LINGUIST List 2.124

Monday, 8 Apr 1991

Disc: Functionalism, Word-Processing, Banned Lgs, Mother

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Vicki Fromkin, Re: Functionalism
  2. John Goldsmith, Re: Word Processing
  3. John Goldsmith, Banned Languages
  4. Ellen Spolsky, more on mother

Message 1: Re: Functionalism

Date: Thu, 04 Apr 91 07:31 PST
From: Vicki Fromkin <>
Subject: Re: Functionalism
TO: Michael Kac -- The question is not whether the structuralists followed
what they preached. In fact all the years I was taught in that framework
it was clear that they didn't. Rather -- it is the question of one's
particular view of science. Empiricism 'at its roots' starts with the
assumption that the only sure basis for knowledge is observation and
experiment, that the scientist collects a large body of statements about
particular events in the world or the laboratory, that by indcution, makes limi
ted generalizations about classes of events, and proceeds to more general
statements if above are verified, and evidence consists to a great extent
to the methods used to obtain the generalizations. As Bloomfield stated:
"The only useful generalizations about language are inductive generalizations"
or Bloch & Trager "The linguist is a scientist whose task is to analyze and
classify the facts of speech..." and Hocket: "Linguistics is a classificatory
science whose objectives are to find (1) the universif of discourse.. and
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Message 2: Re: Word Processing

Date: Sun, 7 Apr 91 10:31:13 CDT
From: John Goldsmith <>
Subject: Re: Word Processing
Renumbering is an important function of any word processor for
linguists, but it is worth pointing out that it is a built-in
function in Word Perfect for the IBM, and also Nisus for the 
Mac (and perhaps many others).
John Goldsmith
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Message 3: Banned Languages

Date: Sun, 7 Apr 91 10:31:41 CDT
From: John Goldsmith <>
Subject: Banned Languages
Anyone devising a list of overtly or covertly banned languages might
wish to include in the study the variant of banishment that consists of 
ignoring it. I was recently trying to find out where American Sign Language 
ranked among languages of the United States and found it was nowhere on the
list. Some rough calculations suggest, however, that it should be
quite high: probably number 7, just after English, Spanish, Italian,
French, German, and Polish. (This remark should not be taken as
ignoring that fact that ASL has indeed been banned at times and in places,
but that's something else again.)
John Goldsmith
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Message 4: more on mother

Date: Sun, 07 Apr 91 14:48:00 IST
From: Ellen Spolsky <F24084%BARILVMTAUNIVM.TAU.AC.IL>
Subject: more on mother
 I have been brooding for about a month now over Mark
Turner's meditation on mothers and am about ready to hatch my
response - to try to articulate an important distinction he seems
to be missing. Indeed, as he says, we all know what a mother is
in many of the same ways, and it is this shared
experience/knowledge that allows us to understand Saddam
Hussein's metaphor, "the mother of all battles." Our shared
context, however, does not explain why it was so immediately and
widely a source of parodic response in the American media. Just
as surely as there was commonality, there was difference, and it
was that gap between the Western understanding of mother and that
which the West attributed to Saddam that allowed the flow of
humor. Indeed, the important point to note here is that language
understanding is at all levels, from the phonological to the
semantic, dependent on universal aspects and local differences.
Saddam's mother is a collection of conditions largely but not
entirely overlapping with the western stereotype, and the
difference strikes us as funny. We would both probably agree on
the awesome fertility which produces multiple offspring, and many
other of the conditions Turner mentions, but his account lacks
any note of a mother's feminine conditions, and this, at first
glance, strikes me as crucial in this instance.
 I suggest (to open the discussion) that the jokes Americans
have been producing strike Western ears as funny precisely
because they are incongruous on the level of gender stereotypes -
if we credit Hoberman's note of 15 March, reading the Arabic
dictionary, gender doesn't matter to the use of the expression in
Arabic - a masculine noun can be the mother of another masculine
noun. He doesn't indicate that this is a source of humor. That
we feel "mother" to be comic in the context of battles,
junkyards, Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament Games and dog
battles (some of the nouns it has been paired with according to a
recent e-mail communication from Don Nilsen), is made explicit in
the joke he attributes to Jay Leno on the Johnny Carson show:
"Even Saddam's mother is mad at him: `You called it the WHAT of
all battles???'"
 If I had to begin to guess the source of the cultural
difference, I'd begin to look at the longstanding and widely
dispersed presence in western culture of the image of the Virgin
Mary - Mother of God - a powerful yet vulnerable figure whose
association with stereotypically feminine characteristics ("meke
and milde" for example, in Middle English hymns), makes her
entirely unsuited for battle. For whatever historical reason,
the current western image lacks the power of the matriarchal
force Saddam makes use of. Western mothers are still
conventionally sent flowers and brought breakfast in bed on
Mother's Day. In early Jewish sources, incidentally, it is not
difficult to find this powerful model of matriarchy without any
mitigating softness. The book of Psalms, for example, praises an
excellent woman (clearly a wife) and head of household as an
"eshet hayel." This is usually translated as a woman of valor,
the root of the second noun encompassing notions of strength,
power, bravery, force, and vigor. It is also the root of the
modern Hebrew word "soldier."
 On first reading Mark's description of mothers in his
letter, it had seemed reasonable to question the many local
informants in our part of the world about the semantic conditions
of the image of mothers. As yet, however, talking about the
metaphor of mothers with Israeli Palestinians is still too much
like talking of rope in the house of a hanged man.
 Subject to substantiation, then, I would suggest that Mark's
theory needs to be refined to account for both universals and
culturally specific associations. This would be true even if we
allow that Saddam, rather than representing an Arab, or Islamic
cultural view of mothers, just represents his own peculiar view
of them. (What would his mother think of him now?) While it
would be unjust to make him a paradigm Arab thinker or
rhetorician (especially as we deplore the fact that so many
Palestinians have done just that), we may also remember how he
was widely scorned in the early days after the invasion of Kuwait
for moves that were interpreted as awkwardness in relating to
western expectations.
 In this connection I would like to enter into the record two
of my own favorite metaphors from the war, both attributed to "a
pentagon source" by The Sunday Times (London) 26 August 1990. I
think you'll see why I attribute the two to the same source. To
me they were original, but their down home-ness suggests they may
be familiar military expressions. (I'd be glad to hear more
about them from anyone who knows them in fact not to be
 1) "The Pentagon also revealed that it has targeted a
Tomahawk cruise missile on Saddam's Baghdad palace, to be fired
if Bush gave the order to invade. `It would be like the Tripoli
bombing in 1986,' said a Pentagon source. `If we hit the man,
fine; and if we didn't it would give him a clear signal of our
intent. At the very least, it would ruin his breakfast.'"
 The first sentence of the citation is a simile, the second
a euphemism, and the third, (the last line of the citation) seems
to me to be an example of a "twice true" metaphor. I'd love to
be able to give credit to that "source."
 My second example came in reaction to Saddam's inviting
western tv to televise British captives - including the famous
picture of Saddam standing next to a young boy, playing "Uncle
Saddam" (in the words of the Sunday Times report). The
difficulties of intercultural interpretation are the theme of the
newspaper report, and in fact, the "source" feels it necessary to
interpret his own metaphor, as do the reporter and the and
editor, apparently.
 2) "The disturbing parade of Britons was indicative of the
huge gulf dividing Saddam from the West. While clearly aware of
its propaganda value, Arab sources said he regarded his gesture
as a demonstration of humanity.
 The unremittingly hostile Western reaction must have
surprised him. `I sat and watch that and thought: Oh boy, this
guy is a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic' said one
Pentagon source. `He's misjudged us badly if he thinks that will
weaken our resolve.'"
 In more academic contexts I have cheered the recent
breakthroughs on metaphor in work done by Lakoff, Johnson, and
Turner as moving in the right direction. I appreciate the strong
claims they make for the centrality of metaphor to human bodies
and human lives as well as to human language. But a little
humility seems in order. Dissertations in several disciplines
could be written on the subject of the misunderstandings that
produced the Gulf War. Perhaps it is my proximity to the sites
of so much missile destruction, the entirely unmetaphoric gas
mask I had close to hand for 6 weeks, and the continued turmoil
in my part of the world which prompt me to note that until we can
begin to understand metaphors cross-culturally, we're still a few
sandwiches short of a picnic.

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