LINGUIST List 6.1436

Mon Oct 16 1995

All: Gimcrack (column on the Linguist List)

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <lveselinemunix.emich.edu>


Directory

  1. Geoffrey Nunberg, "Gimcrack," revised version

Message 1: "Gimcrack," revised version

Date: Sun, 15 Oct 1995 10:04:58 "Gimcrack," revised version
From: Geoffrey Nunberg <nunbergparc.xerox.com>
Subject: "Gimcrack," revised version


***************


For your edification (or whatever), I'm attaching the piece I wrote for the
"Topic... Comment" column I've been doing for Natural Language and
Linguistic Theory on the Linguist List. This should appear, btw,
in the next month or so.

Geoff


			 Topic... Comment

			 Gimcrack Nation

 I would like to thank the 47 people that responded to my question about
 "mazel tov" earlier this week. I have just told my friend who prints
 T-shirts that she can be assured that it is not an obscene expression.
				Posting to the Linguist List, 5.1400

IT HAPPENS WITH INCREASING frequency that I spend an hour or so late in the
evening cleaning up my electronic mail only to log on the first thing in
the morning to find that I have seventeen new messages. It puts me in mind
of something that happened on a Sunday morning many years ago when I lived
in New York. I had an English visitor staying with me, who offered to go
downstairs to pick up the Times that was waiting in the lobby. He came back
bearing the paper in his outstretched arms with a bemused expression on his
face. "Good Lord," he said, "Whatever can have happened since yesterday?"

	In my present circumstances, of course, what has happened since
yesterday is usually about 15 lines like the following:

 179- 12-May linguisttam2000.tamu.edu 6.671, Qs: Conflict talk, Mongolian, $
 180- 12-May linguisttam2000.tamu.edu 6.670, Confs: Society of Belgian Ling$
 181- 12-May linguisttam2000.tamu.edu6.673, Calls: Ling Assoc of Great Bri$
 182- 12-May linguisttam2000.tamu.edu 6.675, Qs: Pos tagger, Bibliography, $
 183- 12-May linguisttam2000.tamu.edu 6.674, Qs: T-test/correlation, Tagalo$
 184- 13-May linguisttam2000.tamu.edu 6.676,FYI: URL from Umea U, Seminar $
 185- 13-May linguisttam2000.tamu.edu 6.677, Sum: Comparative dictionaries

So begins another round of triage. Most I get rid of immediately, the way I
toss the "Fashions of the Times" and "The Sophisticated Traveler" before I
bring the paper inside. Some I skim before deleting. A few I set aside,
like the Times magazine section and book review, with the idea that I will
get to them later; they sit around for months on end (growing brittle and
yellow, as I think of them) until I get a message telling me that I have
exceeded my disk quota.

	I suppose I could unsub myself from the list, the way I have from
most of the others that I signed up for in the first flush of my discovery
of connectedness. In successive fits of informational austerity I have
stopped taking several other language-related lists and electronic
journals, not to mention lists on digital libraries and the history of
publishing, and most wrenchingly, the "cuisine-fr" list that comes out of
the University of Rennes, with its loving chronicles of the history of the
Poitevin stringbean. And of course the Linguist List is accessible via the
web now, so I have the option of simply checking it out every so often
without having to worry about those hectoring messages from the sysadmin.

	Still, I will probably hang in there. For one thing, the Linguist
List really is the best run, best organized list I know of; you spend a
couple of hours wandering around the four corners of the cyber-kingdom and
you want nothing so much as to click your mouse three times and say,
"There's no place like home." And the fact is that I like to
wake up in the morning and find this pile of messages on the virtual
doorstep, for pretty much the same reason I like to be able to open the
door of my house in San Francisco and find the Times (in a national
edition, now) sitting on the real one. It gives me a sense of continuity
and "imagined community," in Benedict Anderson's phrase. This is nothing
like "virtual community," a phrase that I can't help interpreting on the
model of "virtual memory," "virtual reality," and the like, as referring to
something that evanesces as soon as you open the blinds, whereas the
linguists are there even when the server goes down. But there is a feeling
of confraternity that comes of knowing that linguists all over the world
are having to deal with seventeen new messages at more-or-less the same
time that I am, in the same way that the reading of the morning paper -- a
"paradoxical mass ceremony," Anderson calls it -- helped to give rise to
the particular sense of community that underlies the modern nation: "It is
performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant
is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated
simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he
is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion."1

