uStretching the Language. Electronic shorthand and linguistic creativity.
uAgamemnon T. Collywobbles Says: 1251. Lovable spam.
uThe Editor's Art. My understanding of my profession.
uQuotation Mark Abuse. My theory of the origins of an aberrant practice.
uThe Problem of Metaphor in Linguistic Theory. Paper written while I was an undergraduate at Boston University in 1971.
uI Can Explain.  The logic of grammatical rules.
 u   “Due to”
u   “Different from” (T.K.)
u   “One of those that are” (T.K.)
u   Dangling modifiers (T.K.)
u   “Which”/“that” (T.K.)
u   “Based on”/“on the basis of” (T.K.)
u   Present subjunctive (T.K.)
uDefinite and Indefinite Articles.  A guide for English learners.
uNotes from Sanskrit class, November 1998
uProposed research topic #1:  programmers’ accents
uProposed research topic #2:  funny words
uSimiles with “like” and “as”:  not the way you learned it (T.K.)
uUnsolved Mysteries.  Grammatical problems I don't know the answer to.  (T.K.)



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Stretching the Language
It seems to me that the spammers have been getting more innovative lately, with their ‘v1@gra’ and their ‘d1sc0unt’, their ‘perscriptions’ and their ‘enla gement’. Once you stop spelling keywords correctly in order to dodge the filters, there is a virtual infinitude of possibilitiespossibilities that still manage to communicate the intended idea. Clearly spammers are relying on the recipients’ ability to make spontaneous substitutions of correct forms for deliberately corrupted ones, and I find this expectation intriguing.

     The spam-barrier-breaking variations on standard spelling appear to bear a close relation to the popular conventions seen among users of instant messaging and other rapid-fire keystroke-conservative types of electronic communicationsimilar in some ways to the teletype operators’ shorthand of bygone years. I’m referring to such forms as these:

lol (and its many enhanced forms, chiefly ‘rofl’)
not to mention idiosyncratic expressions along these lines:
ru ok
u no
water u up 2?
u sux
dass coo
     Of course, this is not a new phenomenon; advertising, marketing, and product branding and packaging have been perpetrating such assaults on the language for generations:
     I wouldn't discount the effects of simple ignorance, either, but that is a bit harder to catalog.
     Separate but related forms of shorthand are those we refer to as “emoticons” or “smileys,” typographical representations of facial expressions such as :( and 8O that stand in for or serve as qualifiers to written words. Like the stage directions we often see attached to written remarks in electronic messages (<grinning>, <blushing modestly>, <cheering, stamping feet and whistling>, and so on), they both cue the recipient to the tone of the words and convey more personal presence than the remote medium of written language usually does. In passing I note two instances of those forms’ coming back around startlingly into another medium:  first, my manager posted a handwritten PTO message on her office door and added a :) smileysideways, as if it were typed; and second, I heard my son say aloud to his friend in pleased acknowledgment of a compliment, “Colon capital D.”
     Professionally, I am interested in these departures from standard written forms in much the same way as Howard Chace was interested in how far one could depart from standard pronunciation of English words and still communicate intelligibly in speech. His “Ladle Rat Rotten Hut” and other “Anguish Languish” stories were written to test his ideas about spoken communication. As an editor and compulsive proofreader, I am committed to upholding the standards and conventions of English spelling and grammar; but I also serve the ideal of effective communication as it evolves under the influences of culture and technology. How far you can deviate from universally understood forms of written language and still convey meaning is an interesting question, one on which several dissertations pertaining to electronic messaging are undoubtedly already in progress.
     In my inexhaustive analysis, I would say that two factors are key to interpreting these blends of literal and symbolic representation: context and phonetics. Given the expectation that the standard character set is going to be used in nonstandard ways (itself a learned and context-dependent assumption), we read them by allowing ourselves to employ several kinds of right- and left-brain processes at the same time, using conventions we have already mastered as units, the way fluent readers read whole words (such as ‘lol’), with a little free association mixed inall heavily mediated by the contexts of medium, subject, and situation as well as established common ground with our correspondents. When Dick and I, for instance, write ‘wfd’, it is unmistakably a meal-planning inquiry and not “World Federation of the Deaf”or “World’s Fastest Drummer.”
     The phonetic aspect intrigues me more than context because it is entirely dependent on a mastery of standard English pronunciation, awareness of homophones (e.g., 2 for “to”), and a strong enough sense of English spelling and syllabication patterns to enable us to switch from one to another smoothly in midword to produce an intelligible whole. The expression “l8r” consists of

a phonetic / l / sound
a verbal reading of 8 as “eight” with a transformation into the homophone “ate”
a phonetic rendering of the name of the letter R as “are,” softened to the unaccented “er”


