What Happens When Linguists Meet?—Harry Burns and Sally Albright SpecGram Vol CLXXXIII, No 3 Contents Rasmus Rask Diamond Puzzle VIII—Lila Rosa Grau

Flush Times in Buffet City!

by Artemus Zebulon Pratt
Speculative Grammarian Editor-on-the-Lam

Recently I had nearly finished editing an appalling piece of “quantitative” “linguistic” “analysis” submitted to this journal by a self-declared graduate student, my services being declared indispensable and remunerative by the superior editorship.1 After surveying 342 undergraduates, or, more precisely, surveying an undergraduate population for a response rate of 9.2%, on how much they liked each possible syllable-final cluster in English on a 5-point Likert scale, ranging from 1 = “No way, dude!” to 5 = “Totally way, dude!” (with matching emotica for the less literate or ambitious), for which a Cronbach’s α of 0.025 was somehow promoted to a value of 0.924 with a correction previously unattested in the reputable statistical literature (I propose the name “the Cunning-Drugger correction”), the author proceeded to redo English phonology from the ground up. Truly it was revolutionary, or at least revolting. Shaking my head almost unto whiplash at the report that /dz/ had the highest rating, with a mean score of 4.73674 ± 0.49976, my bile rose, as is usual, at the table reporting the results of Student’s t-tests of the scores of all pairs of clusters, and then I noticed the table of results of a 127-factor EFA demonstrating that English phonotactics is governed most strongly by socio-economic status (more precisely, number of iPhones in the immediate family), student housing (co-ed dorm versus fraternity/sorority), and preference for the color green (the school colors), with voicing a distant fourth. Losing consciousness from the violence of my face palm, I fell into a pleasant dream of better days of yore, leading the new recruits at the Lester P. Chester Statistics Boot-Camp (“When you need stats stat!”): “Okay, maggots, listen up! Repeat after me! [Hands on bazookas, with the switch for t-tests on safety] This is interval! [Hands on the pointers of their personal Likert scales] This is ordinal! [Hands on bazookas] This is for science! [Hands on pointers] This is for social-pseudo-science parlor games!” Having finally gotten this message through their skulls, I then started the hazing.

Walking up in a warm haze to a bright and shining morning, I rushed through the rest of the paper and replied to the editorial elite that while the paper was probably publishable with minor changes in more prestigious venues like the Bascombe County Pre-Service Language Educators’ Bulletin (and if the author acted now, it might get there in time for the March 1987 issue, assuming funding finally goes through), it was not suited to SpecGram, having too many numbers and big words. Laughing at the usual reply from SpecGram Towers, “Tell me, who are you again?,” I brewed up a big pot of coffee and settled down to editing a thesis on cognitive linguistics of a hoarier sort. At the pronunciamento that “In general there is a directionality to the metaphorical schemes we use to structure the worldLakoff and Johnson’s metaphor that LIFE IS A JOURNEY cannot be inverted, for example, for no one uses or would consider at all natural the metaphor A JOURNEY IS A LIFE,” I remembered last week when my wife complained, “And so my trip to the store was hampered by breech birth, as often happens when you get completely turned around. Fortunately, I had just effected an exit when I stumbled and the earth spanked me and I started crying and gasping for breath.” Truly odd, thatnot my wife, for she always says such things and one learns to make faces mimicking attention well, but the fact that L&J are still motivating work so many years later, for my strong impression is that that ship had sailed some time ago. If LIFE IS A JOURNEY, then this thesis is like a third-world backwater port that mostly the worn-out tramp steamers SS Lakoff and SS Johnson touch at (sailing under Panamanian registry, no doubt). But is that an example of a life or a journey? Irrelevantit’s a simile.

Finishing the chapter, I then turned to a paper in the latest issue of the Speculative Educationist. The opening sentence cited a paper in a rather more prestigious journal stating that reading and writing are significant parts of the English language arts pie, with close interconnections between all the slices, whereupon this paper’s author proceeded in Ptolemaic fashion to chart out all the interconnections, and, applying a hydraulic metaphor drawn from Freud (why, Lord, why?!?), discussed how pressure on one slice causes the humors (well, the fluids, but my humors were pumping good and hard by then) in the other slices to rise, as reflected in (why, Lord, why?!?) a regression analysis of responses on a 23-point Likert scale to the 16 items the author had intuited, drawn out of a hat, or elicited in a parlor game in the faculty lounge after far too much Drambuie. In the final analysis, forget mincemeat, this was the least appetizing pie I’ve ever heard of. And not only were the pie slices interlinked as if by the integuments between the organs of one of those nasty facehugger beasties from Alien, the fluid that sprayed out when I teased the statistical model apart and severed all the interconnected tubes inside the pie as if slicing it up for Christmas dinner made the nasty facehugging critter from Alien seem like a Canadian plastic milk bag. I did give special props to the author for the beginning of the conclusion, “This study attempts to contribute to the lack of knowledge about the language arts,” and referred said practitioner to SpecGram for a possible internship. The maw must be fed.

The last paper was edited quickly and easily, despite the superhuman efforts by the author to the contrary. While the analysis resembled the modest heights of its models in the same way that in the least hands a mass or Te Deum becomes a mess of tedium and was as objectionable on statistical grounds as so many such works are, one did appreciate the occasional unintentional salvo of wit or wisdom. Thus, when reading at one point in the summation, “To ensure the making of a further continuation of efforts of facilitation in pursuit of accomplishing the assurance of the respective goals of such enterprises of intellection, the services of educators, educationists, physicians, physicists,2 sociologist, philosophers, theologians, and critical theorists must be enlisted in tentative measures to develop the methodology for drafting the preliminary consultant list,” one did appreciate the author’s grasp of hard-won worldly wisdom: Never include more than one sociologist, and then only as a cautionary example. The absence of a folklorist (usually de rigeur in such lists) also shows unwonted smarts. The references, I admit, provoked a deeper sigh, for they consisted for the most part of 49 dissertations in about six distinct referencing styles and as many substyles as could be defined by errors in every part of the entry. In any case, shaking my head, I remembered my own youthful folly in this line and its accompanying indiscretion, which led a professor to draw me aside and soberly warn me, “You cited seven dissertations. You do realize you’re not supposed to actually read the damn things, don’t you?” And so I escaped scot-free.

I then peeked repeatedly in the inbox on my desk, wasting time, dreading what must be done, but no matter where I peeked or however many trips I made to the mailbox, no more excuses awaited my attention. Apprehensively, I picked up my latest anniversary present from my wife and began to read, for the detailed reports she demands when she returns from her anniversary vacation are perhaps her favorite part. And so I passed the day, and the night, and the next day, and the next night, and part of the next day reading the recent mainstream success among the self-appointed anti-mainstream contingent of the academic mainstream and its seedier hangers-on, Daniel Z. Murkovsky’s Lousy Heaves.

As you, Dear Reader, are no doubt one of the better sort of reader (just keep telling yourself that), you are also no doubt unaware of this work. It is a typographically interesting specimen of verbiage in the form of a novel written on the complete card catalog of an abandoned library devoted exclusively to a curious mixture of horror fantasy and semi-literate pornography, a novel discovered and deciphered by Vampyro, a fellow who had been blind for six decades! Oh, and he was dead the whole time, so he was also a blind ghost despite the name. This most interior novel as deciphered by Vampyro resided on the backs of a few dozen thousand tons of bubblegum wrappers stored in random order in the hold of a decommissioned Soviet icebreaker that was sold to the author for hard currency and a super good time in the late 1980s, and was in turn deciphered and rendered into notionally publishable prose by the besonders­passend­sogenannten Totes Feckamaroon. The book itself consists of the novel (plus footnotes giving lengthy selections from the contents of the books on whose cards the respective paragraph was written, with all the sexual terms in blue ink, with not-very-subtle bilingual sexual puns indicated in italics, bold, underlining, and 36-point type, and if there’s one thing this book did not need, it was any more blue ink, yet at the same time one would gladly blue ink the hell out of the thing), plus Totes’ framing comments largely consisting of epistolary salvos over the bows of the better sort of pornographic magazine detailing his intake of sex and drugs and with the curious custom of his own particular fetish imprinted on him by something nasty in the woodshed that Vampyro taught him always blacked out in text,3 though in fact, one suspects, the prides or tastes of no actual women even in-universe were harmed or impugned in the making of his personal mental masturpiece.

Yeah, yeah, pretty routine stuff for our day and age. But wait!!! They’re all unreliable narrators!!!!! This lifts it from the mundane to the dizzying heights of the artistic, or at least of the academically interesting. The novel itself nested most deeply within the frames and autos da fé of metaphor and conceit is the story of a world-renowned prize-winning caricaturist, Nil Nebbishson, his wife Boren (a toenail paint model), and their 2.4 children, who move into a lighthouse that is rounder inside than it is outside!!! Cutting through all the guff about laser measurements of inner and outer curvature, suffice it to say a black doorway opens in the wall of the main room of the lighthouse, people go inside, fewer people come out, and great fun is not to be had despite the fact that it opens into a massive funhouse maze of empty halls, blank walls, nary a distorting mirror, and stairs to nowhere. Oh, and a Wurlitzer plays Buxtehude and Zelenka4 in the distance and something, I suspect a clown, eats bones and boy, wouldn’t a big shot of whiskey be good right about now. So not only is it literary to the tips of its fingernails (not to mention of Boren’s UV-colored toenails, which signify something or other), it also allows academics and their epigones the frisson of slumming with genre literature. Finally, at the end Nil stares forward toward the reader as the final wall of the maze collapsesand so the fourth wall5 is broken, get it!?! GET IT?!?!? And then he says something insipid and it’s all gooiness and clichés and feelz and boy, wouldn’t another shot of whiskey be really really good right about now. But oh dear, there’s another 427 pages of ancillary materials. But let us not speak of that. Ever.

