Harry Potter in the Penthouse


Linguists like to have fun, I think. And there are precious few places to have fun while, say, writing a paper (well, depending on the exact topic and the forum in which it is to be published). But among those places where I’ve seen fun being had are: the title or subtitle; the names of principles; the names of theoretical entities; the (made-up/constructed) data being examined [this only being relevant for those linguists who examine at least whole words, and usually whole sentences].

Fun titles are often somehow self-referential. Examples include When nouns surface as verbs (Clark and Clark, Language 1979), What’s this sentence doing showing up in English? (Pullum, York Papers in Linguistics 1973), and Just because two constructions look alike in two languages doesn’t mean that they share the same properties (Weilbacher and Boas, ICCG4, 2006). This is fun.* Then, with slightly different effect, there are some titles that evoke other titles, a sort of “intertextuality.” One example is the recent Newmeyer/Bybee exchange in Language, with titles Grammar is Grammar and Usage is Usage contrasted with Grammar is Usage and Usage is Grammar. Another would be Postverbal Behavior (Wasow, 2002), based off of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior.

Another fun place to put things are in names of principles and theoretical entities. John Ross introduced a lot of fun names for syntactic phenomena, like stripping, slifting, and pied-piping. (Actually, the last term was suggested to Ross by Robin Lakoff). In that tradition people continue to introduce terms like swiping (Jason Merchant) and so forth. Other landmark innovations are *Struc (“star-struck”) in OT and the Penthouse Principle (also Ross, regarding what can go on “upstairs” (in matrix clauses) and “downstairs” (in embedded clauses). That last one is my new favorite principle (and actually relevant to my upcoming LSA talk, as it happens).

In this grand tradition, Gereon Müller has given a name to the general asymmetry between deletion and insertion in morpho(phono)logy. In general, deletion is “easier” because it just gets rid of stuff you already had. On the other hand, when you have insertion, who knows what you’ll get? He calls this “Potter’s Problem” in his paper on multiple exponence. He writes in a footnote,

This is an instance of what can be called “Potter’s Problem”, as identified by Prof. McGonagall: ‘So … today we are starting Vanishing Spells. These are easier than Conjuring Spells, which you would not usually attempt until NEWT level, but they are still among the most dificult magic you will be tested on in your OWL.’ She was quite right; Harry found the Vanishing Spells horribly difficult.” (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003, p. 232.)

Ah, lovely.

(* Several years ago, a literature teacher told me that people speaking at Modern Language Association meetings, especially in sessions on literary theory/criticism like to come up with exceedingly strange and evocative titles, because the program does not have room to put actual descriptions or abstracts of presentations. I can’t seem to confim this, since programs are blocked to non-members)

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