Perfectly plain to a keyboard-savvy electronic messagist, it could conceivably be mystifying to a non-native speaker of English and utterly impenetrable to someone whose knowledge of English relies on a dictionary. In this way the shorthand becomes a kind of shibboleth separating those who know the lingo from those who don't.
     I am curious about how this phenomenon plays out among speakers of other languages. I asked a German-speaking woman who uses instant messaging with her family and friends back home if German users of AIM did similar things to their language in sending messages, and I have to believe they do, but she seemed to find my question as incomprehensible as did the Russian whom I asked if Russian dictionaries had pronunciation guides at the bottom of the page (“Of course notwe know how to pronounce our language,” he said.).
     But even more, I am interested in seeing how our own language is affected. Capitalization, for instance, will never be the same once we’ve grown used to seeing our own names all in lowercase. As a professional editor I consider it my business to act as a guardian of the proper standards of the languagebut also to be open to manifestations of its organic growth and evolution. I think the two greatest influences on our language at the present time are multiculturalism and high-tech. (A few decades ago I would have said it was advertising, but now I think advertising is following the trends and not setting them.) While a population that eschews many of the complex and subtle forms of the language and its inexhaustible vocabulary in favor of basic functional elements is shrinking the language, inventors not just of new terms for new concepts and devices but of new ways of writing old ones are stretching it. What neither systematic attempts at linguistic reform nor the effects of erosion by unmitigated ignorance have accomplished may be achieved naturally and offhandedly in the long term by youngsters like my son and his friends sitting at keyboards in their respective rooms and typing on their computers to each other:
[he]:  gtg
[she]:  y?
[he]:  din :D
[she]:  k-l8r
[he]:  cya 2moro
[This article was published in the January 2004 issues of Of Mice and Mensa, the newsletter of Monterey County (California) Mensa, edited by Betty Curry, and The 4M, the newsletter of Manasota (Florida) Mensa, edited by Edgar Coudal.]

