Fun with Linguistic Symposia

Academic symposia are great fun if you don’t have a reputation to defend. Listening to a presentation can be informative, but the true entertainment value arises when you watch numerous ivory-tower types begin to shred one another’s theories.

This bit of doggerel has been floating around in my humor files since the 70s (first pulled off a chain printer), and deserves to be appreciated by a new generation of linguists.

With no further ado, I present to you a collection of (allegedly) real interactions documented at early gatherings of linguists. First up:

A Taxonomy of Argument Schemata in Metatheoretic Discussions of Syntax
or
Name That Tune

I. Logical Argumentation

  1. If A = ¬A, then my position is true.
    Therefore, since A = ¬A, …
  2. A: ¬p.
    B: Since you agree that p, …
  3. P is absurd, therefore q.

II. Now you see it, now...

  1. Your argument supports my position.
  2. I’m aware of these putative counter-arguments, but…
  3. Let me rephrase that so that it agrees with my position…
  4. I think that is true, but I’m not sure it means anything.

III. The Reasoned Response

  1. I don’t see the argument.
  2. I don’t like your example.
  3. That’s not a problem in my theory.
  4. It’s my opinion, and it’s very true.
  5. I still say that…

IV. Papa Knows Best

  1. You say that, but you don’t believe it.
  2. You believe this, but you won’t say it.
  3. What you really believe is ____, and I agree with you.
  4. Our disagreement is merely semantic.
  5. Don’t be misled by the similarity between A and A. It’s merely a superficial identity.

V. Audience Participation: Let’s take a vote!

VI. The Pre-emption

  1. You’re right, but I said it first!
  2. What you say is wrong, and I said it first!

VII. The Putdown

  1. You can’t do it either
  2. That’s true, but uninteresting in the ____ sense!

VIII. Advancing to the rear

  1. I knew that analysis was wrong before I proposed it.
  2. Of course my analysis is wrong in detail – *all* analyses are wrong in detail.

IX. The Principled Argument

A: Shut up!
B: No, *you* shut up!
A: No, *YOU* shut up!


 

But wait, there’s more!

An Ancillary Guide To Understanding a Syntax Conference

 What the Speaker Says  What the Speaker Means
These examples are from Dyirbal, a widely discussed language, so I will assume familiarity. I don’t know the language well enough to answer questions, so don’t ask any.
When you stop to think about what you said, it doesn’t say anything.  I don’t understand it.
Some examples are vague; the others are simply wrong. I can’t quite put an argument together, but I still want to attack yours.
No one has ever studied “X”. I haven’t studied it, and neither have my friends.
I may have to retreat (there is a possibility), which is a wise thing to do when you are wrong. I assure you that you are a good guy if you say that you are wrong.
Nobody is going to be converted to another side at this conference. This is not a tournament in which someone will win the main prize. This is my excuse for not accepting anyone else’s argument, regardless of how valid it may be.
It is significant in an “interesting” way. I could possible squeeze an article or two out of it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve attended one of these conclaves, but I have no doubt that such things are still heard if you listen closely.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

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