Monday, April 28, 2008

A renewed account of impulses from a vernal wood and their effect on moral perception

I came across this poem in an epigraph in Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

The Tables Turned

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you'll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain's head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! 'tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There's more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless--
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

-William Wordsworth

Here's a somewhat related XKCD comic. As a personal note, my own grad school decision was nothing like the character there, but it's illustrative.

The theme is something similar to something I talked about here on Underlinguist. Despite my somewhat defiant tone in that old post, "murdering to dissect" is something I vaguely worry about from time to time.

Not that I've done a survey, but I do get the feeling that occasionally researchers in Linguistics, and other areas, lose focus of what the reality is out there in the world that they're trying to examine. Somehow a propensity for abstraction combined with an obsession with minutia turns the object of study into something nearly unrelated to the reality of experience that must have been the initial inspiration for anyone to set about such an investigation.

Maybe that's the right thing to happen when we try to plumb the workings of the non-conscious mind. I'm not making any claims about the quality or verity of research like this. Here, I'm writing about the personal experience of the researcher with their subject. I always try to keep in mind that any research I do or read has some sort of bearing on some one impulse from a vernal wood.

Monday, April 21, 2008

"Feel the bag"

In an unprecedented second post in one day, this came to me in a forwarded e-mail chain, originated by Wendy Baker of Brigham Young University.

Would-be robbers walk away empty-handed

A frustrating night for some would-be robbers in Salt Lake City, especially for one whose demand for cash went way wrong.

In Utah it may be a difficult deal to tell the difference between the words "fill" and "feel." Last night when a robber presented a bag at the Cafe Treo, he told the server to "fill" it.

"The employee thought the suspect said ‘feel' the bag, so the employee reached over and felt the bag," said Detective Jeff Bedard, spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department.

Bedard says the suspect replied, "You've gotta be kidding" and fled the store empty-handed. "Maybe he had a chance rethink his life of crime," Bedard said.

Talk about suspension of contrast when it really matters. There was so much disambiguating evidence in the context too! If you did a corpus search over 5 gagillon words, I guarantee that the string "This is a stick up! Feel the bag!" would be vanishingly rare.

I highly suggest listening to this audio from the story as well. The cop, who is also obviously merged, trying to make the distinction is precious.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Pronking Morphology

This video produced by The Onion is pretty interesting in a number of ways.

First off, it is an excellent example of public discourse on linguistic variation and structure. The representative's response that "maybe it's just something me and my constituents say," is spot on for a dialectal speaker's linguistic insecurity. Rep. Reynold's skepticism over the reality of "pronk" as a communal form because she had been there numerous times is also a common fallacy that even linguists fall into sometimes.

Also to be noted, "intonation," is an important member of the set of words which non-linguists have for describing language. Other important ones are "cadence," "tone," "sing-song," "nasal," "twang," "drawl," along with a great many onomatopoeic vocalizations.

What may be more interesting is everywhere the Onion writers managed to stick "pronk." It takes a number of regular derivational and inflectional morphemes, like pronking, pronked, pronkfully, and pronks (both 3rd person singular -s and plural -s).

"Pronk" also end up in these stranger, portmanteau-like constructions.
  • "pronk-lem" -- problem
  • "pronk-rageous" -- outrageous
  • "pronk-surd" -- absurd
  • "pronk-spect" -- respect

Trying to figure out what makes these well formed is a little tricky. I guess "out," "re," and maybe even "ab," and "prob" could be analyzed as separate morphemes. Still, the syllabification of "pronklem" seems a little off to me. I would have wanted to make it "pronk-blem," which is even worse. Also, the stress in "pronkspect" vs "respect" is off.

What's more, why did they decided to replace these bound pseudo-morphemes with "pronk" instead of the free pseudo-morphemes. The obvious answer is that "pronkrageous" is more recognizable as involving "outrageous" than "out-pronk-ous," which then raises the question of what constitutes the most recognizable segments of a polysyllabic word, which by all accounts is monomorphemic.

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