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Agamemnon T. Collywobbles Says: 1251
My personal e-mail inbox is by no means spam-free, but I’ve developed a pretty good set of filters using such subject keywords as ‘prescription,’ ‘cruise,’ ‘inkjet,’ and ‘credit’ (and some deliberate variants, such as ‘v-iagra’ and ‘v1@gra’), as well as a set of  “from” names that includes a selection from this very helpful list of Internet country codes:
I do have to review my trash folder regularly to make sure that no legitimate correspondence about, say, enlargement or bankruptcy slips by and no messages from my .ca relatives get missed. And that’s how I came to notice the 1251 series.
     These are spam messages whose subject lines all begin ‘=?windows-1251?B?’. The content of these messages is invariably of the ‘ïîçäðàâëÿåì Âàñ ñ Íîâûì Ãîäîì’ variety, and they seem to originate in Poland, to judge from this line in one of the headers:
     X-AntiVirus: skaner antywirusowy poczty Wirtualnej Polski S. A.
What distinguishes them from other spam messages is the “from” line. The first of those that caught my eye was Brighton I. Jellyfish. After that, I began to watch for them. Here’s the start of my collection:
Brighton I. Jellyfish
Petrol T. Corduroy
Tome P. Sanitary
Khabarovsk I. Tuxedos
     If you can read that list without cracking a smile, try these, all solemnly represented as the senders of important messages to my inbox:
Church J. Plating
Catalogue R. Hooch
Appurtenance M. Tooted
Prince E. Baleen
Zions P. Pinioned
Several of those noms-de-spam launched a major laughing trip that left me blinded by tears and hugging my sides with pain. As if those weren’t enough, I howled at these:
Ocular A. Meditation
Looney O. Bleeped
Arturo G. Unwed
Accustoming J. Filmiest
     It isn’t just the unexpected conjunctions of verbiage that makes them so funny, although the mind’s automatic impulse to resolve them into a coherent idea does cause little mental train wrecks that could bring on a case of hysterics in the highly susceptible. It’s the inspired presence of those formal-sounding middle initials, which take them out of the realm of word pairs and mark them clearly as Western-style appellations. Anyone can concoct incongruous combinations of words, but perceiving them as if they were real names, initial caps and all, produces a brain tickle of the first order.
     Notice that the use of a middle initial is more effectiveand infinitely more hilariousthan would be the inclusion of a third word as a middle name.
     In the midst of my genuine delight in these serendipitous and almost daily gifts to my home e-mail, I became curious about how they were generated. It seems obvious that they must be churned out by some algorithm rather than by someone’s actually leafing through the dictionary and picking out English words. The combinations seem too arbitrary to have been consciously chosen, even by a non-English speaker, and I can’t imagine a spammer’s doing much of anything by hand.
     But they don’t seem to be just any words. A purely random pick from a standard dictionary would turn up huge numbers of terms far out of the mainstream of English usage, terms associated with various specialties and professions and disciplines. Of the more than 500,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, only about 50,000 or so would be in the vocabulary of the average educated speaker of English, according to various online sources. Most of the rest are technical terms of some kind, unintelligible to most of us. On the other hand, the word lists and vocabulary lists that abound on the Internet do not typically contain proper names like Khabarovsk (a city in eastern Russia) and Brighton (a coastal resort south of London, with namesakes elsewhere). The only lists I could find that included both of those and Arturo were a list of cheap hotels worldwide and a list of English-based terms whose actual purpose I was unable to divine, buried deep in a German site dedicated to open-source software (here it is, in TinyURL form: The latter looked as if it could have been gleaned from English websites all over the world and included, curiously, ‘Asilomar’ and ‘mensa’ along with ‘Agamemnon’ and ‘tergiversator’ and ‘collywobbles’ and a plethora of other expressions that one is hardly likely to find in everyday use. (My research suggests that the list is an adjunct to a search engine of some kind and that it is possible to use such a list for spamming purposes.)
     What I am wondering about these spam names is what caused them to be grouped togetherwhat kind of premise for a list or what algorithm seeking what kind of characteristics it would have taken to pull them out of the universe of English words and put them in one place. This is a question about words and their traits and commonalities and not a question about spammers: to generate fictitious names of that particular sort, the spam-sending or list-generating tool must have defined rules of some kind that resulted in a source list for those names, or a real person or persons must have gathered them for some purpose other than the one to which the spam sender has put them. What were the rules? What do the words have in common? That is the question that is teasing my mind while I enjoy the possibly unintended results of someone’s misguided attempts to sell me something in Polish. Is anyone among our readers wise to this particular spammy gimmick, and if so, can you explain it? I am thinking that it might reveal something interesting as well as entertaining about our language if we knew how these words were chosen.
     I suppose it’s possible that they were never chosen at all but were merely some spellchecker’s nearest match for letter groupings that have no meaning whatsoever in English; but that notion steals all the poetry from this amusing conceit, and so I prefer not to consider it while other options remain.
     Meanwhile, I now look forward to my daily download of spam, hoping that the day’s catch of sender names will include such 1251-series gems as these, all of which outstrip the limits of my imagination:
Cookery O. Limiest
Godliness I. Jauntiness
Nanoseconds B. Iberian
Tit R. Effulgent
Who’s been writing to you lately?

[This article was published in the February 2004 issue of Intelligencer, the newsletter of San Francisco Regional Mensa, edited by David Kirby.]

