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Jokes only a linguist will get

I hear you like my linguistics posts. So here's another.

This post on LanguageLog has a number of facetious "Linguistically Noteworthy Dates in May," written by late linguist Jim McCawley. Some of them are just odd and have very little to do with linguistics itself--e.g., "The University of Chicago trades Leonard Bloomfield to Yale University for two janitors and an undisclosed number of concrete gargoyles." (Bloomfield was a famous linguist, but that's about the only ling. content as far as I can tell.)

Others, despite my Master's degree, I don't get at all. But I do get the following and find them rather cute. (Raise your hand if you understand them. I'm willing to explain them to the best of my ability, but you know what they say about the funniness of a joke once you have to explain it.)

- May 5, 1403. The Great English Vowel Shift begins. Giles of Tottenham calls for ale at his favorite pub and is perplexed when the barmaid tells him that the fishmonger is next door.

- May 11, 1032. Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II orders isoglosses erected across northern Germany as defense against Viking intruders.

- May 19. Diphthong Day. (Public holiday in Australia)

- May 20, 473 B.C. Publisher returns to Panini a manuscript entitled Saptadhyayi with a note requesting the addition of a chapter on phonology. Panini begins struggling to meet the publisher's deadline.

- May 29, 1962. Angular brackets are discovered. Classes at M.I.T. are dismissed and much Latvian plum brandy is consumed.

- May 30, 1939. Charles F. Hockett finishes composing the music for the Linguistic Society of America's anthem, 'Can You Hear the Difference?'

...and even with those, I don't get every aspect of them. Why Latvian plum brandy? I don't know. But I do know why angular brackets. (Though actually, square brackets would make more linguistically-celebratory sense.)


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 20th, 2005 03:43 pm (UTC)
May 19. Diphthong Day. (Public holiday in Australia)

Just for the record, AFAIK, it's not, really. I suspect it may be a jab at the Australian fondness for public holidays. ;)
May. 20th, 2005 03:52 pm (UTC)
None of them are true. Thus the "facetious." And actually I imagine it's an observation on Australian pronunciation, which tends to diphthong-ize vowels that are more boring in other dialects of English. :) ([dai] for "day," instead of [de], for instance)
May. 20th, 2005 03:59 pm (UTC)
That;s what I get for skimming. Ooops!

(I do still think the public holiday bit is a jab at the Aussies, though. They poke fun at themselves for having so many - including the Queen's Birthday, which has very little to do with her actual birthdate.) ;)
May. 20th, 2005 04:10 pm (UTC)
No problem. :) That could be. These "jokes" seem to have many odd little layers, not all of which are clear to me. And I could use a public holiday about now...
May. 20th, 2005 03:52 pm (UTC)
Hee. "Dipthong" even sounds Australian. It's probably also a Southern holiday, the way we smoosh our words all around.

...but what is an isogloss?
May. 20th, 2005 04:09 pm (UTC)
Hehe...billabongs and diphthongs...maybe that's another reason he assigned it to Australia. True about the South, though--diphthongs are big down there. :)

An isogloss is a line you draw on a map, marking the boundary of whichever linguistic feature you are studying. Thus, could draw lines dividing the parts of the nation where people call it "pop" rather than "soda," or where people pronounce "aunt" as "ant", or so on. Also it's just a cool word. Isogloss.
May. 20th, 2005 04:25 pm (UTC)
As a Latvian, I have no idea why Latvian plum brandy is being consumed.

Not to mention in 1962, there wasn't officially even *a* Latvia (mutters obscenities at the Soviets), so it must've been at least 22-year old brandy. Does that number have any significance that could make it more important?
May. 22nd, 2005 12:12 pm (UTC)
Heh! Interesting point. I do wonder what the original writer meant, then...
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )