March 16, 2006

"My parents, Ayn Rand and God"

With reference to my recent post on Ayn Rand's foray into comparative ethnographic lexicography, Ben Zimmer points out another connection between linguistics and the founder of Objectivism: her role in an (apparently aprocryphal) argument for the serial comma.

Well, her name's role, at least. The crucial example is

This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

which was intended to mean "...dedicated to my parents, to Ayn Rand, and to God", but can all too easily be read as "...dedicated to my parents, [who are] Ayn Rand and God". The idea is that a serial comma (" my parents, Ayn Rand, and God") would have spared us all from blasphemous thoughts.

The full story is here, where Vicki Rosenzweig writes:

I heard of this example from Teresa Nielsen Hayden. When I asked her about it, she referred me to Jon Singer. Jon referred me to a former co-worker of his, to whom I sent an email that began, approximately, "You don't know me, but I'm a friend of Jon Singer's (I know, isn't everybody?)..." He sent me a friendly reply, explaining that he had never actually seen the book in question, only a copy of the dedication page, and that he no longer had an audit trail on this. For all I know, someone put it together as a joke and sent copies around. It almost doesn't matter: the example is so perfect that mere existence could not possibly add anything to it.

And Eric Bakovic comments:

When I first saw Mark's "Ayn Rand, Linguist" post, I thought it'd be (or just contain) something about Rand's lesser-known book Anthem. For those unfamiliar, this is a 1984-sort of story in which the people speak a variety of English devoid of first person singular pronouns & agreement and, of course, have to use the first person plural ("collective"?) pronouns & agreement instead. In the end, the protagonists escape and find an old library in the middle of some forest or something, where there are books with the magical word 'I'. And so the protagonists are saved (from themselves).

Through some inexplicable oversight in my education, I've missed this particular work; there's a Project Gutenberg e-text, so I've got no excuse anymore.

As we've often observed before, the 20th century was deeply attached to the notion that the central properties of a culture are to be found in the distribution of items in its lexicon and morphology. Here's another example I happen to have read recently, from Ursula K. Le Guin's Rocannon's World:

They were a boastful race, the Angyar: vengeful, overweening, obstinate, illiterate, and lacking any first-person forms for the verb "to be unable." There were no gods in their legends, only heroes.

A Randian crew. And note the serial comma.

[Update: Steve at Language Hat wrote in to remind me that he blogged the "Ayn Rand and God" story back in August of 2003. In the same post, he cited another serial-comma example acquired by way of Theresa Neilsen Hayden:

"The 'God and Ayn Rand' serial comma thing is possibly apocryphal, but there's one along the same lines that Rob Hansen spotted in the TV listings of The Times: Planet Ustinov - Monday, C4, 8pm By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."

Hat added in his note to me

Of course, I don't know of any way to check the accuracy of the alleged TV listing, so we basically have to take Rob Hansen's word for it, but it's a great quote.

Yes, as Patricia observed, in such cases mere existence is superfluous... ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 16, 2006 06:29 PM