How to explain your research at a party

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From the AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science), a holiday t-shirt:

Always a challenge trying to explain what I do to random strangers. This being Silicon Valley, I have to be able to say intelligent things about computational linguistics and language technologies, while saying that that's not what I actually do (these days, anyway).

A long time ago at a party in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a lawyer asked me to explain my work (which was, at the time, focused on the Principle of Phonology-Free Syntax), adding, aggressively, that he thought that anyone who was any good at what they did could do that in a minute or so. I was young then and not as seasoned as I am now, so I didn't just tell him that if he thought that then he was an idiot (and an asshole for issuing a challenge, saying, in effect, prove to me that you're competent) and walk away in search of someone more interesting and pleasant to talk to.

Thing is, to get an explanation across, the person you're talking to has to have some serious background knowledge. The guy told me he was a lawyer, and immediately I knew a lot about his work — because of what I knew about our culture. He then told me his specialty — tax law, I think — and then he was done explaining his work, to his satisfaction and mine. I told him I was a linguist, but of course he didn't know anything about linguistics. So I was screwed.

I lamely went on, muttering things about phonology, morphology, and syntax, which of course the lawyer found incomprehensible. Not one of my finest moments.

Well, I didn't have my puppets, and I wasn't much of a dancer.

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