	Of course the world of linguistics is nowhere near so impersonal or
anonymous a community as the modern nation, and doesn't require quite so
extended an act of imagination to reconstruct. We have our societies and
conferences and our colleges, visible and invisible, and we are all
connected by the dense web of transitive personal ties that can only fully
emerge in a small field that doesn't stand on ceremony. (There can't be
many linguists left in America who have never sat down with Jim McCawley at
a Chinese restaurant somewhere.) But up to now this sense of the
professional community is something we have only been able experience in a
subjective way, each from his or her individual point of view; we rarely
get to see it laid out in front of us in the view from all over. Certainly
the print literature provides almost no information about the daily
practices or the social territory of the field, apart from such hints as
could be gleaned from acknowledgments, references, and the like. You think
of sociologists of science assiduously tabulating citations and
cross-citations in Linguistic Inquiry or NLLT, and you wonder how they
could ever arrive at a relief map of the continent of schmooze that the
whole enterprise is built on. We still call them "journals," but they bear
only an etymological relation to their newsy seventeenth-century
antecedents.

IF WE ARE LOOKING FOR a print analogue for the modern electronic list, in
fact, it may be instructive to consider those first scientific journals,
which began to emerge on the heels of the establishment of the earliest
postal services. There was De Sallo's Journal des Savants, which first
appeared in 1665, and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society,
which began publication in the same year "on the first Monday of every
month, if [there be] sufficient matter for it."2 The Transactions was
initially launched as a private venture aimed at providing "brief Records
of the Emergent Works and Productions...and of the growth of Useful
Inventions and Arts," with Henry Oldenbourg as its editor -- or perhaps
"moderator" is a more accurate term, since much of the contents consisted
of material that Oldenbourg had excerpted from his own correspondence or of
correspondence forwarded to him. These he passed on to the readers under an
editorial policy that he described as "sit penem authorem fides [let the
author be responsible]: we only set it down, as it was related to us...."
Not surprisingly, the contributions were highly varied in subject matter,
genre, length, and quality. Among the contents of the first issues, for
example, were an eight-line summary of a report from "the ingenious Mr.
Hook[e]" about "a spot on one of the Belts in Jupiter"; abridgements of
letters on optics that Oldenbourg had received from Leeuwenhoeck; an
account by Thomas Wright, Esquire, of a curious sand-flood in the County of
Suffolk; a note on some new optical instruments fashioned in Rome; a
communication from an "understanding and hardy Seaman" on the subject of
whale-fishing in the Bermudas; and a letter, forwarded to the Royal Society
by Boyle himself, relating the birth of a "very Odd Monstrous Calf."

	The authors and readership of the Philosophical Transactions were
scarcely less assorted than its content: alongside of Boyle, Wren, Hooke
and other genuine savants -- it is 200 years too soon to speak of
"scientists" -- there were the gentlemen "virtuosi" like Evelyn, Sprat, and
the amateur microscopist and naval architect Samuel Pepys (who turned out
to have been keeping a journal of his own in which he recorded,inter alia,
his attendance at the meetings of the Royal Society, and who some years
later in his capacity as President of the Society would license the
publication of Newton's Principia). Indeed, science and technology enjoyed
a vogue as intense then as now, and the rhetoric of progress from both
periods can sound remarkably similar, if you make the necessary allowances
for the stylistic differences between Pepys and Alvin Toffler. It was all
too much for whiggish critics like Thomas Shadwell. In his play The
Virtuoso he satirized the Society's dilettantish amateurs in the person of
Sir Nicholas Gimcrack (a word that at the time could mean both "fop" and
"mechanical contrivance"), whose enthusiasms might have been drawn from the
table of contents of the Philsophical Transactions: microscopy, blood
transfusions, air pumps, and the theory of putrefaction.