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The Editor's Art
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Quotation Mark Abuse
A fellow editor recently referred me to the gallery of “misused” quotation marks.  No observant user of English can have failed to notice instances of the kinds of abuses documented at this site.
     As it happens, I have thought about this phenomenon and have a theory of how this oddly persistent punctuational malpractice started and took root in our culture.
    I think that it probably follows the addition to the set of common (U.S. culture) gestural language the two-fingered, two-handed quotation-marks-in-the-air, which came on the scene sometime in the seventies,  I would say, spread or maybe even invented by some TV personality such as a talk-show host (Johnny Carson?).  This gesture was not always there; it wasn't there, and then it was.  It could only have come about in a live-action visual medium with widespread impact and generalizable subject matter.  Only television fits that criterion.  I don't think we saw it before the seventies.
     When people use the gesture, which is meaningless unless it is seen to accompany a voiced expression, they typically add an emphasis to the vocal utterance.  It is most often a slightly stagey, sometimes ironic emphasis.
     I think that to some segment of the population, the same segment to whom educational values might be low to middle and to whom the idea of thinking about the true meaning and appropriateness of marks of punctuation would be as alien as, let’s say, the study of exobotany, the significance of setting off in quotes an expression that is not to be taken quite literally whether because the term is not a fully legitimate expression, such as a coinage, or the intent is to qualify with the sense of “so-called,”or they are so-called “horror quotes” by which the writer disowns the expressionis entirely lost.  Instead, I propose, that gesture and the accompanying emphasis translated into the notion that the quotation marks confer the emphasis.  (I think any irony in the emphasis would be imperceptible to someone who perceived no cause for the irony.)  So I think that when they write them, those people are using the quotation marks as an auditory cue (because they are of course writing down speechthey are not regarding written composition as a separate art):  they are calling upon the reader to hear the vocal stress that would be used while scratching the digital quotation marks in the air.  It is a visual enhancement, an effective device that is simpler than changing color, using bold or caps, or employing other graphic devices to draw attention to some part of a message.
     The interesting paradox there is that it takes some degree of literacy to interpret the two little pairs of marks as a meaningful element of the message, unlike larger type or a change of color, which has an effect without passing through an interpretive process.
     The practice did not have to reach a high degree of saturation from that origin.  It only had to spread enough so that other people began to infer the intended emphasis from the usage and employ the marks themselves for the same purpose, probably without reference to or indeed any connection to the gesture.
     I don’t think this aberration has anything whatsoever to do with misused apostrophes.  Misuse of apostrophes, especially for plurals, has been going on longer and follows very different patterns from the misused quotes.  However, I do think that the nationwide decline in educational values together with the upsurge in numbers of non-native English users has created, as it were, a fertile medium for the culture of this particular germ.


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I Can Explain
The Logic of Grammatical Rules
Due to
To give a reason for something, we have the expressions “due to” and “caused by,” on the one hand, and “because of” and “on account of,” on the other.  “Due to” and “caused by” can be used interchangeably with each other, but not interchangeably with “because of” and “on account of.”  If “because of” is right in a sentence, then “due to” is necessarily wrong.  The reason is in the meanings of the words, which include their parts of speech.
     Take this situation:  Sylvia is absent.  Sylvia is ill.
     If we want to construct a single sentence that gives illness as the reason for Sylvia’s absence, we have to build it with one of the phrases that state a reason.  But which one?  Here’s a common—and incorrect—way of saying it:
NOSylvia is absent due to illness.

     “Due,” in the sense that concerns us here, means “capable of being attributed.” “Due to” means “capable of being attributed to.”  It’s an adjective.  As such, it can be used only as an adjective can be used:  to modify a noun.  The words being modified here is “absent,” and it’s not a noun.  It’s an adjective.

     To modify an adjective, you need an adverb.  “Because of” and “on account of” are adverbial phrases.  Their job is to modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.  When we want to say “Sylvia  is absent” rather than “Sylvia’s absence,” and give a reason for it, then we have to turn to adverbs to modify the word.
NOSylvia is absent due to illness.
YESSylvia is absent on account of illness.
YESSylvia is absent because of illness.

     If we want to talk about “absence,” the noun, that’s when we can use “due to.”  “Due to” and “caused by” are both adjectival phrases that modify nouns.  “Caused by” is just like any other past participle used as an adjective; it doesn’t confuse us much.  Common use may make “due to” sound normal to our ear even when it’s wrong, but we don’t make the same mistake with “caused by.”  So here’s the test:  if “caused by” does work, then “due to” works too.

NOSylvia is absent caused by illness.
YESSylvia’s absence is caused by illness.
YESSylvia’s absence is due to illness.

So here’s the rule:

     To give a reason for a noun, use “due to” and “caused by.”
     To give a reason for an adjective, adverb, or verb, use “because of” or “on account of.”

(Thank you, John S. Hofferty.)


