Thursday, 10 July 2008

This post may leave you nonplussed

This discussion on ask metafilter (and yes, I'm going to keep starting my posts like that until you guys start reading it...) led me to (and reminded me of) a whole bunch of linguistic goodies.

I was already aware of the excellent Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo and Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den. I'm always less impressed by the more common ambiguous sentences that are usually trotted out in these kind of discussions because it seems like they generally rely on a specific absence of punctuation to provide their ambiguity.

Something linked from the discussion that I was not previously aware of is the concept of Garden Path sentences. These take advantage of the way our brains process sentences word by word to confuse us - the first portion of the sentence appears to lead us in one direction (up the garden path) before a word at the end changes the meaning of the whole thing. The mental dissonance is so great that it generally requires you to go back and read the whole sentence again to pick up the actual meaning. In addition to the wikipedia article, there's a list of them here.

On the subject of sentences that take a second or two to unravel, I don't know if there's a particular name for it, but I love the idea that "The mouse the cat the dog bit chased ran away" is a grammatically correct sentence.

And in terms of strange constructions, a while ago I came across the concept of a "quine". In computing, it's a self-replicating program, while in linguistics it's a sentence fragment, which, when combined with itself in quotation marks, forms a complete sentence. There seems to be no resource for this idea (it's not even in wikipedia), but it appears to originate in a fairly obscure book by Douglas Hofstadter. Without more resources to link to, there's not a lot else I can say about this, but an example of a quine would be "is written on old jars of mustard to keep them fresh", since

"is written on old jars of mustard to keep them fresh" is written on old jars of mustard to keep them fresh.

is a grammatically correct sentence. If not a logical one.

And finally, we remind ourselves of the delightfully contradictory two meanings of the word "nonplussed".

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