May 12, 2004

A verbless post

A verbless novel? Why?? What reason for the accomplishment by this showy fool in France, Michel Thaler, his effort at an entire novel with no verbs (perhaps not a wise or lucrative publication venture, given the not total incorrectness of my speculations) recently evident amongst the vast efflux of absurd literary pretense in the French language? Well, whatever his reasons, in response, my own contribution: a verbless post (the first on Language Log).

No verbs at all in this book of Thaler's, just nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, subordinators, coordinators, and -- oh! -- interjections. All those among the permissible (and for him, past participles too, though no participial intrusions in this post, such the extreme character of my cruel and unreasonable self-applicable strictures), but never one single solitary verb. And, fantastically, all this a vision of some liberation for authors, not an absurd literary straitjacket for the writer's (albeit willingly) incarceration. Some freedom, this.

Thaler: nuts, bonkers, round the bend. Mad as a March hare. The Liberman conjecture (about survival of high school literary experimentation into adulthood because of a dysfunctional authoritarian French educational system): probably true. My attitude: contempt, really. Except... Unless...

Just possibly, an exercise, for the undergraduates in my course on English grammar this fall quarter. Their mission: an effort at construction of fifty words of coherent prose with never a verb; the point: only those in possession of enough grammatical knowledge for verb identification capable of success. Worth a try? Perhaps. And in that case, a word of gratitude to Thaler (otherwise an unimportant screwball). Always that extra possibility: the idea justifiable not because of its implementation, but in virtue of a complementary or counterposed idea emergent in the mind of someone else -- serendipitous bastard offspring of a deranged cognitive parent. So my gratitude to this pusillanimous poseur, this literary clown. A new idea, my idea, all mine (accessible here on Language Log to just a few thousand close friends).

[One other thought, for computational linguists: What price the performance of context-dependent part-of-speech-tagger algorithms on prose such as this?]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 12, 2004 05:06 PM