August 15, 2005

Silly talk about linguistics

In response to a call from Ben Goldacre at Bad Science, the folks at Cosmic Variance are swapping "silly talk about science" anecdotes, and Brian Weatherson is collecting "silly talk about philosophy" tales.

Some of the best stories come from forced conversations -- on a plane, or getting a haircut. For example, one from a comment at Cosmic Variance

Woman on plane: “So, what do you do?”
me: “I’m an astronomer.”
woman: “That must be fun. But… what’s left to do? I mean, we already know the names of all the stars!”

and one from a comment at TAR:

The setting: Prof. Garrett, on the plane, sitting next to a middle-aged woman.
She asks, "So, what do you do?"
Prof. Garrett, "I'm a philosopher."
"Oh! What are some of your sayings?"

Here's my contribution to the genre:

Person at party: "Someone told me that you know how to interpret spectrograms. That's so interesting! Could you teach me?"
Phonetician: "Well, sure, it's not hard to learn the basic techniques."
Person at party: "That would be so exciting! I've always been sensitive to communications from the spirit world, and with the help of scientific instruments, I can only imagine..."

("spectre-grams", get it?)

My own feeling about these situations is that they present a wonderful opportunity to emulate Ali G, but in reverse, so to speak. Any self-respecting philosopher ought to be prepared with some gnomic sayings that can bear several interpretations, at least some of them scandalous. An astronomer might point out, deadpan, that with the fall of communism, all the stars, comets and asteroids named by the Russians are up for grabs again, with the rights going for big bucks on the international cosmology auction circuit. And spectrographic interpretation of the voices of the dead is a piece of cake, actually, but the real research challenge is to analyze the voices of those who haven't been born.

Anyhow, if you have any good silly-talk-about-linguistics stories, send them to me and I'll add them to this post.

[Well, several people sent in the inevitable "you're a linguist? so how many languages do you speak?" question. So far only Eric Bakovic has supplied a good answer: "Both of them."

Joshua Guenter offers the following: "Once, at a party, upon telling a person that I studying Linguistics, I got the reply 'Oh, so William Safire must be the bigwig in your field, right?'"

And a literary silly-talk from Carrie Shanafelt:

Once, when I lived in Cleveland, I went to my favorite diner in the middle of the night to read Boswell and drink coffee. A woman at a nearby table yelled, "Miss! What the hell you readin'? That thing's biggern the goddamn Bible!" I said it was the Life of Samuel Johnson. She nodded knowingly, smiled, and said, "I loved him in Pulp Fiction."


[TStT has a lovely silly-talk anecdote about a mistaken (Western) folk tale about Japanese -- no, Tokyo is not Kyoto backwards -- see his post for the details. My favorite part of the story is not about linguistics or about silly talk, however, but about etiquette and self-presentation:

"At this point in the conversation, I was presented with a dilemma. In social situations, I don't like to act like that guy—you know, the guy who has to be right all the time and rubs your face in it? (Note that I say I don't want to "act like" him, because I am in fact that guy, but I try to keep a lid on it.)"

Words of wisdom for us all.]

[Emily Bender sent in three examples. One is the other commonest comment on being a linguist:

Aside from "How many languages do you speak?" the other one I get all the time is "I better watch what I say around you!"

I've never been able to come up with a better answer to this one than "Good plan!" or "Glad to hear it!" (Maybe "I promise to be merciful"?) Emily didn't help with this, but she did provide an excellent generic answer to questions about clothing text in foreign languages:

I have a t-shirt with the name of the university I studied at in Japan (Touhouku Daigaku), in kanji. When I wear it, someone invariably asks me "What does your shirt say." I usually answer "It says 'Ask me what my shirt says'." ... and people usually buy it!

Unfortunately I don't have any such shirts. And Emily also supplied a more personal story:

When I graduated from college, my family suddenly decided to try to understand what I had been studying. When I tried to explain Linguistics to my great-grandmother, she concluded that I was going to be a judge. The chain of reasoning apparently went like this:

My great-granddaughter is studying Linguistics That's about languages. She can speak lots of languages. Where do they need people who can speak lots of languages? In the courts! But my great-granddaughter is going to be *important*. ... She's going to be a judge!

So, better watch what you say. It all makes sense now...]

[Jesse Sheidlower offers some other come-backs to "I'll have to watch what I say in front of you":

This is by far the most common question I get as well after identifying myself as a dictionary editor. My stock response is usually "That's OK, I don't give tickets," with a smile.

I have long wanted to use an answer that someone suggested in a Miss Manners column to a similar question: "Thank you, but I am perfectly capable of forming a low opinion of you on entirely different grounds." But I just don't have the guts.


[From Robert G. Lee:

As a Certified ASL Interpreter, my favorite is this (all too common) exchange:

Person: So what do you do for a living?
Me; Among other things, I am an American Sign Language interpreter.
Person: Wow! So you know Braille!
Me: {sigh}


[This one is from Ella:

I get mostly a lot of puzzled looks when people hear that I'm a linguist (even more difficult to explain that I'm a phonetician working in computational linguistics for an IT company but I don't know how to code. I've taken lately to telling people that I'm a taxidermist just to put them at ease). But the oddest question I ever had about linguistics was - 'so if I learn Russian will I be a good chess player?'


Posted by Mark Liberman at August 15, 2005 12:09 AM