Thursday, October 15, 2009

Excuse Me While I Nerd This Out

I've been reading The Atoms of Language by Mark C. Baker for the last month or so, and it's fascinating. He's approaching Chomsky's Cartesian Linguistic position in a way that can classify language syntax into a system analogous to Mendeleyev's early versions of the Periodic Table of the Elements. He has only identified eight "parameters" that would correspond to elements in the periodic table, but this is just the beginning of a line of thought. Maybe it won't yield any useful ideas, but the construct is interesting.

Anyway, the book is about syntax--sentence structure and word order--and draws on languages across the globe. Baker discusses polysynthetic languages such as Mohawk, which don't express ideas in sentences so much as they do in elaborately modified words. He also describes the differences between subject-verb-object languages (like English) and subject-object-verb languages (like Japanese). The entire book is about how communication in each language determines the order in which words appear in sentences.

And that's why I started laughing uncontrollably when I read this sentence on page 204:
A contemporary of [Franz] Boaz, [Ferdinand de] Saussure is famous (among other things) for emphasizing the arbitrary relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning.
Just think about how that sentence is put together for a second.

Ready? Do you see it? Of course you do, but let me blather on about it anyway. The problem is in the placement of the parenthetical "(among other things)." It's clear that Baker means to say that Saussure is famous for "emphasizing the arbitrary . . ." among other things. But the way this is printed it says that "emphasizing the arbitrary relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning" has made Saussure famous and other things. What other things? Nefarious? Athletic? Immortal? A hat? A brooch? A pterodactyl?

This isn't to diminish the work Baker has done--it's interesting, approachable*, and has potential--but despite the amazing amount of attention paid to word order in this book, the garbled word order in this sentence managed to escape an author, who knows how many reviewers and proofreaders, at least one editor, and maybe several more people. I have to giggle.

This is an illustration of the fallibility of even the most intelligent, the most qualified, and the most vigilant people in their respected fields. What chance do the rest of us have for living error-free?

*I say "approachable" because I had only one semester of linguistics and the jargon here didn't throw me. Even the numerous models were interesting.

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