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Definite and Indefinite Articles:  Hints and Helps
by Jean M. Smith
This guide was developed by my mother, Jean Mullen Smith, while she was teaching English to ESL students at Northeastern University.  I found point C, about establishing identity, to be a particularly good explanation of a difficult grammatical concept.

A.  Noncount vs. Count Nouns
Use “a” or “an” only with count nouns and only when they are in singular form. 

1.A count noun is one that can be counted:   egg   apple   chair   dog
2.A noncount noun usually refers to a substance or to an abstract quality:
Substance:   milk   salad   bread   homework   furniture   software
Abstract quality or state:   freedom   kindness   fear   transportation   courage   safety   success   knowledge   advice   (more about this in part E)
3.Certain noncount nouns are countable when they refer to units:
Substance:   steak   dessert   time   fish   fire   pie   radio
Abstract word:  friendship  beauty   liberty   weakness   reality
4.These noncount nouns are always singular in form:
The word “news,” although plural in form, is always treated as singular.

 B.  Use of the Definite Article “the” Has Particular Meanings in English.
Use “a” or “an” only with count nouns and only when they are in singular form.

1.When talking about objects in general, or about all of anything, OMIT “the.”
Men are stronger than women.
Grapes are my favorite fruit.
He achieved success.
2.“The” can occur with both count and noncount nouns, but it always indicates a particular person or object.
Please return the pen.  You can keep the paper and the envelope.
The student explained to the instructor why she had to drop the course.
3.Use “the” (not “a,” “an,” or “some”) when the identity of the person or thing you are talking about is clear both to you and to the person you are addressing.
Did you find the exam very hard?
Pass your paper to the student on your left.


C.  Using “the” Means Establishing Identity.
How is this done?

1.The identity is clear when a person or thing has just been mentioned.
Here is a pen.  Please return the pen when you are through with it.
2.Identity may be established by a clause or a phrase in the same sentence.
The pen that you gave me doesn’t write.
The clock on the wall is wrong.
3.Identity may be inferred from the situation itself.
Where did you park the car?  (only one car)
I went to the post office.
Please close the door.  (the one that’s open)
Are you a friend of the bride or of the groom?
Where is the thesis stated in the essay?
Did you feed the cat?
4.The identity may be obvious because of the uniqueness of the person or thing.
The sun is our source of heat and light.
American children salute the flag in school every day.
I keep in touch with the Immigration Office.
5.Using cardinal numbers and superlatives establishes definite identity.
The first speaker was excellent, but the second one was boring.
He is the worst landlord in Boston.
Of all my teachers, I like Professor Moore the best.


D.  Use “the” Also in the Following Situations:

1.With such phrases as “several of,” “a few of,” “many of,” “one of.”  They are referring to a definite group.
Many of the apples were bruised.
Most of the children came from poor families.
A few of the boxes fell off the truck.
One of the workers was fired.
Note that the noun, or object, in each of these prepositional phrases is plural, because it represents a group.
2.When referring to a singular noun as though it were a class:
The piano is my favorite instrument.
The car is no longer a luxury.  (This is the same as saying “Cars are…” or “A car is…”)
3.When referring to the remainder of count units:
(5 pencils)I’ll take one, and you can have the rest.
I’ll keep these four.  You can have the one that’s left.
(2 books)You take one, and I’ll take the other.


E. Do Not Use “the” Before Abstract or General Nouns Unless You Are Referring to a Specific Situation.

I came here to seek freedom.The teacher denied the class the freedom to ask questions.
Love is the basis for a good marriage.The love of one’s family brings one much happiness.
Women look for strength in the men they marry.A child depends on the strength of his parents.

F.  Many Different Rules Govern the Use of the Article Before Proper Nouns.
Some examples:

1.Never use “a” or “an” with a proper noun.
2.Do not use “the” before the name of a country unless the name involves its particular governmental or geographical status:
England - the United Kingdom
America - the United States
Russia - the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
3.Use “the” when the name includes the word “of”:
the Union of South Africa
the University of Ohio
the Strait of Gibraltar
Since the rules on the use of articles with proper names vary greatly, it is best to consult a textbook or other reference source that explains the general practice and gives examples.

Copyright © 1990 Jean M. Smith.

