Archive for the ‘Academic life’ Category

The back-to-school cartoon

August 29, 2023

With artwork by New Yorker cartoonist Brendan Loper, passed on by John McIntyre on Facebook, for the beginning of school (I laughed out loud):

(#1) The original seer-consulting cartoon, from the New Yorker of 12/5/22, had the caption: “The answers you seek shall be revealed to you by shutting up and paying attention to what happens in the movie.” The academic caption was created by someone, maybe even Loper, for Shutterstock


A letter from an old friend

July 27, 2023

Among the letters from the 7/31 issue of the New Yorker, under “Cultural Studies”, this erudite letter from Stephen Isard of Philadelphia PA, about Peter Hessler’s piece “A Double Edcation” in the 7/3 issue:

One of the math problems that Hessler’s daughters attempt to solve, as part of their challenging Chinese curriculum, asks them to find the smallest number that leaves the remainders 2, 3, and 4 when divided respectively by 3, 4, and 5. Is this a trick question of the sort that Hessler depicts his children completing in third-grade math class, the kind designed to trip students up? No. What he describes is a simple introduction to a celebrated mathematical theorem known in the English-speaking literature as the Chinese remainder theorem, which guarantees that any such problem has a solution, so long as none of the divisors (in this case, 3, 4, and 5) have a factor in common other than 1. The theorem has been attributed to the Chinese mathematical text “Sunzi Suanjing,” which was completed between the third and fifth centuries A.D., and it plays an important role in Kurt Gödel’s proof of his incompleteness theorem. Applied here, it gives the answer to the twins’ problem as 59.

Wow, Steve Isard is one of my oldest friends, going back to Cambridge MA in the early 1960s. We collaborated on some little papers in mathematics then, and eventually Steve and his wife Phoebe Acheson Isard (long gone, alas) became close friends with me and my wife Ann Daingerfield Zwicky (also long gone, alas). What a delight to see him still in the education business!



More Sally Thomason, and Anne Cutler too

July 25, 2023

A follow-up to yesterday’s posting “The lost penguin art”, about Sally Thomason’s delightful creature-doodle art, with an excursus on Sally herself:

Sally is not just a good friend of very long standing, and an exceptionally talented creator of these creature doodles, but she is also an enormously distinguished colleague. I will now embarrass her by quoting excerpts from her Wikipedia page

… I stand in awe, while noting that she is one of the world’s nicest people, and very funny, but with a quite direct and penetrating manner that crushes foolishness and fuzziness.

As predicted, all this did indeed embarrass Sally, but I pressed my reasons for praising her this way, reasons that took me back to my appreciation of Anne Cutler, another “one of the world’s nicest people, and very funny, but with a quite direct and penetrating manner that crushes foolishness and fuzziness” (an appreciation that somehow never made it into a posting on this blog).

The program from here on: my (e-mail) exchange with Sally on embarrassment; an interlude on the  American folk song “Give Me The Roses (While I Live)”, directly related to the Sacred Harp song Odem (Second); and then a bit of affectionate appreciation of Anne Cutler (who died, suddenly, last year).


The lost penguin art

July 24, 2023

I wrote to Sally Thomason in e-mail earlier today:

While I have been recuperating (slowly) from gallbladder surgery, I have a wonderful helper León [León Hernández, in full León Hernández Alvarez] who does many useful thngs for me, though working from pretty rudimentary English. But his great passion is housecleaning, at which he is a remarkable demon. He is even able to dust things and put them back exactly where they were before (whether or not that’s where he would have put things). Having (I thought) cleaned everything there was, today he embarked on moving all the pieces of furniture in the living room and cleaning underneath them. Finding, in the process, a large range of lost things: long-dead pens, a lot of change, a knitting needle for thick yarn (which I didn’t recognize, but León immediately announced was a goncho, and we had to look that up together) (We do a lot of on-line searching together, especially about the trees and flowers we encounter on our neighborhood walks).

And a great prize: your first penguin doodle from many years ago, in a small frame, much bleached by time but still elegant and adorable. León has learned to live in Penguinland, and ManSexLand too — but by random good fortune, he’s gay himself, so the ManSex all over the place is just entertaining. However, he immediately appreciated your doodle as a work of art, and was so delighted to have found it under one of the couches that he brought it to me while I was shaving in the bathroom. I currently have its larger successor on display on the desk in my study, and we have now added the smaller one next to it.

What once was lost has now been found, and we rejoice.

