Jan. 15th, 2012 07:49 pm
philena: (dampskunk)
[personal profile] philena
Occasionally when I'm talking to Mr. Philena I feel that it's very important to make a point clearly that he is either not particularly interested in, or else already understands perfectly without my elaborate clarifications. A situation like that arose today, and it occurred to me that this languishing journal is a good place to type it all out to my satisfaction.

In todays New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle, the clue to 13-across was "Star Trek weapon," to which the answer, of course, is "phaser."* Easy enough, and I'm always pleased to see Star Trek make its way into crossword puzzles. The problem came, however, with 9-across, whose clue read "Uses a 13-across on." Well, what can you do with phasers? You can stun someone with them or kill someone with them (they have only those two settings), or more generally shoot someone or fire them at someone. However, "stuns", "kills," "shoots," and "fires at" did not work.** The answer, it turned out, was "zaps." "Zaps"!! That is absurd. No one "zaps" a phaser in Star Trek. "Zaps" is appropriate for people who don't actually know the right terminology for phasers, and that makes this clue particularly lousy. 13-across evokes a particular setting, and usually when that happens in crossword puzzles the answer uses terminology from that setting. If the answer to 13-across had been "basketball," and the clue to 9-across something like "give a 13-across to a teammate," the answer would not be "throw;" it would be "pass" or "assist" or some term that is appropriate to basketball. In fact, in this Star Trek case the answer is so incredibly wrong that it's as if the answer in the basketball analogy had been "lateral"--not just overly generic, but in fact appropriate for a completely different setting (here, football, where passes can be called "laterals"). There may be science fiction worlds where the verb appropriate for phaser-like weapons is "zap," but in Star Trek they just don't do that.

*It could also have been "photon torpedo" or, if you are thinking about other common species, a Klingon "disrupter" or Vulcan "lirpa" or any of a number of other weapons--all nicely laid out here. "Phaser," however, is the most common and it fit in the space provided, and also worked with 14, 15, 17 and 18-down.

**Inflection and argument structure of the answers always match inflection and argument structure of the clue.

I figure that since I'm typing here now, I might as well mention something else that has been on my mind--none of the strident outrage tediously described above, but instead a memory of my very first consciously designed linguistic experiment. But first, a bit of background. In many languages (and by "many" I mean "English, Russian, Polish, and French" although I'm fairly sure it's pretty common and just can't be bothered to look it up) the word for language and the word for tongue are the same. English has language, but it also uses tongue to mean the same thing ("speak in tongues," "mother tongue", etc.) Russian язык and cognate Polish język, French langue--all refer both to a language and to the muscular hydrostat inside our mouths. I don't know if I knew this in second grade (I probably didn't know about the other languages, but I might have known the English usage of tongue), but I do remember the day I discovered that I used my tongue to talk. I must have had some suspicion that the tongue might be involved, but I was suspicious, because talking felt very different from consciously using my tongue to probe at loose teeth (second grade, remember) or stick it out at my sister. So one day at recess I made sure no one was around, opened my mouth, and started flopping my tongue around randomly while saying a vowel sound that started as a neutral schwa. The prediction was that, if the tongue is used for speech, then the noise coming out of my mouth should change when my tongue moved, while if it was not used for speech, the movement of the tongue should have no effect on the sounds I produced. (I don't remember forming any alternative hypothesis about how speech sounds are made in case the second prediction had been borne out.) Well, sure enough, my neutral "uh" turned into a set of garbled moaning noises, and I concluded that the tongue is used for speech sounds after all. 

I'm very fond of this memory, because it helps me remember not only one of my first linguistic discoveries*, but also my first and perhaps only truly unbiased experiments. I had absolutely no stake in the outcome, no theoretical claim that I was hoping would be supported--just a question that I wanted to answer and did answer. In fact, this experiment would have been an extremely good example for an experimental methods class, now that I think about it more. My advisor has a really nice five-step system for describing any theoretical investigation, and little second-grade Philena's experiment was a terrific example of how it works:

1. Big question (here: is the tongue used in talking?)

2. Significance of that question (here: I want to know more about how we talk)

3. Specific research question that can be used to answer the big question, along with the warrant for its appropriateness (Here: if I move my tongue around while saying "uh," does the sound I'm making change? Warrant: If the tongue is used in talking, which involves making different sounds, then moving my tongue around should have some effect on the production of different sounds, regardless of whether they are actual sounds of the language I'm speaking.)

4. Answer to specific research question : (Here: yes)

5. Answer to big question: (Here: yes)

I can only hope that my dissertation work is as well-designed as this experiment was.

*An earlier discovery was that words mean things. I have another memory of being really tiny and singing in the back seat of the car to entertain myself. I knew that it was more fun to use words rather than random sounds, but I didn't have much in the way of words to use, so I fell back on one of the sequences that I was good at--namely, "I have to go to the bathroom." As soon as this was out of my mouth, my mother said very quickly, "Do you actually have to go to the bathroom?" and I quickly reassured her that I was fine (feeling kind of perplexed at the time--didn't she realize that I was just singing?), but I didn't use that particular speech sequence any more for self entertainment.

Date: 2012-01-19 04:05 am (UTC)
summercomfort: (Default)
From: [personal profile] summercomfort
I guess so. (I felt so bad for that guy who lost in the movie.)


philena: (Default)

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