	The parallels with the new forms and institutions of electronic
discourse are too evident to need elaborating. It takes only a slight leap
to imagine the what the Philosophical Transactions might have looked like
if Oldenbourg and his readers had had the net at their disposal:

 191- 12-May PhilTransRSoc.gresham.ac.uk 2.62, Sinkholes (was Sand-Floods)
 192- 12-May PhilTransRSoc.gresham.ac.uk 2.63, [JScavac.fr:
 [ActaErudleipz$
 193- 12-May PhilTransRSoc.gresham.ac.uk 2.64 Last posting: Monstrous calves
 194- 12-May PhilTransRSoc.gresham.ac.uk 2.65, Refrangibility of light rays
 195- 12-May PhilTransRSoc.gresham.ac.uk 2.66, Fix for leaky air-pumps
 196- 12-May PhilTransRSoc.gresham.ac.uk 2.67, Ether wind...NOT!

And in the light of our own recent experience with so similar a
form, we can perhaps have a new sympathy for Shadwell's point of view.
Surely even those readers of the Transactions who were sympathetic to the
Society's project must have received each issue with the same mixture of
interest and irritation that I feel every time another packet of postings
from the Linguist List is dumped over the transom. Sometimes, if you will
excuse the expression, the journal must have been a royal pain. Readers
must have wearied at having to sort out the contributions of the Hookes and
Leeuwenhoeks from all those communications from Nicholas Gimcrack and his
ilk. (You wonder whether the more scholarly readers of the Transactions
tended to skip over the contributions that came in from anyone with an
"Esq." at the end of his name, the way some academic readers of the
Linguist List give short shrift to postings from anyone whose email address
ends with "compuserve.com.") And indeed, from the late seventeenth century
onwards there is a steady stream of complaints about the mounting volume of
print material that readers had to cope with and the increasing difficulty
of extracting the wheat from the chaff.3 We should bear in mind that the
impression of an "information explosion" has been equally valid in every
age; relatively speaking, after all, an exponential curve looks just as
steep wherever you get on board.

	So it's understandable that scientific journals tended to become
more specialized over the course of time, and to restrict access to their
pages to qualified contributors. (The Philosophical Transactions came late
to this course; a 1756 critic, while granting that the Royal Society was
"in the right to encourage the ingenious of all classes and denominations
to transmit their discoveries and hints of improvements," took the editors
to task for publishing too many "crude essays that cannot appear with
propriety among the works of the learned," and urged them "to have a
greater regard to the reputation of the Society than to exhibit such
abortive productions."4) The tendency was brought to completion in the
nineteenth century, when specialized technical journals became the
preferred vehicles for detailed accounts of scientific research, at the
same time that disciplines and faculties were definitively
compartmentalized and professionalized, and the term "scientist" was
introduced as a job title that conferred an official right to speak.
Raymond Williams described the new order: "In the republic of letters, a
man can live as himself, but in the bureaucracy of letters he must
continually declare his style and department, and submit to an examination
of his purpose and credentials at the frontier to every field."5


ALL OF WHICH BRINGS US TO THE PRESENT, as new technologies threaten to
overturn all the established territorial boundaries. Forms like email and
the web, people say, will lead inevitably to the end of traditional
disciplinarity, by creating discursive spaces in which new forms of
discourse can unfold themselves: "Information technology has the potential
to bring about profound changes in intellectual knowledge," writes one
contributor to an electronic journal, "because it can provide this middle
stage area [i.e., the space of immediate collective communication--GN], an
area in which the "specialized" commonplaces of disciplinary discourse can
no longer maintain their separateness."6

