March 01, 2005

On the characteristics of natural languages and certain European nationalities

Ever since I was an undergraduate, Barbara Partee has been one of my heros in the field of linguistics. So I was tickled to discover that the reading list for her (fall 2004) course "Linguistics 726 – Mathematical Linguistics (really: mathematics for and in linguistics)" includes a number of Language Log posts. The context is Barbara's Lecture 13: "Are Natural Languages finite-state languages? (and other questions)".

In her lecture notes as well as in the reading list, Barbara intersperses discussion of published articles (from Science, Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, and Cognition) with some less formal publications, including the Language Log pieces. If you're interested, read the whole thing: as you'd expect if you know Barbara's work, it gives a lucid and crisp exposition of a complex set of interesting issues.

You'll find a very different sort of exposition in Michael Gorman's much-discussed commentary in Library Journal, "Revenge of the Blog People!". Stung by negative reaction to his snarky op-ed on Google Print, Gorman strikes back:

A blog is a species of interactive electronic diary by means of which the unpublishable, untrammeled by editors or the rules of grammar, can communicate their thoughts via the web. (Though it sounds like something you would find stuck in a drain, the ugly neologism blog is a contraction of "web log.")


Given the quality of the writing in the blogs I have seen, I doubt that many of the Blog People are in the habit of sustained reading of complex texts. It is entirely possible that their intellectual needs are met by an accumulation of random facts and paragraphs. In that case, their rejection of my view is quite understandable.

Given all of this, I was surprised to find that one of the papers on Gorman's web site, entitled "How the English see the French", starts with this quote:

"A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing when he has nothing to say -- Samuel Johnson (1790)"

Gorman goes on to assert that he is a "typical Englishman". Apparently things have changed since 1790.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 1, 2005 07:33 AM