Ambiguity In Action: A Bawdy Count—Norman C. Stageberg Lingua Pranca Contents Morpheme Addiction—Susan Wishnetsky

Linguistics: A Study in Hopeless Clauses1

(translated, from the Kurdish, by Metalleus)

This paper will seek answers to the questions, What are the ontological and epistemological bases of linguistic science? Is language related to acupuncture? How can we get jobs?

To begin to see the light, consider the following sentences:2

  1. A frean is a creature with the head of a lion and the body of a thesaurus.

  2. A frean is a creature with the head of a lion and the body of a lion.

  3. A frean is a creature with the head of a lion and the body of a lion, but not the same lion.

  4. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.

Firstly, with regard to the grammaticality of (1)-(4), I must ask the reader to suspend judgment indefinitely. As Mursky has shown (1966 and 1967a-d passim, and possibly forthcoming), abstracts of grammars are logically prior to grammars of abstracts; that is nothing can be known, clearly, until it has been photographed. As part and parcel of scientific revolutions, this has been stressed by philosophers since Adam, or at least since Philo.

Putting aside, then, for the moment, the question of the grammaticality of the above sentences, I shall discuss instead their length. Length (cf. Parker 1969) is, of course, a direct linear function of the number of words in a sentence. More simply, for any sentence Σ, of the form μ, where μ is a Greek letter and w is a word, we have

w1, w2, ..., wn, ..., wn+y, wn+yy, wn+y ... yn,

and where n < 17, the length of a sentence is determined by counting the number of words in it. Now, it has been suggested by Warberg (long distance call from New Haven), who was probably joking, that length is not part of the linguistic competence of native speakers. It is easy to show that this position is in error. If the length of sentences were not part of competence, how would a speaker know when he had come to the end of one? When we know something, we are aware of it, unless we are asleep.

The symbol “y” denotes performance. Ignoring performance, Warberg proposed that the maximum number of words in any English sentence is 17. This is either the most easily falsifiable hypothesis in Christendom, or not falsifiable at all by any known procedure. Since the entire future of linguistic science will depend on our resolution of this question, we are lucky that it does not have to be resolved tomorrow.

Now it can hardly be an accident that both (1) and (2) have exactly the same number of words, namely 17. After all it is logically possible to imagine a language in which (1) had 16 words, and (2) had 18, or in which (1) had three words, and (2) had 4,000. But in fact our sentences (1) and (2) have exactly 17 words each, no more, no less. How can this generalization be captured?

That is easy to answer, in the form of a first approximation, although it has not been obvious to many previous researchers. (1) and (2) have the same meaning (that is, they are perfectly synonymous) except for “lion” and “thesaurus”. “Lion” and “thesaurus” are each single words. (This is easily determined by counting them.) At once we are led to suspect that the reason (1) and (2) have the same number of words is that they have the same meaning except for one word in each, and, as is well known, 1 = 1. This leads us to the following interesting hypothesis:

  1. If two sentences have the same number of words, then they have the same meaning.

Hypothesis (5) is highly falsifiable. In fact, it is infinitely falsifiable, since it is clearly false. However, it is still interesting.

Heretofore we have considered only (1) and (2) above. When we look at (3), however, we become aware of an important fact: (1) and (2) are not the only sentences of English. Minimally, we have also to contend with (3), which has the annoying property of being more than 17 words in length. For this reason, (3) will eventually be omitted from the present domain of explanation.

Before we do this, however, we must, as Higgins has suggested (note left in my gym shoes), allow for the fact that (3) is, incredibly, synonymous with (4), at least for Higgins. In this paper, although not necessarily anywhere else, it will be assumed that the reason for the synonymy of (3) and (4) is that each is both meaningless and false at the same time. An alternative explanation, offered in Clearwater 1968, might be considered, although we shall not do so here.

Having disposed of (3), we are left with (1), (2) and (4). Clearly, sentences (1) and (2) appear to be about something, at least at first glance. Specifically, they are about freans. Since freans do not exist, unless they are lions (but this hinges on our handling of (2)), (1) and (2) are not about anything real, just mythical animals. It is therefore a mystery to me why they are a problem.

This leaves us with (4), which has already been explained by Mursky.

In closing, if these questions have seemed difficult to answer, it is only due to their extreme complexity. Many specific details cry out for further analysis, which must, however, be left for another occasion, or even another era.


1I would like to thank Janet Froth, James Farley, Thomas Evans, Richard Lochbaum, F. T. Woodcutter, Bert Hagyvagy, Peter Cooper, Steve Frisch, Ken O’donnell, Lorna Kriegschaft, Wanda Doolittle, Ivan Zack, my landlord, and my wife, not all of whom would necessarily agree fully with the conclusions of this paper, even if they understood them. All mistakes are in the long run the fault of the editors of this journal.

Thanks are also due to my former advisor, Professor Albert Slocum, who selflessly devoted years of his life to persuading me to get out of research biology and into something else.

2Apologies to Allen 1972.

Allen, Woody, 1972. Without Feathers. New York: Random House.

Ambiguity In Action: A Bawdy Count—Norman C. Stageberg
Morpheme Addiction—Susan Wishnetsky
Lingua Pranca Contents