May 03, 2005

Linguistically noteworthy dates in May

We professional linguists often find ourselves thinking about the late genius James D. McCawley, but even more so in April and May than at other times. Jim died in April six years ago (April 10, 1999 — can it really be six years?). He had dinner, attended a Saturday evening concert on the campus of the University of Chicago, started to walk home, and fell dead of a heart attack. He was just 61. He was not just a great linguist — phonologist, grammarian, semanticist, and polyglot — but a musician, musicologist, Orientalist, and gourmet (he wrote a book called The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters); and a wonderful humorist. How we would love to have him writing for Language Log today. May has just begun, and that reminds us of one famous humorous publication of Jim's — just a sheet of paper he typed out and duplicated for friends: a calendar of (completely fake) alleged linguistically important dates in the month of May. It's a bit arcane, I know; all I can say is that the more you know about linguistics, the funnier it gets. Read on if you'd like to see it. Old-timers in linguistics will be able to explain the ones you don't get. You may notice them wiping away tears, sometimes from laughter.


By Jim McCawley

May 2, 1919. Baudouin de Courtenay concedes defeat in his bid for the presidency of Poland.
May 3, 1955. Mouton & Co. discover how American libraries order books and scheme to cash in by starting several series of books on limericks. The person given charge of this project mishears and starts several series of books on linguistics. No one ever notices the mistake.
May 5, 1403. The Great English Vowel Shift begins. Giles of Tottenham calls for ale at his favorite pub and is perplexed when the barmaid tells him that the fishmonger is next door.
May 6, 1939. The University of Chicago trades Leonard Bloomfield to Yale University for two janitors and an undisclosed number of concrete gargoyles.
May 7, 1966. r-less pronunciation is observed in eight kindergarten pupils in Secaucus, N.J. The governor of New Jersey stations national guardsmen along the banks of the Hudson.
May 9, 1917. N. Ja. Marr discovers ROSH, the missing link for Japhetic unity.
May 11, 1032. Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II orders isoglosses erected across northern Germany as defense against Viking intruders.
May 12, 1965. Sydney Lamb announces discovery of the hypersememic stratum, setting off a wave of selling on the NYSE.
May 13. Vowel Day. (Public holiday in Kabardian Autonomous Region). The ceremonial vowel is pronounced by all Kabardians as a symbol of brotherhood with all speakers of human languages.
May 14, 519 B.C. Birth of Panini.
May 15, 1964. J. Katz and J. Fodor are separated in 5-hour surgery from which neither recovers.
May 17, 1966. J. R. Ross tells a clean joke.
May 18, 1941. Quang Phuc Dong is captured by the Japanese and interned for the duration of hostilities.
May 19. Diphthong Day. (Public holiday in Australia)
May 20, 473 B.C. Publisher returns to Panini a manuscript entitled Saptadhyayi with a note requesting the addition of a chapter on phonology. Panini begins struggling to meet the publisher's deadline.
May 21, 1962. First mention of The Sound Pattern of English as ‘in press’.
May 23, 38,471 B.C. God creates language.
May 26, 1945. Zellig Harris applies his newly formulated discovery procedures and discovers [t].
May 27, 1969. George Lakoff discovers the global rule. Supermarkets in Cambridge, Mass. are struck by frenzied buying of canned goods.
May 29, 1962. Angular brackets are discovered. Classes at M.I.T. are dismissed and much Latvian plum brandy is consumed.
May 30, 1939. Charles F. Hockett finishes composing the music for the Linguistic Society of America's anthem, ‘Can You Hear the Difference?’
May 31, 1951. Chomsky discovers Affix-hopping and is reprimanded by his father for discovering rules on shabas.

[Note: Yes, we are aware that May 31, 1951, was a Thursday. Jim didn't check. It was only a joke, after all.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 3, 2005 12:25 PM