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06 Juni 2004 @ 15:52
Word puzzle puzzle  

So, I'm back. The dearth of bloggage around ARC these days can be attributed to the fact that in the last 11 days of May I attended three different conferences (CLUC, NAPhC 3, and the annual meeting of the CLA) in two different cities (where I presented 2 ½ papers, only 1 ½ of which I had written).

Naturally enough, I'm going to get back into the swing of things by reacting to a post on Language Log. Geoff Pullum writes [emphasis in the original]:

The expressive power of human language is barely adequate to convey the profound level of apathy word puzzles provoke in me. I despise them.

I quote this not merely for the amusing typo, but rather because I find it interesting that Pullum's allergy to word puzzles is as violent as it is.

I happen to like some kinds of word puzzles. I enjoy a well-constructed cryptic crossword from time to time, and I find it tolerably amusing (though not in any way instructive) when Fraser Simpson, in the Walrus, invites me to figure out that Belinda Stronach is an anagram of blonde anarchist. Furthermore, I have no strong feelings about the sorts of word puzzles that fail to engage my attention: the pattern recoginition involved in a word search, for example, leaves me cold. Yet I consider word searches to be among the most benign amusements known to humanity; in fact, I would be overjoyed if a word search craze were to sweep the developed world and lure people, at least temporarily, away from such noxious diversions as ringtones, stogies, and Eminem.

I cannot imagine that Pullum's hatred of word puzzles stems from any resentment of others' enjoyment of them (he's a curmudgeon, not a killjoy); rather, I speculate he has been repeatedly subjected to insinuations that he ought to like word puzzles, not only in his capacity as an NPR listener, but in his capacity as Someone Who Cares About Language.

There is, of course, no necessary connection between being a linguist and enjoying (or despising) word puzzles. Yes, linguists are generally people who enjoy figuring things out about language, but word puzzles tend to rely on aspects of words that have no linguistic significance whatsoever. To a word puzzler, a "vowel" is one of the letters a, e, i, o, u in the Roman alphabet; to a linguist, a vowel is a sonorant sound produced with minimal constriction of the oral cavity. Word puzzlers enjoy it when form and meaning bump into each other by happenstance; linguists look for what is systematic. Word puzzlers care about anagrams and alphabetical order and homophony and such; linguists care about things like constituent structure and distinctive features and mental representations. Whether one cares about one of these sets of things has absolutely no bearing on whether one cares about the other; however, it is not hard to see how repeated brushes with overenthusiastic word puzzlers ignorant of this lack of connection might suffice to turn apathy into antipathy.

Another potential contributing factor lurking in the background is the existence, in certain spheres, of a peculiar form of discourse in which bad puns are deemed more compelling than rational argument. The perpetrators of this brand of bafflegab tend to say that they are talking about Language, and frequently identify themselves as intellectual heirs of Saussure and (to a lesser extent) Jakobson. Yet what they have to say is generally as incomprehensible to linguists as it is to most other human beings. The problem is, of course, that they are talking about language in its word-puzzle aspect. And they're simultaneously talking about several other things that have nothing to do with language at all.

So I do sympathize with Pullum if indeed he is beset by people who insist that, because he is a linguist, he must be a word puzzle enthusiast as well. On the other hand, if he is merely bothered by what he perceives as inanities on the radio, he can always turn it off.

Nuværende musik: Dvořák, Symphony No. 7