	Well I can't speak to the situation of the sciences or humanities
in general, but its hard to see any signs of the process in our own field.
It's true that there are a lot of nonlinguist participants in the
discussions on the Linguist List, some of them from neighboring
disciplines, some of them just kibitzers who have wandered in off the
street. But with occasional exceptions, these participants haven't had much
effect in shifting the discursive center of gravity. On the contrary, net
discussions seem to rely on those "specialized commonplaces of disciplinary
discourse" even more than other kinds of disciplinary colloquy do, if only
because the medium tends to obscure or eliminate the institutional roles
and safeguards that ordinarily invest a written communication with
authority. There was a telling example on the Linguist List a few months
ago, when a philosopher wrote in a query on behalf of a friend:

 A colleague who makes his living as a translator of technical dox asked me
 something yesterday that I couldn't answer. "But", I told him, "I bet I
 know where to find some folks who CAN answer.!" So, folks, here it is:
 "How did it come about that Western European languages such as English,
 French, Spanish and Portuguese have chosen to make most plural words by
 adding an 's' or 'es' to the singular? Italian, Greek, German, and, I
 believe, the Slavic languages do not do this. Latin did not either."

A month or so later, the questioner posted a summary
of answers, which included all of the following:

 English -s is a loan from French, the Germanic plural in English being seen
 today only in the marginal cases like feet and oxen....

 Actually the Latin accusative plurals and dative and ablative plurals in
 all genders ended in -s. In early English, when it was still an inflected
 language using many of the Latin endings, the vowel endings dropped as time
 went on. This meant that the only distinguishing feature separating plural
 from singular nouns was the -s termination. So, English did get it from
 Latin...

 The answer is historical accident, in that Proto-Indo-European had a number
 of plural types in -s, which have survived in various shapes in different
 groups within the larger family. E.g. Old English had a set of plurals in
 -as, which are the source of our modern -s plurals, and this -s- element
 also appears in Latin in some declensions...7

Sit penem lectorem fides. The writer had indeed found some folks who could
answer his colleague's question, the problem being that he apparently had
no way of telling them from the linguistic wannabes who happened to be
sitting in on the discussion. You think of an American who shows up at a
party in Paris speaking high-school French, unable to discern the accents
that mark off half the other guests as Americans, as well.

		But from our own perspective, the participation of all
these visiting virtuosi is only a source of noise, rather than of
confusion. We can tell the cuckoos in our net, and continue our
conversation as if they weren't present. On the whole, in fact, these lists
probably tend to reinforce rather than efface disciplinary boundaries,
especially in a thinly populated field like ours, since they open new
channels between all those linguists who are sequestered away in their own
private Idahos, and who up to now have had no one to talk to on a daily
basis but the philosophers or the literary historians down the hall. Now
every phonologist walks into her office in the knowledge that there is an
audience just a few keystrokes away that is poised to receive her night
thoughts on the mora in Tlingit (or in Klingon, for that matter).

	But the boundaries are more porous where our own gimcrackery is
concerned. The nineteenth-century immurement of the disciplines had the
effect not just of clearing their public discourse of unlicensed
practitioners, but also of privatizing most of what the licensed
practitioners have had to say about their science, as opposed to in it. The
amateur epistemologizing and sociologizing, the pedagogical and technical
lore, the gossip, the institutional politics, the anectdotal observations
about curiosities that lie outside the realm of current theory -- all of
this was relegated to the classroom, to the cafeteria, or to private
letters, allowed to surface publicly only in privileged contexts like
necrologies or the "News and Views" column of Science. And as I suggested a
moment ago, what is most compelling about the Linguist List and its
analogues is the effect of seeing all of this material suddently bubbling
forth into public view.