The two penguin doodles, in a photo León took for me about an hour ago:

Side by side by Thomason

Addendum. Sally is not just a good friend of very long standing, and an exceptionally talented creator of these creature doodles, but she is also an enormously distinguished colleague. I will now embarrass her by quoting excerpts from her Wikipedia page:

Sarah Grey Thomason (known as “Sally”) is an American scholar of linguistics, Bernard Bloch distinguished professor emerita at the University of Michigan. She is best known for her work on language contact, historical linguistics, pidgins and creoles, Slavic Linguistics, Native American languages and typological universals. She also has an interest in debunking linguistic pseudoscience, and has collaborated with publications such as the Skeptical Inquirer, The Encyclopedia of the Paranormal and American Speech, in regard to claims of xenoglossy.

… From 1988 to 1994 she was the editor of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA). In 1999 she was the Collitz Professor at the LSA summer institute. … In  2009 she served as President of the LSA.  In 2000 she was President of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas. She was also Chair of the Linguistics and Language Sciences section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1996, and Secretary of the section from 2001 to 2005.

… She is married to philosopher / computer scientist Richmond Thomason and is the mother of linguist Lucy Thomason. Her mother was the ichthyologist Marion Griswold Grey.

I stand in awe, while noting that she is one of the world’s nicest people, and very funny, but with a quite direct and penetrating manner that crushes foolishness and fuzziness.


The Flensburg “Primavera”

July 22, 2023

From Hana Filip on Facebook yesterday, on these two artworks:

(#1) On the left in HF’s presentation

(#2) On the right

[HF] Zeitgeist: “Primavera” (Fritz During, mid 20th cent.), left. The European University of Flensburg removed this statue from its foyer, because the statue has “hips that overemphasize a woman’s reproductive function”. Next to it is a detail from Dürer’s (1504) “Adam and Eve” (where Eve is a typical representation of Dürer’s naked women with wide hips). It does raise questions about what is art, and its reception.


Hail to Heidi Harley

June 27, 2023

Old news, but then I’ve been out of the world at SUMC for some time and didn’t get this posted before the cascade of disasters:

Heidi Harley (Univ. of Arizona) has been nominated as president of the Linguistic Society of America (which means three years of service to the society, each year with its own responsibilities: as vice-president, president, and immediate past president).

I note further that Heidi (born 9/26/69) is now only 53, not some elder of the discipline, so this is an especially signal recognition of her achievements.

Facebookers will know HH especially from her postings about the linguistic and social development of her two young sons.


Singing my praises

May 31, 2023

🐅 🐅 🐅 three tigers! for ultimate May and the end of the spring months

Facebook responses to my 5/24 posting “Who am I kidding?” (about this idiom) included two — very different in their focus — that were touchingly laudatory. With considerable misgivings about blowing my own horn, I’m going to reproduce some of this discussion here (and will reproduce the body of the 5/24 posting as an appendix to this posting, so that you can easily see what Chris Brew (computational linguist at the Ohio State University) and Lise Menn (psycholinguist at the University of Colorado) were talking about).

CB’s praise. His original response, and then my reply to it, which took us (as conversations will) far afield (nobody expects the Mendelssohn Octet).

CB: This is a great little piece. It’s just exactly technical enough, and accessible and interesting for linguists and non-linguists alike. Everyone gets taught something about idioms, but what is taught is often confusing and wrong. Nice to have something better.

AZ > CB: Wow, Chris. Thank you. Of course I had 60 years of practice to develop my skill at this kind of writing (which is a lot like my analyses of cartoons — pretty much always an astonishment to my cartoonist friends). And then my first hit publication was “Auxiliary Reduction in English” in, omigod, 1970, and I’ve been toiling in the AuxRed field (mostly in collaboration with Geoff Pullum) ever since, so *that* material was right to hand.

The piece exhibits not so much some kind of freakish ability (how on earth Mendelssohn could produce the masterpiece of his Octet as a fucking *teenager* [he was 16] I will never understand; I totally understand Keith Richards practicing his guitar doggedly all his life), but is a tribute to fruits of constant practice, refinement of skills, reworking of material, and rethinking. Plus researching and writing for long days, every day of the year. Oh yes, I totally love doing this stuff.

[This reply garnered loves from CB and John Lawler.]

CB > AZ: Most people underestimate the value of just sticking at it.

Mendelssohn wrote 13 highly competent string symphonies BEFORE the octet. That must be part of why.

AZ > CB: You’re right about Mendelssohn, of course. But somehow all that preparatory journeyman symphony-writing burst into bloom as one of the monuments of 19th-century Romantic music. Just fabulous music.

LM’s praise. Veers into meta-commentary: she praises my posting (“a sweet bit of analysis”) but then focuses on the circumstances of its creation.

LM: A sweet bit of analysis by Arnold Zwicky, posted in his blog this morning. Arnold, who I’ve known since 1974, is astounding: beset by a number of serious health problems, he crafts essays like this one for pure pleasure. [with a link to “Who am I kidding?”]

This comment has gotten 19 reactions on FB. But — given its meta nature — it’s not clear that these 19 people actually read my posting; they might merely have been approving of the sentiments in LM’s comments. In contrast, my own FB announcement of the posting got only 4 reactions.

What I do, why I do it, how I do it. CB’s comment immediately provoked a response from me about the craft of writing about language for a general audience — for civilians, as I sometimes think of it — and (implicitly) about understanding where the audience is (probably) coming from but also trying to get them to play along with you even when you’ll be challenging some of their presuppositions about the material, including some things that they’ve been taught; and also about grounding this writing in extensive and detailed knowledge of the phenomena of particular languages, especially of English, the language of your writing.

This is, of course, teaching, except without the physical and social setting of the classroom: no faces to scan; no immediate feedback; little knowledge of who, specifically, the audience is; no fostering of a classroom culture of mutual trust and openness; no general agreement about what you are all doing together. Blogging on language is like giving a class to an empty room.

On the other hand, you can polish your stuff as you would for publication.

Why do I do it? For various reasons, my days of classroom teaching ended a long time ago. But blogging gives me an outlet for my passion for analysis (I’ll find orderliness and organization in practically anything), my fascination with the extraordinary variety of  language use, and the joy I take in revealing these things to other people. (Pretty much anybody else: every one of my paid caregivers has been pulled into my enthusiasms.)

Beware the juggernaut, my friends!

How do I do it? Some brief notes on my inclinations in approaching the task of writing (and doing my research)

First important thing: I’m a miniaturist by preference — see the 5/24 post (and the “How do I do it? section of this posting you are now reading). Not naturally given to sweeping views of things, to Big Ideas, to grand syntheses. More likely to seek larger lessons in small things, carefully examined.

Second: I’m also a restless thinker and performer, a kind of Isaiah Berlin superfox — who knows and says many things, and makes associative, often playful, leaps from one thing to another (no hedgehog I).

Then there’s the matter of conveying important things about complex subjects to people who know little about these things: you’ve got to leave a lot out, you’ll have to traffic in useful half-truths, and you’ll have to look for colorful but effective metaphors.

Finally, I discovered over 20 years ago that even wonderfully crafted postings might fall on deaf ears because I’m an expert, and people tend to be wary indeed of self-styled experts, especially when the news the experts bring doesn’t accord with their preconceived ideas.

The cure for the problem seems to be a sense of personal connection between you and your readers. If they know about you as a person, see you as not only earnest but also empathetic, with their own interests at heart, they’ll be more willing to play along and to trust what you have to say. I have a wide range of stories about people (including my colleagues in other academic fields) who were deeply resistant to my messages — until they experienced me in a social context where they could judge me to be a good guy, empathetic, and trustworthy (some of them became friends).

I used to fret that my success in linguistics was entirely down to my being a nice guy (despite all that obtrusive queer stuff). But I was young and insecure then; partly through the opinions of people who admired, and some who loved, me, I came to see that I had plenty of genuine talents — but also that being a nice guy amplifies their effects

Appendix 1. From OED2 for the verb sing, in the idiom sing one’s praises (really, sing X’s praises, where X is a person or thing): ‘to be loud in laudation of’ [1st cite 1565; Thackeray, The Virginians (1858) May we … not sing the praises of our favourite plant?]

Note the two syntactic forms: sing X’s praises / sing the praises of X.

Appendix 2. The 5/24 posting:

This is about a perfectly common expression — Who am I kidding? — that went past me in a flash on Facebook this morning but caused me (as a student of GUS — grammar, usage, and style / register) to reflect on the pronoun case in it. On the interrogative human pronoun, appearing here in what I’ll call its Form 1, who, rather than its Form 2, whom.

The pronoun in this expression is the direct object of the verb in the expression, KID, appearing in sentence-initial position (appearing “fronted”) in the WH-question construction of English. There’s nothing at all remarkable about this: in general, both forms of this pronoun are available as syntactic objects (of verbs or prepositions) in the language, differing only in their style / register (very roughly, formal whom vs informal who), with the special case of an object pronoun actually in combination with its governing preposition, which is  obligatorily in Form 2:

Who / Whom did you speak to? BUT *To who / ✓to whom did you speak?