Adding to the luster of the work (at least a luster visible at certain frequencies beyond those I can see, as is so often the case of our younger generation, probably a result of rapid evolution or hallucinogens) is the fact that it started out being run off on a ditto machine and sent through the mail (or in one memorable bit of random fandom, by carrier pigeon), and the readers started the habit of replying to the author with their thoughts on bubblegum wrappers, which have all been preserved and scanned in on an Internet website with forums for further, and further, and further discussion that contradictory multitudes flock to be contained within, for DZM soaked his readership and his socage never ends. Thus, it has the reputation of being a low-rent, low-budget, low-energy, low-octane, low-stakes, low-proof, low-speed Twin Peaks avant la lettre, only without the music or the pretty wimminses. In short, it’s one of the less painful wastes of your precious precious time. If you’re stuck on a desert island and it’s the only book you find in an abandoned shack and you’ve explored the island completely and made all your preparations for staying alive and you’ve gotten tired of playing in the surf and hunting coconuts, then go for it, dude.

Noting the continued existence of said Internet fora, I hied myself thither forthwith and read a lot, for there is a lot to read, descriptively if not normatively. Truly, the place should have a sign: Eat up, it’s free! As an object lesson in the pitfalls of electronically facilitated hoi polloi exegesis,6 it is nonpareil. As fodder for thought, however, just as Buffet Palace will, as it becomes no longer long for this world, morph into Puffy Ballast, trying to forestall foreclosure by using the cheapest of barbecue sauce to mass-produce Corporal Tso’s chicken,7 so this site serves heaping masses of wordstuff. But hey, eat up, it’s free!

One fellow, for example, avers, “The unfun funhouse, you see, represents the fate of mankind alone and afraid in a world we never made,” to which someone else replied, “Yeah, it’s like the whole drag of religion, man,” and another thinker replied, “Can these bones live? Not in this world,” and someone else replied, “Yeah, no one made that world. It just is. We’re interlopers in it and it’s gonna come and eat our bones.” Then someone else replied, “But someone did make that world: DZM!!!” And after three days of harshed buzzes without the buzzing of posts, someone finally replied, “Yeah, the author, kinda like God, only not as mean.” And so literary theory dies whimpering.8

Similarly, one fellah9 wrote, “What I perhaps enjoyed the most is that this book shows how language creates our world. It’s like the Sapper-Worf10 theory. Until this book was written, the unfun funhouse did not exist. Now it does.” Conversation died a few days after the first response, “How do you know it didn’t?”11 Finally, a few brave souls poked their heads out of their caves, or wherever it was they had inserted them, and one wrote, “Language is so cool. It’s like someone says my name and poof, I turn around and there he is. Spirits call me so they can emerge from the vasty deep!” After a polite silence followed by an embarrassed clearing of throats,12 another lectured, “No one could make a sound if they weren’t there. You created them by imagining a sound, ya numpty.” After another sage replied, “Damn, my hind brain keeps pumping out irritating stupidities in a wretched Scots accent,” she then disappeared permanently from the Internet after doxing and an assassination attempt, so I guess sometimes spirits can call themselves back into the vasty deep.13

And so on and so forth. It leads one to wonder and ponder who is more pathetic. Is it the people earnestly discussing arcana arcane even for that book’s arcanum arcade like, “But if it’s so damn big inside both up and down, why doesn’t it flood up with ocean water being connected to a lighthouse and all? Because of the Bermuda Triangle!!! See the hint on page 2763, line 4, ‘Cats don’t sing unless they’re gutted’!!!,”14 followed by 23,925 posts on how the Sasquatch are actually crashed UFO pilots who missed the homing beacon to Atlantis as part of their epic centuries-long war against the wampus cats, intertwined with parlor games etymological analyses of the name “Olmec”? Or is it the few who pop in regularly to troll them, like “They need to assign this book in every class at college. There are too many students right now, and if this book were assigned everywhere I wouldn’t have to compete against a bunch of socially promoted half-wits with drinking and thinking problems”? ...Though in light of posts like, “The only reason Derrida went so far wrong on grammatology is that he never wandered page after page and hour after blessed hour in the unfun funhouse!,”15 can the outsider ever truly tell who16 is the troll and who the loyal pawn?

As one singularly unfun dude put it, “Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them...” This holds more of the key to modern academia than one might suspect outside the bellies17 of the beast. One must ever read and read, and there is no end of the tiresome making of yet more of the stuff, for that is the currency of the realm and it does take its toll. Everyone must read yours, and you must read strategically in their own jottings to ensure you pay fit tribute to the genius of others, genius best represented by verbiage imprinted on bound paper, its epigones encoded in the electrons, for everyone knows without saying it that the currency of time is yet more precious than the currency of the word, a currency inflated like Gre/isham’s Law by the output of the academic mints, clipping and adulterating whatever honest tribute flows into them; and like Moscow in some 19th century Russian novel, the realm of academia devours your own coin to little end.

And this, gentle readers and fierce readers, is why there’s so much of the stuff throughout every sector of the academic enterprise. To make back the time wasted reading it, the perpetrators of the next branch downstream seek to recoup their losses by taking up a like time of their own readers’ in the hope of piling up their tribute as social capital, rather like a turbid muddy river slowly branching off in ever minuter articulations of technique and subject in a vast entropic Ponzi scheme fleecing harvesting the precious time and efforts of the willing flock in the vain hope they’ll get back with interest what they spent on the uninteresting. And so, dear readers, thank you for your time.

1 [Editor’s note] In fact, if memory serves, the exact phrasing was, “Damn, we just can’t get rid of you, can we? Well, here, help us earn our rent and edit this.” The pragmatics of intonation and idiomaticity, we have noticed, aren’t AZP’s forte.

2 I seem to remember that the paper had something to do with laying the groundwork for starting the process of considering the requirements necessary in facilitating the design of cruelty-free chairs for the classroom so as to refuse [“fail” would be better here, but one must include the anti-establishment will of the budding establishmentarian somewhere in this spiel] to inculcate the invidious distinctions such chairs represent in patriarchal society and which serve to propagate the rule of the Powers That Be in elementary and secondary education (if memory serves, the seats in tertiary education come from the same contractors, but our author has more canniness than suspected), and it was necessary to include physicists rather than sports scientists since the latter are beholden to the industrial-sports complex. Such charming naïveté in a budding academic! If publication ensues (one never knows), it should be crushed to a pulp and snuffed out within a year by the resultant charges of forthright scientism likely to be hurled by the 62.3 other unemployed post-docs competing for the same seat at the scrap-laden table. It is a fit rule of thumb always to seize such windfalls by hook or by crook so as to forestall the rest of the guild, as those who specialize in medieval legal history, a field with peculiar appositeness to and evergreen application by the university throughout its history, know fullest well.

3 Which one suspects mostly of serving to date that layer of the text fairly accurately, for this encoding of a vice precedent in an undisclosed locution serves about as much function as any other of the text’s addled Easter eggs.

4 There is much to-do in the Murkovsky-sphere about the fact that the Wurlitzer never played Bach, such as the absence of contrapuntal perfection reflecting the fundamental imperfection that underlies the evil of the place, but then someone else posts, “But who are we to judge what is evil and what is not?” and conversations grinds to an embarrassed halt and everyone scratches himself, herself, or each other and looks pensive. Well, if you can’t judge a Wurlitzer as evil, then I guess the whole issue is far beyond your capacities.

5 But a cube has six walls, one wants to say, but clearly there is a deep-seated verticality prejudice at work here among the commentariat serving to reproduce invidious distinctions among walls, floors, and ceilings that perhaps explains why they are commenting in an Internet forum rather than a print journal of literary theory.

6 [Editors’ note] An ugly phrase, but the only one mutually passable. As one might expect, AZP refuses to accept “the hoi polloi” on the grounds that it means “the the many,” which he says would be an eternal embarrassment to him if published under his name that would permit him never to show his face outside his ramshackle shack ever again. We were eager to use the phrase for exactly the same reason. As contributors are even harder to come by than interns, however, we agreed upon this compromise locution...this time.

7 Let us not speak of that. Ever.

8 Some would say it already has, in which case this is its zombie getting done in.

9 The feminine form of “fellow.”

10 I for one would pay big bucks to read about Bulldog Drummond and everyone’s favorite Klingon teaming up, or perhaps even better facing off against each other. Unfortunately, that’s not Lousy Heaves.

11 Fittingly, no one ever raised the question, “How do you know it does?

12 Presumably because they knew they’d never say anything so funny if they triedthough they manage quite well if they don’t.

13 Some might say this shows one doesn’t grab thistles, one stomps them down hard with jackboots. Me, I like thistles.

14 Clearly a reference to violas, and not the only one to go whoosh past the more vocal sections of his readership.

15 Of course he didn’t. Barthes did that for him. One suspects Kristeva is still lost in it somewhere...Book or maze? Hard to tell.

16 Besides the author.

17 Like a cow, and as full of tripe.

What Happens When Linguists Meet?Harry Burns and Sally Albright
Rasmus Rask Diamond Puzzle VIIILila Rosa Grau
SpecGram Vol CLXXXIII, No 3 Contents