	Of course it can be embarrasing on occasion to see our private
discourse recorded in this form; it highlights and magnifies our excesses
like a home video of a boisterous family party. As Geoff Pullum has gently
pointed out in these very pages, for example, we linguists have a certain
proclivity for philosophical excursuses, but before the appearance of the
Linguist List I don't think anyone really appreciated to what an extent
this tendency has been tempered in the print literature by the existence of
editors and referees and by an unspoken editorial convention that holds
that no author ought to be allowed to engage in metatheoretical
lucubrations without providing at least the semblance of an empirical
pretext for them. It can be a little wearying to see the list swell with
exchanges that disregard the customary proportions of philosophical
allusions to empirical points, so that the Hempl-to-example ratio nears
infinity. And the amateur sociologizing and theory-baiting can even more
disconcerting. There was a long and heated discussion a while ago that was
sparked by a correspondent's allegation that it was an matter of doctrine
among GB adherents that one ought to teach students to ignore all data that
was embarrassing to the theory, a conclusion garnered on the basis of a
report from a student who had earlier taken a syntax course at a
GB-dominated institution. The moderators eventually had the good sense to
cut this one off, but not before it came to bear an uncomfortable
resemblance to one of those radio talk shows where callers draw sweeping
generalizations on the basis of muddled anecdotes about affirmative action
or police brutality. A few exchanges like this and you begin to long for a
heavier hand at the discursive spigot. It may be, as the enthusiasts of the
new media like to say, that "information wants to be free," but that's no
reason for always giving it its way.

	But ultimately the annoyances of the list are more than offset by
its virtues. I'm thinking here not so much of its obvious usefulness as a
way of circulating public announcements, queries, publication notices and
the like, as of the agreeable buzz of its chatter. There are the
discussions of Eskimo words for snow, of Estonian language policy, and
linguistics in science fiction. There are the offbeat queries that
demonstrate just how widely, in every sense, our nets are cast: a
subscriber in Malta who asks for information about linguistic analysis of
rap lyrics; a subscriber in Mexico who wants to know about the criteria for
judging the Welsh singing competitions called eisteddfodau. And there are
those discussions of the semantic and syntactic curiosities that are our
own equivalents of sand-floods and monstrous calves. A topic like "words
that are their own opposites" (e.g., cleave, Lat. altus, and the like)
provokes a seemingly endless exchange of anecdotal data, most of it from
echte linguists, and only sporadically sullied by the attempt to draw some
broader theoretical conclusion. It reminds you that philologists all begin
their lives as logophiles.

	It all takes sorting through, of course, but I find that it is not
necessary actually to open most of the numbers; it reassuring enough simply
to know that there are folks out there somewhere who are keeping track of
linguistics in science fiction and the use of definite articles in
place-names. As the Times used to say in its ads, "You may not read it all,
but it's nice to know it's there." Now if anyone has a way to keep cream
cheese off my keyboard...

1 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities, (London: Verso, 1983), pp.
39-40.

2 The Journal des Savants was a precursor of the modern journal in more
than just its contents, since it frequently ran afoul of the royal censors
and had to be printed in Holland and smuggled in across the border.

3Cf Pope's complaints in the Dunciad (I, 37-44) about the early
eighteenth-century pulluation of "Journals, Medleys, Merc'ries,
Magazines..."

4 Quoted in David Kronick, Scientific and Technical Periodicals of the
Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Metuchen, N.J. : Scarecrow Press,
1991), p 161.

5 Raymond Williams, "David Hume: Reasoning and experience," Writing in
Society (London : Verso, [1983]) p 121.

6 Doug Brent, "Information technology and the Breakdown of 'Places' of
Knowledge, EJournal, 4, 4; December 19, 1994;
EJOURNAL%ALBNYVMS.bitnetuacsc2.albany.edu

7 "Sum: Plurals in '-s'", The Linguist List, 5.971, September 8, 1994.
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue