Reflections cont'd (2)

Alexander Gross2 language at
Wed Mar 22 05:14:32 UTC 2006

Rob, I believe you may be overlooking a rather important element in my 
friend's point of view, something even Geoffrey Pullum for all his faults 
quite clearly recognized.  He tried out two arguments to justify the work of 
linguists to the "stranger in the bar," but neither one remains persuasive 
today.  The identity crisis Pullum ascribes to linguists has clearly not 
gone away, all the more so if the person expressing doubts about the field 
is not a stranger in the bar but someone who has bothered to obtain an M.A 
in the field and works with language on an advanced level.

Mark, the offbeat example of Carmelization depends on a missing piece of 
context, and even though such missing context confronts us at various stages 
of our learning, this one is still a fairly unusual instance, as noted 
below.  Here's something a good deal less recondite, an example I devised 
using an English structure to show how common Chinese four-character 
structures or "proverbs" work:

Blows Strokes Sweep Breaths

I've left out the punctuation because there wouldn't be any in Chinese. 
There wouldn't even be an 's' marking three of the words, because the 
Chinese don't usually record the plural in nouns and verbs. So how about:

Blow Stroke Sweep Breath.

How would you translate that into another language? Or since it's English, 
what would you imagine it means in your own language? Would you interpret it 
as something poetic and inspiring, such as "The vast wind beats on my heart, 
sweeping my breath away?" Or is it a tale of oarsmen being swept away while 
pursuing a whale? Or could it be something overtly sexual? These are typical 
of the sort of errors awaiting anyone trying to understand Chinese, much 
less translate it—and some have fallen into such traps.  Or here in simply 
trying to understand it in English.

The precise meaning of the phrase Blows, Strokes, Sweep, Breaths refers to a 
medical context in American English: it is a mnemonic for remembering the 
correct order of actions in dealing with an unconscious non-breathing 
patient and is regularly taught in courses on cardio-pulmonary 
resuscitation: blows on the back, artificial respiration, clearing the 
patient's air channel with one's fingers, and the "kiss of life."

Such structures are quite common in Chinese and operate quite independently 
of grammar, even though a grammatical substructure may be imposed on them 
after the fact.

all the best!


ps--Three decades ago in California my wife and I, hoping to improve our 
education, went driving furiously around Carmel trying to find the Society 
for Teacher Ventilation Recovery.  We were told they had pulled up stakes 
with no forwarding address.  Perhaps we were in the wrong state. 
Fortunately just four miles down the road we came to Monterey, where there 
is an excellent translation school.

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Mark P. Line" <mark at>
To: <funknet at>
Sent: Tuesday, March 21, 2006 4:21 PM
Subject: Re: [FUNKNET] Reflections cont'd (2)

> Salinas17 at wrote:
>> I wrote:
>> <<In response, I only can tenderly carmelize the teacher to whom you
>> ventilated in the left column, weedlessly uncondensed.  That's fine
>> grammar but -- unless you are privileged to know something I don't -- it
>> makes absolutely no sense.>>
>> In a message dated 3/17/06 7:56:12 PM, mark at writes:
>> <<While that is presumably true in the context of a linguistics mailing
>> list,
>> I doubt there's much evidence of the same kind of phenomenon in the
>> populations of mere mortals and their utterances that we purport to 
>> study.
>> >>
>> No doubt that it is an improbable sentence.  And it just happens to make
>> no sense as well.  Maybe they are connected?
> Perhaps when you say the sentence "makes no sense" you really mean that
> certain semantic processes lead to contradictory entailments when applied
> to the sentence in the usual fashion.
> There's no doubt that the fact that a sentence is improbable and the fact
> that conventional semantic processing leads to contradiction are indeed
> related, as you suggest: speakers tend to devise utterances that lead to
> intended and generally non-contradictory entailments.
> But my point was that every utterance makes sense in the context of its
> occurrence, regardless of how poorly suited it might be for conventional
> semantic processing. Linguistically naive speaker/hearers confronted with
> contradictions are observed to engage in a divergent, *unconventional*
> form of semantic processing in order to produce a non-contradictory set of
> entailments.
> "In response, I only can tenderly carmelize the teacher to whom you
> ventilated in the left column, weedlessly uncondensed."
> I do try hard not to vent to teachers, but it did happen just this once.
> The fact that we'd both been waiting in the left-hand line at the ticket
> counter for over three hours just made me lose it. As most people know,
> the Society for Teacher Ventilation Recovery in Carmel, Indiana was
> responsible for their trademark 'carmelization' technique for dealing with
> teachers just such as this one, and I'm thankful that your mastery of the
> technique was adequate to get her back on an even keel. It was smart of
> you to do it with such a tender touch.
> On another level, I appreciate the fact that you were able to walk the
> fine line between condensing your response to the point of being overly
> terse and introducing verbal weeds for me to fight through to get to your
> point.
>> This goes back to your suggestion about language making reality
>> intelligible. My point is it's more useful to see it the other way
>> around.  That reality makes language intelligible.
> Reality couldn't possibly make language intelligible. At best, a person's
> *understanding* of reality might be claimed to make language intelligible.
> I can't imagine what the universe would have to be like for reality to
> intervene directly in language processing.
> But it turns out that nothing extra at all is needed to make language
> intelligible: naive speaker/hearers tend to create sense for every
> utterance, no matter how far they have to diverge from semantic
> convention.
>> What does that suggest about "language models?"  It might suggests that
>> any model of language that does not include the extra-linguistic effects
>> of language is fundamentally inaccurate.
> That, of course, is not news, nor would I expect you to find anybody here
> who disagrees.
> -- Mark
> Mark P. Line
> Polymathix
> San Antonio, TX

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