"You, sir, are a linguist."

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The latest PartiallyClips:

(As usual, click on the image for a larger version.)

Tim Crist (aka -=ShoEboX=-), who now writes the strip, writes that the text comes from an exchange with Rob Balder, who used to write it:

All but the first line of this is copied nigh-verbatim from a typically strange IM conversation I had with Balder this morning, so I’m crediting him as co-writer, making this is a full-on “Roth and Hagar on stage” moment. Have fun trying to figure out which of us wrote which parts!

This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a PartiallyClips was inspired by an online chat between me and Rob. It happened a few times when he was writing the strip, and it’s happened at least one other time while I’ve been writing it. We even recorded dramatic readings of a few of our IM conversations for our musical collaboration, Baldbox.

I seriously contemplated misplacing an apostrophe in “schools” in the final speech bubble. But (a.) I couldn’t bring myself to do it, because misplaced apostrophes make me want to stab bunnies, and (b.) I’d probably lose half my audience, since most of you feel the same way, if not stronger, and the bunny population would likely never recover.

I'm a little pained by the implicit analogy RACIST:MINORITY::LINGUIST:PUNCTUATION. But at least they spelled our name right.


  1. language hat said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    Huh? How does "racist" come into this? I don't see any coherent allegory going on here, but if I were forced to pick a political brouhaha this is referencing, I would have said evolution.

    A: "You, sir, are a linguist."
    B: "I've got nothing against punctuation. I just don't want it in our schools."

    A: "You, sir, are a racist."
    B: "I've got nothing against [MINORITY]. I just don't want them in our schools."

    I don't think there's anything that you could call a coherent allegory. But the general (and playful) idea seems to be that the linguists who object to Eats shoots and leaves type of peeving are "prejudiced" against (the proper use of) punctuation. That's how I understood the exchange, anyhow.]

  2. john riemann soong said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 9:40 am

    I kind have a hard time convincing my peers actually that linguists aren't hardass about punctuation and care way more about pronunciation.

  3. Lauren said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 9:53 am

    I'm a linguist studying the psychological reality of the comma as it relates to informative prosody, so there.

  4. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 10:14 am

    @languagehat: It’s on the way he makes the accusation, I think. “You, sir, are a racist” has 41,500 hits on Google. Giving that the character is accusing the other of discrimination against commas, it seems plausible to me that the strip author just substituted “racist” from a set-phrase for the similar word “linguist”, employing it in the novel sense of “one who has prejudices regarding written-character minorities”.

    @soong: In what sense linguists “care way more about pronunciation”? I can’t envision “hardass” linguists going around correcting how other people speak… I see them more as a small army of Mr. Spocks, popping at odd places with tricorders. You pronounce something oddly, one of them goes all “fascinating” and write ten papers on it (or a series of languagelog posts).

  5. john riemann soong said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 10:33 am

    not correcting how people speak, necessarily.

    I'm friends with a talented PRC student who always chides me for caring about the way Chinese languages are pronounced and not the way they are written.

    me: "I don't care if the character for word X is a combination of the characters for Y and Z! That fact doesn't have any bearing on its meaning or its sound shift compared to Hakka!'
    her: "…you're such a linguist."

    OK. But to people who don't know me so well (i.e. they know me as a wannabe biochemist) they have a different impression of linguists.

  6. john riemann soong said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 10:41 am

    "You pronounce something oddly, one of them goes all “fascinating” and write ten papers on it (or a series of languagelog posts)."

    I've a hard time with this at parties. even at completely dry ones. I'm friends with a group of Iraqi refugees. Most of them have relocated within the last 2-3 years and struggle to speak fluent English. One of them, who speaks with a strong accent, has some how picked up the trait of saying "mountain" and "fountain" with that intervocalic glottal stopp'ish nasal. What are the isoglosses for this? Because I'm sure it doesn't extend to natives of Charlottesville, VA, where they live and learnt most of their English.

    So I go, "stop. rewind. what did you just say?"

    but he thinks I want him to repeat because I don't /understand/ him. so he rephrases, and I don't know how to get him to understand that I was interested in where he picked up that phonetic trait.


  7. Andrew West said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    I guess it's just a matter of time before some orthography is designed that uses comma as a letter — exclamation mark (ǃ aka Latin Letter Retroflex Click) and apostrophe (ʼ aka Modifier Letter Apostrophe) have already joined the club.

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 11:08 am

    Could the "linguist" comment be a dig at usage authorities, such as the Modern Language Association, that have an (allegedly) minimalist attitude to punctuation, as described in the Edmund Morris NYT review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves?

    … the usage czars of American academe — particularly those at the Modern Language Association and University of Chicago Press, whose anti-capital, anti-hyphen, anti-italic stylebooks seek to return modern logography to the uniformity of ancient papyri.

    I just reread "Middlemarch," alternating between old (1891) and new (Modern Library, 1992) editions, and was disconcerted by the latter's willingness to alter Eliot's original marks. For instance, Dorothea Brooke, in 1891, was "troublesome — to herself, chiefly." A hundred years later, that long, corrective dash is gone, and so is the comma emphasis.

  9. language hat said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    It’s on the way he makes the accusation, I think. “You, sir, are a racist” has 41,500 hits on Google.

    Thanks, that helps. But I still don't think that overall the strip is comparing linguists to racists. It just seems like… well, I guess it seems like a transcript of a random IM conversation between friends, without any overarching significance.

    [(myl) I took it as playful, goofy fun. But I think the idea that linguists are prejudiced against (sticklers for correct) punctuation is part of the play.]

