April 29, 2004

Linguist jokes (2): At the pearly gates

A newly graduated linguistics PhD was hit by a bus and tragically killed on the day her dissertation was turned in. Her soul arrived in heaven at the Pearly Gates to meet St. Peter.

"Welcome to the gates of Heaven," said St. Peter. "But let me just say that we have a bit of a problem here. You see, we've never actually had a linguist make it this far -- usually they have lived fairly dissolute lives (you wouldn't believe the things that went on at the 1974 Linguistic Institute), or published things with inaccurate glosses and mismatched brackets or uninterpreted formalisms of one sort or another, and it's clear enough that they're not really suitable candidates for the University of Heaven. But you were just starting out. We're not really sure what to do with you."

"Well, couldn't you just let me in?" said the young woman. "I've tried to be good."

"No, the procedure in these cases, to be scrupulously fair, is to let you experience each and then choose," said St. Peter. "You'll spend one day in Hell and one here in Heaven and then you'll make your decision about eternity."

And with that St. Peter made the necessary travel arrangements and the young scholar was whisked down to the gates of Hell.

She strolled in, naturally rather nervous, and found herself in a lushly vegetated and well-kept courtyard in which stood an elegant Italian fountain. Off the courtyard was a well-appointed seminar room with superb AV equipment, excellent built-in projectors, high-speed radio Internet connection, whiteboards with markers that actually worked, everything.

Down the hall was a very comfortable lounge with a reference library that despite its compact space had the latest edition of the OED; the luxury leatherbound edition of The Cambridge Grammar; every previous grammar she knew about any language; all of Frege's works in their first editions; an unexpurgated `director's cut' hand-sewn edition of The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory dated 1954... and a subscription to just about every journal that could possibly be relevant to her field. All on open stacks in mint condition.

She began to meet the other linguists who were strolling the courtyard, chatting in the hall, reading in the library. Otto Jespersen was there, and was very nice to her. Edward Sapir, Leonard Bloomfield, and Bernard Bloch all praised her work warmly. She learned that the man in the loincloth meditating by the fountain out in the courtyard was Panini. Jim McCawley took her to a marvellous Chinese buffet for lunch; the salt and pepper prawns flash-broiled in hell fire were fantastic. Through the afternoon there were fascinating discussions on many different linguistic topics. Dinner in the faculty club was a feast of steak and lobster followed by crepes suzette cooked in flames at the table by a demon. Over coffee and brandy she had a brief chance to meet the Devil, who turned out to be a tall, handsome man with a voice rather like Peter Ladefoged's. When the time came for her to leave she was really quite reluctant. But it was time to sample Heaven.

Heaven turned out to be a rather sterile experience of standing around on clouds. It was mildly interesting to discover that she could play the harp (innately triggered abilities, she assumed). The cherubim and seraphim were gentle and polite, but their conversation revolved mainly around falling down before Him in adoration and singing praises unto His holy name, and she rapidly tired of it all. When her 24 hours were up and St. Peter came to ask her for her decision, it was not really very difficult.

"I never thought I'd say this," she said, "I mean, Heaven has been... nice... But I really think I had a better time in Hell. I mean the University of Hell is a better fit for my intellectual interests."

So St. Peter escorted her back. She arrived once more at the gates of Hell, and strolled back in confidently. But the pleasant courtyard was gone.

She was standing in a desolate, filthy, trash-strewn wasteland. The temperature was ninety and rising, and there was a whiff of brimstone in the air. She thought she heard distant howls of agony. The seminar room was a bare room with plaster falling off the walls in a half-derelict building. The library had some battered introductory texts and a few loose copies of Glossa with non-consecutive dates in the 1970s. She did see some linguists, but they were dressed in rags, and appeared to be picking up dead lizards and pieces of potentially edible garbage and putting it in sacks to make an evening meal. They look at her with sad and bitter eyes, pausing from their gathering activities only to tell her that they thought her research was second-rate at best. One of them mentioned that in her absence she had been appointed to a committee. A tattered schedule on a wall said that her first class was at 7 a.m. the following morning.

When the Devil happened to pass by she cried out to him:

"I don't understand! What happened to the library and the Chinese lunch buffet and the faculty club and... What has happened? All the other linguists look miserable, and they seem to hate me. It's all... different!"

Lucifer grinned. He put an arm around her shoulders and laughed a deep, dark laugh. (He really did sound like Peter Ladefoged.) The dark horns high on his forehead, which she had scarcely noticed before, stood out against the glistening scarlet skin, and his arrow-tipped tail waved gently in satisfaction as he explained:

"But yesterday we were just interviewing you! Today you're a junior member of our faculty."

[Non-humorous note: To my surprise, the chairman of a distinguished Department of Linguistics (it shall be nameless) recently emailed a version of this joke to a new PhD graduate from my department after getting that graduate's acceptance in writing of an offer of a tenure-track faculty position. I guess I would have thought it was a bit too much on the cynical side for such a use. Luckily the new appointee had the robustness of spirit to find the joke hilarious, and showed it to me with twinkling eye. Perhaps the sender judged that the way to take the story was as a cautionary tale: a lesson to us all about how not to treat our junior colleagues in the academic profession.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at April 29, 2004 09:59 PM