Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's turtles round and round

Part I
I've been trying to understand categories better, and one of the books I've been reading in pursuit of this goal is George Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. In fact, a few nights ago, I fell asleep reading it, and it must have stirred something in my mind because the next morning in the shower, it occurred to me that perhaps categories are just a distraction and it's really properties we should be looking at.
The category of red things is just a human convenience. But red is a property. Almost immediately, though, I realized that red is a category of electromagnetic waves and that electromagnetic waves are themselves a category. And from there, well, it's turtles all the way down. I set the idea aside as I dried myself and got ready to leave home.

Part II
When I got to work, our Blackboard system was down, so I couldn't do the grading I had intended to do. Distractedly I opened the Simple English Wiktionary and saw that somebody had edited the entry for preposition pace. The change was an improvement on, what I thought was a rather odd previous definition. Going through the history, though, I noticed that the older definition was one I had provided. Curious about what I had been thinking, I went to the OED's entry for pace. There I found the following example:
1995   Computers & Humanities 29 404/1,   I do not believe, pace Peirce and Derrida, that it is signs all the way down.
This struck me as a huge coincidence. The expression shows up in the Corpus of Contemporary American English about once per 150 million words. I had encountered it, or a variation thereof, twice in a morning.

Part III
I looked up the expression and found that Wikipedia has an entry (linked above). One of the citations listed there is due to John (Haj) Ross's 1967 linguistics dissertation Constraints on Variables in Syntax. I followed the link and opened up his dissertation, which indeed contains the story with the line "It's turtles all the way down."
On the next page was the Acknowledgements, which list a number of linguists, but on page x, Ross writes,
This thesis is an integral part of a larger theory of grammar which George Lakoff and I have been collaborating on for the past several years.
This is, of course, the same Lakoff whose book I had been reading the night before.

1 comment:

Q Higuchi said...

Ah, the turtles in Ross 1967 (later published as _Infinite Syntax!_). Oh, and Generative Semantics never dies - in my heart anyway. I think you will enjoy _The Linguistic Wars_ by R. A. Harris (1993) if you haven't read it.