Cartoon Theories of Linguistics.

Far, far back in the murky mist of the distant past, nearly unrecoverable by present methods — to wit, in January 2007Speculative Grammarian™ began a series called Cartoon Theories of Linguistics; that first installment, on Non-Configurational Languages, explained that “we should be able to reduce the essence of important linguistic concepts to something we can explain to that bright, interested 10-year-old. In fact, I contend that we can boil the essence right down to something we can explain in a cartoon.” Since then, there have been irregular sequels (well, frankly, everything about Speculative Grammarian is pretty irregular), moving through Parts B, 3, IV, E, ζ, ז, ж, , J, XI, and 12 up to the current (and unimaginatively numerated) 13 (“Langue vs. Parole”). If you like linguistics and you like cartoons, you will probably like at least some of these (though some, e.g. “Part J—Feeding and Bleeding,” may be as incomprehensible to you as they are to me). If I’ve screwed up any of the links, what can I say? It’s hot here in Hadley.

Addendum. The Speculative Grammarian collection described here is now available as an e-book; if you use this link, you get $1 off the (low, low!) regular price of $5.95.


  1. Easy-peasy.

    1) Rule A feeds rule B when the output of rule A provides a suitable input for rule B. Thus, if SpongeBob screams like a maniac (rule A), this provides conditions for the jellyfish to be scared (rule B).

    2) Rule A bleeds rule B when the output of Rule A doesn’t provide rule B with the kind of input it needs. Thus, if you shrivel up and die (rule A), you are no longer able to do the robot (rule B).

    3) Rule B counterfeeds rule A when, if A were to apply before B, then A would feed B. But because B is applied before A, it doesn’t.

    4) Rule B counterbleeds rule A when, if A were to apply before B, then A would bleed B. But because B is applied before A, it doesn’t.

  2. Oops. For “doesn’t provide rule B with” read “prevents rule B from getting”. My wording wasn’t strong enough.

  3. They are now 14. The last one is on Gricean maxims illustrated by their violations. It’s too bad Dr. Phlogiston is not playing with numbering anymore. Let’s help him. I suggest using instead of 12 the word “twelve” and writing 13 in base 2: 11012

  4. marie-lucie says

    I have always hated the physiological metaphors in “feeding” and “bleeding” rules, especially the second one. Even if I have had occasion to discuss rule ordering, I have hever used those terms.

    JC, thank you for the explanation of the cartoons. A gap has now been (partially) filled in my knowledge of popular culture: I had seen the word “Spongebob” written, but did not know what it referred to.

  5. Hey, thanks for the trip down memory lane! CToL is one of my favorites (and a favorite of a lot of readers over the years), and I am always happy to expose new readers to the best of our archive.

    We’re actually planning a retrospective issue soon, and this fits the theme. Check your email for a note about that.

  6. Max Pinton says

    I should probably refrain from flying my ignorance flag, but were these cartoons actually tested on “bright and interested ten-year-olds,” let alone adults who don’t already know these concepts? Because I found myself baffled to some degree by the several I tried to decipher:

    I. Is the point that Japanese word order is insignificant? Because if you put each glyph on a tile and shook them in a bag as illustrated, you will not get meaning out of れか語まか。だす話英せを.

    B. So, what’s ergativity? Do I need to learn Basque to find out?

    3. I thought I was getting this one, but what’s the difference between agglutinative and polysynthetic? And why not mention which one English is?

    IV. My French is weak, but isn’t the output incorrect? Is the point of this cartoon that machine translation can fail? And why did it, given that “I talk to the boy” is correct in the source data?

    I guess I’m seven years too late, but I’d suggest going back to the drawing board and testing the results on non-experts.

  7. Max, see my Cthulhu-based tutorial on ergativity, and then “Murder Is Just Transitive Death” for a native-speaker viewpoint.

    English is a fusional language without very many fusional affixes left (Old English had lots). In point of fact Chinese, the stock example of an isolating language, is about as fusional as English (each has about a dozen inflections). Vietnamese would be a better example. Polysynthesis is only loosely defined, but the general idea is that such languages can create complex words that have to be represented by whole sentences in other languages.

  8. David Marjanović says

    B. So, what’s ergativity? Do I need to learn Basque to find out?

    I’d recommend the opposite approach… 🙂 Anyway, a good, short, simple explanation of ergativity is here.

    3. I thought I was getting this one, but what’s the difference between agglutinative and polysynthetic?

    Agglutinative is about how morphemes are put together, polysynthetic is about how many can end up in one… morphological word.

    And why not mention which one English is?

    English is neither. 🙂

  9. Re IV: The idea, if I get it right, is that statistical machine translation does not use syntactic rules and doesn’t know that “I talk to the boy” is the most relevant model.

  10. Max,

    re Japanese: right??? A) the cartoon treats each character, whether kanji or hiragana, as if it were a word and, more importantly, B) the concept of configurationality is, to put it mildly, total bullshit. It assumes, as most products of the particular flavor of Chomskyanism where it originated, a binary distinction where there are several options. In this case, the assumption is that all lamguages are either like English where thr constituent order is semi-rigid or that they’re not and their constituent order is free. In fact, the constituent order in Japanese is far less free than that of a typical “configurational” language like Hungarian, but is constrained by information structure.

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