So there’s nothing remarkable about Who am I kidding? It’s just informal.

What’s remarkable is the unacceptability of Whom am I kidding? The stylistic discord between the formality of object whom and the informality of the idiom WH-Pro am I kidding? is unresolvable. To put it another way, the choice of the Form 1 pronoun here is part of the idiom. Just like the choice of the PRP form of the verb KID, conveying progressive aspect: Who do I kid? lacks the idiomatic meaning.

Background: the idiom (and a closely related one), from The Free Dictionary by Farlex (edited by AZ for form):

Who am I kidding?: an expression of self-doubt. Oh, who am I kidding, running for mayor — I’ll never win. | Taking art classes at my age — who am I kidding?

Who is (someone) kidding?: Would anyone really believe anything so ridiculous or obviously untrue? A: “I’m going to be super rich and run my own company once I’m on my own!” B: “Who are you kidding, Tom? You’re so lazy that you’re barely even going to graduate high school.” | He shows up at these public events with teary eyes, but who is he kidding?

Note: the present-tense verb form is not part of the idiom; both idioms are fine in the past tense: Who was I kidding? Who was he kidding?

(Yes, the idioms are conventionalized rhetorical questions.)

A parallel. Involving the choice of what I’ve called the shapes of forms rather than the choice of forms. From my 11/21/17 posting “??That is aliens for you”, in a section about Auxiliary Reduction (AuxRed) in English (in, for example, who’s versus unreduced who is):

certain words — “little” grammatical words — are especially accommodating hosts for AuxRed: expletive it, expletive there, demonstrative that, interrogative what, who, where, and how, personal pronouns I, you, it, she, he, we, they, complementizer and relativizer that. With these, unreduced auxiliaries are likely to convey either notable formality or emphasis.

As a result, an informal-style idiom that has one of these accommodating hosts followed by the very easily reducible auxiliary is is very likely to be frozen in its AuxRed version: the formality of the unreduced auxiliary would conflict fatally with the informal style of the idiom as a whole. So we get “obligatory AuxRed” idioms like these two:

How’s the boy? ‘How are you?’ (a greeting from a man to a male familiar)

What’s up? ‘What is the matter?’ or ‘What is happening?

And …:

That’s NP for you ‘That’s characteristic of NP’, ‘That’s the way NP is/are’

So: That’s aliens for you ‘That’s the way aliens are’, but ??That is aliens for you.

That is, in these cases the choice of the reduced shape is (again) part of the idiom.


Dream songs

May 17, 2023

… in two movements — starting with a dream from April 21st as I described it to Ellen Kaisse (where her role as a talented amateur choral singer and friend of musicians was especially relevant). And then, having separately posted, on April 19th, about the newly appointed fellows of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, focused on Elizabeth Traugott and Hazel Simmons-McDonald (distinguished as academic administrators as well as scholars), I turned to EK in her long-time role as an academic administrator at the University of Washington (as chair of Linguistics and then as a dean) and was moved to muse about women in linguistics who have demonstrated real talent as academic administrators.


Our multifaceted undergraduates

May 16, 2023

From today’s (5/16) Stanford Report, a feature on the outgoing Stanford Tree, Grayson Armour, who cavorted on the football field of Stanford Stadium as the team’s mascot, the Tree, a costumed figure representing El Palo Alto, the redwood tree featured on the university’s logo; meanwhile, Armour was preparing himself for “a career in human spaceflight”.  Kids these days!

From the Stanford Report:

(#1) Armour in Stanford Stadium

Meet Grayson Armour, ’23: The former Stanford Tree grew up on a dairy farm in Illinois, where nightly views of the Milky Way inspired a fascination with distant horizons. He graduates in June with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace computational engineering and a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics, and plans to pursue a career in human spaceflight.


Just elected to the American Academy

April 19, 2023

… of Arts and Sciences, (at least) 7 scholars in linguistics and the language sciences — 6 women and one man:

— in Psychological Sciences, Leda Cosmides (UC Santa Barbara) and Virginia Valian (CUNY)

— in Education, Ofelia Garcia (CUNY)

— in Literature and Language Studies, Claire Bowern (Yale), Salikoko Mufwene (Chicago), Hazel Simmons-McDonald (Univ. of the West Indies), and Elizabeth Traugott (Stanford)