February 04, 2005

For linguists only

Like other specializations, linguists have their song parodies, mostly incomprehensible to outsiders. Penn's (grad student) Linguistics Club has collected examples for several years, and I'm sure there are many others out there.

Among Dave Perlmutter's many talents are a fine singing voice and a remarkable facility for extemporizing song parodies. A few years ago, I asked Dave if he'd ever noticed that semanticists tend to wear leather -- pants, vests and even hats as well as the more conventional coats and jackets. Without hesitation, he responded (to the tune of The Streets of Laredo):

"I see by your outfit you're into semantics,"
These words he did say as I slowly walked by.
"Come set down beside me and talk about meaning,
For I'm a young linguist and I know I must die."

I believe that there were other verses, but neither of us can remember them.

At the recent LSA meeting in Oakland, I asked Dave if he'd adapted any other songs, and he sang me one that he wrote to the tune of "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas":

I'm dreaming of the old syntax,
Just like syntax I used to know,
Where the trees all glisten
And students listen
To hear where moved NP's go.

I'm dreaming of the old syntax
With each construal rule I write.
May your days be merry and bright,
And may all your hypotheses be right.

Dave explained in email: "It was written at the time when rules of construal were the latest thing. That reference should be changed to something more relevant now."

It's a different sort of cultural adaptation to re-interpret existing works without changing any of the words. In reference to a discussion of encounters with celebrities, Jason at Finches' Wings recently quoted Sonnet for Minimalists by Mona Van Duyn. Neither Mona nor Jason had linguists in mind, and the season for this poem has not quite arrived yet, but I'll echo it to end this post all the same:

From a new peony,
my last anthem,
a squirrel in glee
broke the budded stem.
I thought, where is joy
without fresh bloom,
that old heart’s ploy
to mask the tomb?
Then a volunteer
stalk from sour
bird-drop this year
burst in frantic flower.

The world’s perverse,
but it could be worse.

[Update 2/5/2005: Q Pheevr supplies several other linguistic filk, including one, previously unknown to me, in which I'm mentioned though not used. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 4, 2005 08:11 AM