May 28, 2006

From the deepest void of neverness

I have an uneasy feeling that just because I offered some modest syntactic reflections on the syntactic complexity of an EVOO menu item ("garlicky pork sausage stuffed crisp fried Maryland soft shell crab") I am now going to be inundated by messages from people who think they have found a noun phrase with an even longer succession of attributive modifiers. These would be people who have, sadly, mistaken me for someone who might give a damn.

Already one of our youth and popular culture correspondents here at Language Log, Eric Bakovic, has supplied me with some examples that he found quoted from a user named Babaquara in an article about online music services (which Bakovic was apparently reading on Language Log company time). He quotes the phrase "dada kraut psych mindblowing conscience expanding sublime acid oriented arcana coelestia weirdness", for example. I will explain my reaction to Eric using the unique trisyllabic word that appears to be widely understood by his generation: whatever.

Certainly, it is possible that the phrase dada kraut psych mindblowing conscience expanding sublime acid oriented arcana coelestia weirdness has roughly nine stacked attributive modifiers; but one cannot really tell, because it all depends on how it is parsed: doubtless "consciousness-expanding" (I add the helpful hyphen) is intended as a syntactic unit, but one doesn't know about "kraut psych" and so on. This is basically the problem one finds with quotes from chimpanzee language: chimps are occasionally reported as having signed things with transcriptions like BANANA BANANA HELP REFRIGERATOR GIMME OPEN BANANA GIMME, and syntactically one does not really know where or whether to begin.

Part of the problem here is that Eric is one of the younger staffers here at Language Log Plaza. They work with headsets on, they have X-men posters on their walls, they talk about whether Lara Croft's breasts in the new Crystal Dynamics video game release are as big as before. The average age in their part of the building is approximately 19. They typically list their hobbies as (i) being wicked cool, (ii) dancing to their iPods in public places, (iii) shopping at American Eagle, and (iv) staying out all night.

One does not see them at EVOO; they dine at places where the menu is a series of brightly colored pictures on glass with lights behind them. Often there is a neon sign in the window saying "BURRITOS AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD".

And their reading material does not fully meet the criteria for being called "language". Another phrase quoted from Babaquara (see it here if you have your parents' permission) puts it well: "ultrahypermegamonstaheavy over the top mammoth freakin mind exploding destroyer psychedelia from the deepest void of neverness." The fact is that the younger Language Log staffers seem well acquainted with the deepest void of neverness. Eric Bakovic has definitely been there. I have seen him pour a can of Jolt cola over David Beaver's head during a disagreement about whether something or other was ultrahypermegamonstaheavy or not.

I simply do not understand half the things they say to each other (if my using the verb "say" is not begging the question there). In normal running text, 37% of the words are nouns; in the cubicles of the Youth and Popular Culture department at Language Log Plaza, 37% of the words are dude.

So I am not necessarily prepared to consider random examples containing huge numbers of attributive modifiers to be within the normal range of non-chimpanzee syntax, if they come from things Eric would read and understand, OK? Is that understood? Let's try to keep some reasonable standards in place here. Call me a fusty old conservative if you like, but I think English is quite lax enough on stacked prenominal modifiers without our seeking data from any mammoth-freakin' mind-exploding dialects in which the word like is used as a punctuation mark. Just don't send me any.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 28, 2006 04:20 PM