Joos jokes

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While looking for something else, I recently stumbled on the November 1950 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, which published the "Proceedings of the Speech Communication Conference at M.I.T.":

The following twenty-four papers constitute a report of the Speech Communication Conference held at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, May 31-June 3, 1950, under the joint auspices of the Acoustical Society of America, the Carnegie Project on Scientific Aids to Learning at M.I.T., and the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory at Harvard University.

Among those twenty-four papers was one by Martin Joos, "Description of Language Design", that included this passage:

We can allow other people — telephone engineers or sociologists, for example — to speak artistically, imprecisely, about language. But as linguists we lay upon ourselves the condition that we must speak precisely about language or not at all.

It's hard to tell whether this is deadpan humor or arid crankiness. But given that the author was Martin Joos, I'm voting for humor.

I never met him, but the epigraph for his 1961 book The Five Clocks: A Linguistic Excursion Into the Five Styles of English Usage is evidence of an appreciation for sly jests:

Ballyhough railway station has two clocks which disagree by some six minutes. When one helpful Englishman pointed the fact out to a porter, his reply was "Faith, sir, if they was to tell the same time, why would we be having two of them?"

And like the Ballyhough clock joke, his quip about artistic engineers also invokes a theory, laid out in the abstract for that 1950 JASA paper:

Physicists describe speech with continuous mathematics, such as Fourier analysis or the autocorrelation function. Linguists describe-language instead, using a discontinuous or discrete mathematics called "linguistics." The nature of this odd calculus is outlined and justified here. It treats speech communication as having a telegraphic structure. (Non-linguists normally fail to orient themselves in this field because they treat speech as analogous to telephony.) The telegraph-code structure of language is examined from top to bottom, and at each of its several levels af complexity (compared to the two levels of Morse code) its structure is shown to be defined by possibilities and impossibilities of combination among the units of that level. Above the highest level we find, instead of such absolute restrictions, conditional probabilities of occurrence: this is the semantic field, outside linguistics, where sociologists can work. Below the lowest level we find, instead of such absolute restrictions, conditional probabilities of phonetic quality: this is the phonetic field, outside linguistics, where physicists can work. Thus linguistics is peculiar among mathematical systems in that it abuts upon reality in two places instead of one. This statement is equivalent to defining a language as a symbolic system; that is, as a code.

Martin Joos got an undergrad degree in electrical engineering before spending WWII as a cryptographer and then turning to linguistics, so the joke (and the theory) must have had some personal resonance for him. And I also appreciate both the humor and the idea, having spent some time myself as the only linguist in a lab full of telephone engineers.

His assignment of semantics to sociology will come as a surprise to the practitioners of  both disciplines. There are many other curious ideas in that paper, and some even odder ones in the other 23 contributions to that 1950 special issue — more later on this window into a bygone age.



  1. Anna said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 1:51 pm

    "But given that the author was Martin Joos, I'm voting for humor."

    I was just lazily skimming through this post when this sentence stopped me in my tracks. Why the past tense? Martin Joos (never heard of him) probably died years ago but he is still the author of the paper in question, right? I'm just pondering the logicality of it all.

    I'm very rigid in this regard (I've just come to realize), I would never use past tense when it comes to authorship. But perhaps in this particular instance it's a matter of style? Meant to underline that M. Joos is dead? I dunno.

    So I'm wondering what others think (and do) and I'm asking all and sundry. Are there "rules"? Are there differences between languages? Is it perfectly normal in some languages to say: Shakespeare was the author of Hamlet?

    [(myl) In this particular case, I used the past tense to refer to the past time of composition (1950) and perhaps also the past-era character of that 1950 "Speech Communication Conference".]

  2. Jon W said,

    August 15, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

    Using the past tense in this context strikes me as perfectly normal in English, and more natural. The present tense, indeed, will sometimes be quite awkward. Would you say, "This book was banned in 1939 Germany because its author is a Jehovah's Witness"?

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 6:26 am

    I too would write "Joos was the article of the paper" or "Shakespeare was the author of Hamlet", but I think that Jon W's example is not strictly relevant. The temporal locative phrase "in 1939" effectively forces the use of a past tense if one is writing in any year thereafter. Like Anna, I would debate with myself whether to use "was" or "is" in an authorship attribution where the author is (presumed) deceased, but I would come to the opposite conclusion unless there were really good reasons for doing otherwise.

  4. monscampus said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 9:45 am

    About different usage of tenses in different languages… As a German it strikes me as strange that English headlines report the death of Aretha F. now as "A. F. dies", while the German media report "A. F. dead". Why the present tense when she isn't dying but already dead? Could the English version be an aorist use (unknown in English) marking the beginning or end of a process? Or is it just a journalistic convention? Or more p. c. in a way?

    In Joos' case I took the past tense as a hint that he is dead. As Shakespeare is considered immortal, I couldn't find anything wrong with either tense.

  5. Trogluddite said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 11:00 am


    Yes, even as a Brit, I sometimes find that use of the present tense in newspaper headlines rather odd. I would say that it is a journalistic convention, rather than p.c., as it is common in a wide variety of headlines; for example, "Historic mill burns down", "Local woman wins lottery", etc. They amuse me the most when they result in an apparently general statement which verges on tautology; for example, "Heavy snow causes widespread traffic chaos" (I've never known it not to!)

  6. monscampus said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 11:37 am


    Interesting – thank you!

    Living in a country where heavy snow is not so unusual, I think the traffic chaos depends on how well-equipped you are with snowploughs?

  7. Philip Anderson said,

    August 16, 2018 @ 4:20 pm

    It is called the historic present, and gives a sense of immediacy, as if the news is a live relay as it happens. To me, a headline like “snow caused chaos” would need to include a time like “yesterday”.

  8. philip said,

    August 17, 2018 @ 12:45 am

    Anna: there is a specific 'rule' for this in the Irish language. Not so much a rule, really, as a statement that both present and past tenses are acceptable in these cases when using the copula: eg Shakespeare is the author of Hamlet AND Shakespeare was the author of Hamlet.

    When using the substantive verb for 'to be' however, 'universal truths' stay in the present, regardless of the tense of the verbs in the rest of the sentence, eg: He claimed that God is good.

    [Note: the grammar book was written by Christian Brothers, so do nto blame me for the theology!]

    As for newspapers and the past tense V historic present, everything in a newspaper is in the past – even opinion pieces – but to present it all in the past tense would be pretty dry reading.

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