to have a fall-back fall guy when a deadline approaches and you need to take a jab at somebody.

My favorite, though, is syntax. Partly it’s because they seem to sit at the top of the academic hierarchy within linguistics. Partly it’s because in my job as a computational linguist (if such a thing exists), I am regularly confronted with the failure of mainstream syntax to generate much of anything that’s encodable as an algorithmand if it isn’t algorithmic, it isn’t sufficiently detailed. And partly it’s because of the irony of Chomsky’s anti-hegemony political stances coupled with his pro-hegemony linguistic politics.

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

TJ: The Sugar Daddy Method of Financial Support, coupled with the SpecGram Editorial Board’s ability to keep me from completely losing my mind by way of their help and support. They don’t really have much incentive to keep me wholly sanewhat fun would that be?but they keep me from going completely around the bend.

More generally, the increased popularity of SpecGram over the years has been a major force in keeping us going. Of course it’s great to get email or read online comments from people who like SpecGram, but as we get more exposure, we get more victims disposable interns volunteers to help do all the heavy lifting.

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?

TJ: Wow, that’s a hard question to answer, even for a serious computational linguist (if such a thing exists) like me.

Rasmus Rask is the patron saint of Satirical Linguisticslargely because I adore alliteration. But I don’t read Danish (and I see every ø as a null morpheme), so it would’t work out.

It might be fun to poke Chomsky with a stick, but I don’t think he’s constitutionally capable of being funny, so nothing good would come of it.

Stephen Pinker and Daniel Everett seem like nice guys, each with a reasonable sense of humor, and practically speaking, their fame would likely rub off on SpecGram in a positive way if either wrote a funny piece for us. It might melt the SpecGram servers, though.

Would it be too much of a cop-out to say that I’d like to prod you, Dear Reader, into writing something for SpecGram? Then we’d get lots of submissions. Some of them even publishable!

So, at this point, I’ve basically verbally flailed around a lot while pretty much failing to answer the question. That is the SpecGram way.

More to come...

It Was a Dark and Stormy Noun...1987 EditionThe SpecGram Puzzle Elves™
The Vowel Space DVD Boxed SetAdvertisement
SpecGram Vol CLXXI, No 4 Contents