  10. Mary Bull said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    @ john riemann soong, who wrote, "… One of them, who speaks with a strong accent, has some how picked up the trait of saying "mountain" and "fountain" with that intervocalic glottal stopp'ish nasal. What are the isoglosses for this? Because I'm sure it doesn't extend to natives of Charlottesville, VA, where they live and learnt most of their English."

    Agree about Charlottesville, VA, where I've often visited, because my son teaches at UVA.

    I wonder whether this might be a displacement from "among," or even from "monkey" — which in my native South Texas accent sounds like "mongkey." And it might even have arrived there via the reading route, rather than from listening to others' speech.

    All wild speculation on my part, of course. I hope not too off-topic.

  11. cy said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 12:51 pm

    I don't think the RACIST:LINGUIST thing is quite what they were shooting for in their IM n-gram meme-phrase; it seems to me more like CREATIONIST:GOD or PERSON_WHO_BELIEVES_EVOLUTION:EVOLUTION. Yeah, that sounds about right.

  12. Tim Crist said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    Hello again!

    Thanks for the link – it's always fun to see my strips intelligently dissected on this site. You're right on the nose about it being playful fun. At the risk of over-explaining, I'll confirm that I wasn't trying to make any actual comparison between linguists and racists. I was trying, as Mr. Boiko suggested, to suggest a redefinition of the word "linguist" analogous to "racist" – i.e. a person who is prejudiced against certain parts of language.

    As far as spelling your name right, you're certainly welcome. And that's "Tim" Crist if you'd like to return the favor. :)


    [(myl) Oops. Fixed now.]

  13. Sili said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

    It's embarrassing that I missed the "Victor" on the first reading and simply assumed it was Borges, not Borge.

  14. George said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 4:12 pm

    Many people think linguists are those who (a) speak many languages, and/or (b) study and insist on proper grammar and orthography.

  15. Xmun said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 5:23 pm

    @George: One of the senses of the word "linguist" is indeed "polyglot". In fact, that's the first sense given in my dictionary (NODE):

    "1. a person skilled in foreign languages.
    2. a person who studies linguistics."

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 9:27 pm

    We need a word "linguisticist".

    But the guy in the cartoon isn't a linguist, he's a letrist. Or maybe a vocalist.

  17. Jason F. Siegel said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

    According to Pei & Gaynor (1954)'s Dictionary of Linguistics, Robert A. Hall coined 'linguistician' to fulfil precisely this purpose.

  18. stephen said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 10:35 pm

    I once had occasion to write the word ANCIENT; but instead I wrote ANCIEN'T.

    I got rid of the apostrophe immediately, but I thought it was a funny mistake.

    Another apostrophe catastrophe: A local flower shop was run by the Nielsen family. It was called Nielsen Flowers. They sold their business to another flower shop called Ken's Flowers. The new business is called Ken's Nielsen Flowers. People not familiar with the business might assume Ken's last name is Nielsen and that the possessive is in the wrong place.
    I guess it makes sense since Nielsen Flowers now belongs to Ken, but it still looks weird.

  19. J. Goard said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 2:59 am

    Wow, it amazes me how some commenters (including the venerable languagehat) don't get the "defensive racist"/"anti-racist" conversation script right away. I'm only 34, but am well aware of the many templates employed here.

    The analogy makes no sense, though, so joke fail.

  20. Rodger C said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    @Nathan Myers: I think it was Winfred Lehmann who wanted "linguistician." Unsurprisingly, it never caught on; and it's not in my spell check.

  21. Rodger C said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    Whoops–didn't read far enough. Still too early in the morning again. I'm reasonably sure, though, that with Lehmann we have at least one other person who went with "linguistician."

  22. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    @Nathan: A linguisticist is someone who studies the behaviour of linguists?

  23. Will Steed said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 9:42 pm

    "You're such a linguist" is something I hear from my friends on occasion, usually after I've taken a small remark and gone bonkers about its linguistic implication because of the pronunciation of the diphthong or the use of an odd preposition.

  24. Private Zydeco said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 1:26 am

    …it is a tad surprising to see that no-one has yet remarked on the presence, in the last panel of the strip, of what seems to be a deliberate pun on "commie sympathizers" — a pun which the author must have inserted there with a view to heightening the reader's perception of the parody on dominant rule vs. repressed theory which develops as the scene progresses. In light of such insightful chalk-talk regarding novel constructions on the word "linguist" – which Mr. Crist proposes might mean (indeed by analogy to "racist") something like "a member of an oppressive majority of narrow-minded language-bigots", – this too should merit some notice.

    Ahh, the seditiousness of the "uprist" interviewee in the face of his prospective employer's recalcitrant defense of homologous rule…

  25. Private Zydeco said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 2:10 am

    that is, perhaps everyone who would have commented on it but didn't thought it was obvious enough…

    Anyone who buys into the idea that a linguist is someone who disapproves strongly enough of punctuation itself to genuinely not want it taught in primary and/or secondary school (unless perhaps due to a preference, over everyday grammar and alphabetic writing, for spectrographs, IPA transcription, and audio-recording) is missing the point.

  26. john riemann soong said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 10:24 am

    well I plan on teaching my children IPA and the basics of the Great Vowel Shift before they ever touch a phonics book.

  27. Robert said,

    August 5, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    When reading mathematical formulae, instead of using the word "prime" as the pronunciation of the ' symbol, I use a sound like Victor Borge's comma. I don't know if anyone else does this, but I'm hoping to start a movement.

  28. John Cowan said,

    August 6, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    Robert: Better yet, stop saying "double prime" and "triple prime" and stick to the historical "second" and "third".

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