Degenerative Grammar—Desirée-Debauchée Cyntacks & Dec A. D’Cadence SpecGram Vol CLXXII, No 2 Contents The Hidden Source of Theoretical Linguistics—The Terrible Story of John and Mary—Isabelle Tellier

The SpecGram InquisitionBill Spruiell

with Inquisitor Generalis Jonathan Downie

Early last 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 sixth interview, with Senior Editor Bill Spruiell, is below.

You are a serious linguistics researcher at Central Michigan University. What made you first decide to contribute to SpecGram?

BS: Shh! Do not word it that way! My university’s administration might read this, and realize that maybe there’s a disjunction between satire pieces and serious linguistics. Instead, say something like, “When did you first realize that utilizing a satire-enhanced concept deployment framework would maximize your leadership excellence and further potentiate impactful market-positioning optimization?” In reality, of course, all it took was Trey contacting me and telling me he was thinking of putting SpecGram online. Have you ever met anyone who tried to write something they thought might be amusing who didn’t try to get at least one person to read it? No, because you wouldn’t have any way to know, but we’ll ignore that and assume it’s because authors want audiences even if they’re embarrassed by that. And too, Trey does all the real work. But I’m sure I can reword that so that it’s got “synergies” in it somewhere.

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

BS: The Journal of Irreproducible Results has several volumes of collected essays, and then there is Science Made Stupid, and that psychology collection I can’t find the title of. You know how much linguistics is in those? I don’t either, exactly, but it’s very little. Obviously, to uphold the image of linguistics as a science, we had to raise the levels of awareness of satirical linguistics. Add in (1) the fact that “best of” volumes start with a bunch of material that has been done well before any deadlines, and (2) Trey is incredibly good at all the time-intensive formatting and can be talked into doing it, and you have an easy decision process.

Does that make you a proper author now?

BS: Based on historical records of authors’ behaviour, as well as observations of the range of people Amazon lists as authors, I can confidently state that I am as proper as at least some authors and more proper than at least a few. And as an academic, I will steadfastly refuse to connect the status of authorship to the number of people who read the book. That way lies relevance, mere relevance.

You are into sci-fi and fantasy literature. Does this mean that your research goes places that no man has gone before?

“I will steadfastly refuse to connect the status of authorship to the number of people who read the book. That way lies relevance, mere relevance.”

BS: I’ve counted neologisms in books no one had counted neologisms in before, and then talked about their grammatical categories. That was so exciting no one had done it before. But I managed that without using sexist language. That was a hint, you know.

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

BS: Er...the probability curve on this one runs from “pessimism says it approaches zero” at one end to “wishful thinking says it has profoundly influenced the field for the better” on the other.1 A Galilean approach2 would say that whichever extreme I want to believe must be the one supported by whichever empirical evidence truly matters, while the other is only apparently supported by evidence, but will turn out to be meaningless later. So, SpecGram is the most important thing to happen to linguistics in the Long Twenty-First Century.

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

BS: One of the nice things about being a linguist in an English department is that I can pretend that most of my colleagues would find the one-liners funny if they had the right background knowledge.

What is your favourite linguistics area to satirise and why?

BS: Syntax. It’s hard to resist satirising mainstream formal syntax, at least if your graduate student experience was in the U.S. and you’re of a certain age. The invisible rescue nodes! The premature triumphalism! The pseudomathiness! The appropriation of opposition positions, followed by nervous retconning! Now, though, we’ve got raiding parties of physicists trying to make off with historical linguistics’ etymology herds.

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

BS: The main challenges that web publications face involve (1) dealing with all the logistics problems presented by the platform, (2) outcompeting other publications in their niche, (3) getting good material, and (4) remunerating the staff necessary for 1-3. Trey handles (1) and (4) by being the entire staff and not paying himself; (2) has not been much of a problem despite competition from Minimalism, and (3) is both crowdsourced and subject to redefinition.

More to come...

1 Granted, the curve is the kind that drops off alarmingly as you move upwards from zero. The nice end isn’t just hopeful, it’s Pareto-hopeful.

2 Physicists and astronomers should note here that “Galilean” doesn’t mean the same thing in linguistics. We think it’s a reference to Galileo Farquhar, the author of an 18th-century Scots pamphlet on the importance of wishful thinking.

Degenerative GrammarDesirée-Debauchée Cyntacks & Dec A. D’Cadence
The Hidden Source of Theoretical LinguisticsThe Terrible Story of John and MaryIsabelle Tellier
SpecGram Vol CLXXII, No 2 Contents