"A mere ripple in cow-infested waters"

A moment of Zen, courtesy of analytic philosophy:

"It might still be said, however, that the dependence of cow thoughts on distal cows is assymetrically dependent on their dependence on disjunctions of proximal cow projections; distal cows wouldn't evoke COW tokens but that they project proximal whiffs or glimpses or snaps or crackles or . . . well, or what? Since, after all, cow spotting can be mediated by theory to any extent you like, the barest whiff or glimpse of cow can do the job for an observer who is suitably attuned. Less, indeed, than a whiff or glimpse; a mere ripple of cow-infested waters may suffice to turn the trick."
(Jerry Fodor, "A Theory of Content, II: The Theory," in Stich & Warfield's Mental Representations)


in a short while

a short post:

i just found this article by Steven Pinker (author of The Language Instinct). though it's a few years old now, it's a succinct and pretty introductory discussion of some of my favorite lingusitics issues.

it touches on the rules/words divide (which, in the guise of overregularization made up several interesting classes in my child language acquisition class this semester), discusses the rumelhart-mclelland computational model of acquisition, and sums up how these cognitive issues (presumably concerned with individual speakers) effect long-term patterns of language change (presumably concerned with groups of people).

he also cites joan bybee's studies of regularity and frequency. i'm just reading a paper of hers (her 2005 LSA presidential address, downloadable on her website), in which she talks extensively about a relatively new usage-based approach to linguistics. as far as i can tell, it's at least related to the school known as functionalism or cognitive linguistics (see also functionalgrammar.com). she begins her speech by questioning some of the structuralist assumptions of more mainstream (read: mostly chomskyan) linguistics and, while she doesn't use the term 'post-structuralist,' the approach is based on treating mechanisms of change (as opposed to a static grammar) as language's universals.

is not just about linguistics, as the 'AI' suggests (although the 'about' page suggests that it stands for 'accelerating intelligence' more than 'artificial intelligence'), but pinker's article reminds us that language will be a key part of any future research into machine learning/behavior. the whole thing is worth a look!


Gender neutral third person singular pronoun update


The war over the appropriate way to refer gender neutrally to somebody in the third person singular wages on, but today I saw something that indicated a small victory for the Populists.

"John Smith added "Physicalism- or something near enough" to their favorite books."

Facebook's mini-feed has adopted the singular they to refer to persons who have not specified a sex on their profiles. Another point goes to everyday usage becoming mainstream despite the prescriptive grammarians and the Spivak faction.



it doesn't exactly qualify as 'usage of the week' since it's been going on for so long, but there's this neat thing we do when we talk about addiction to things:

chocoholic (this spelling is only slightly more common than 'chocaholic' according to google. both are domain names, but chocoholic.com is much fancier.)

really, whatever-you-like-aholic. so we seem to append the morpheme -aholic (according to certain phonological/phonotactic rules) to mean 'addicted to that noun.' any reasonable person might guess that '-aholic' means something like 'addicted to.'

but consider the form 'alcoholic'. here (and I think most people would argue that this is the origination of the -aholic morpheme), we're actually just appending 'ic'. so how did -ahol become attached from 'alcohol'?

the suffix -aholic has its own listing in the OED online. it reads:
The final element of WORKAHOLIC (after ALCOHOLIC n. 2) used as a suffix forming ns., as computerholic, newsaholic, spendaholic, etc., (chiefly humorous nonce-words) denoting one who appears to be addicted to the object, activity, etc., specified; a person subject to an inordinate craving for or obsession with (something).

according to wikipedia:
Etymologically, "chocoholic" is a blend of "chocolate" and "alcoholic", though some linguists complain that the word, by construction, implies addiction to "chocohol" rather than "chocolate", suggesting that chocolatic is a more appropriate neologism than chocoholic.

under this etymologic history, the word is a portmanteau, but I would argue that -aholic is productive enough as a suffix to merit giving it that label.

the fallacy of the linguists' argument as presented in the wikipedia quotation lies in the idea that construction should imply definite relationships. sure, construction often does and can imply things about meaning (maybe because speakers are aware that novel utterances are more likely to be understood if they follow established patterns?), but the idea that some neologisms are 'more appropriate' than others stems from the mistaken assumption that causality matters in language change. again, speakers tend to make novel utterances predictable, not necessarily logical. it's correlation, not causation, that produces meaning.