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Notes from Sanksrit class, 1998
Sanskrit Class #1
East West Books, 10/7/98
Sarasvati Mohan, Ph.D.

Devanagari:  “Every letter has power.”  Mystical power of the letters themselves.  Sounds of the letters come from Shiva’s drum.  Oral tradition since 2000 BC.  Therefore correct pronunciation extremely important.

Of all the languages in the world, Skt is the only one that computers can read and understand.  Computer people are flocking to study it.

Sanskrit Class #2
East West Books, 10/14/98
Sarasvati Mohan, Ph.D.

Daivi Vâk “divine speech”—the language
Devanâgarî “—the script

Samskrti means, “culture,” “sophistication”

Sanskrit Class #4
East West Books, 10/28/98
Sarasvati Mohan, Ph.D.

Skt is parent of all north Indian languages.  Southern:  Dravidian—already in place.  Adopted/integrated Skt as it came along.
All the literature is Skt, or comes from; overwhelmed, overlaid existing literature.
Skt is oldest language family in Indo-European family—older than Latin, until recently thought to be oldest.

Buddhism could not survive in India because ahimsa forbids sacrifice.
India has 33 billion gods.

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Proposed Research Topic #1:
Programmers' Accents
On the one hand, we know that programming languages, from BASIC to Java, are nothing like natural languages.  They are highly formalized and structured systems for encoding data to be acted upon and operations to be performed by a computer.  To call them “languages” at all is metaphorical.  On the other hand, we know that programmers working in the same coding language and therefore under the same rules, with the same symbols and tools and functions, nonetheless have individual styles and ways of using the code, not just at the design and problem-solving level but right down to variable-naming conventions and ways of executing a single operation.
     Here’s my question:  Does the programmer’s native spoken language influence his use of coding language?  Does a Japanese programmer in COBOL, say, use COBOL in ways that are predictably different from an American programmer’s COBOL code, and do those ways somehow have a parallel in the structure, form, and logic of their natural languages?  Can you detect a German accent, a Chinese accent, a Hindi accent in code written in a high-level language?—and I mean in the code itself, and not in comment lines and fieldnames.  How about in assembler?
     In answer to the question, my guess is that it does.  Assuming that one’s mother tongue influences one’s thought patterns and one’s reasoning methods, I would venture the hypothesis that its characteristics will be reflected somehow in the way one uses an artificial language.  One of the things I would investigate, purely out of curiosity, if I had a dozen more lifetimes and careers to play out, would be the question of whether, given the right programming and linguistic knowledge and the right analytical tools, a person could identify the native language of a programmer purely by examining his computer code.


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Proposed Research Topic #2:
Funny Words
Some combinations of sounds, and indeed some combinations of letters, have the power to tickle the funnybone.  Both actual words and nonwords may seem inherently funny.  Some may set one person laughing and leave another flat, and some may seem undistinguished on first hearing but on repetition devolve into something that sounds utterly ludicrous.
     Does any of these nonsense words strike you funny?  They were generated automatically by a program that takes in a collection of words, analyzes it, and generates new strings based on the same patterns.  The strings have characteristic patterns, letter frequencies, and combinations derived from the source words, and so their native language can be recognizable even though they are not what we would call “real” words.  An infinite number can be created, but this is just a tiny sample for illustrative purposes:
And one of my personal favorites, a blend that takes a marketeer's wild-eyed superlatives and pushes them right over the top:  MAXIMULTIMAJORMORMORTEGALTI.

     (I wouldn't look for too much similarity to English words here, though:  the input was names of gods and names of car models.  When I did this, I was trying to generate a name for a new product.)
     What makes any or all of these sound funny enough to laugh at?  I don’t know, but I think their appeal is related to the same impulse that makes a little kid repeat a nonsense sound like "foo foo" and laugh till he falls down.  I also think it's amazing that the same sounds strike us funny.  I wonder if anybody has done a cross-cultural study on that.  Now, there's a dissertation I'd simply love to write with another one of those lifetimes of study that I’d like to have:  a cross-linguistic study of what funny nonwords makes people in each of a dozen or so language groups giggle themselves silly.
     Whatever human beings may have to be ashamed of, I think it's an honor to belong to a species that laughs at funny sounds.


OSV Order in English Sentences

Orthography Is the Word's Memory

All Words Are Nouns

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