Great Difficulty

I’m currently reading with great difficulty Stephen Pinker’s newest, Words and Rules. My intellectual capacity is actually no longer quite up to the challenge, but even partial understanding is great fun. Fun, of course, is relative. I can understand that there are persons for whom three hundred copiously footnoted, closely packed pages explicating current theory on the formation of English regular vs. irregular verbs would be less than entertaining. Those persons might not obtain the aha experience I enjoyed upon reading: “English phonology doesn’t allow a long vowel to precede a consonant cluster at the end of a syllable unless all the consonants are produced with the tip of the tongue”. Pinker throws this in for the benefit of those who might have questioned his earlier statement that “toask”, unlike “toast,” is not a possible word in English. But he’s far from all work and no play, as the book is larded with delightful lines that keep me reading despite only partial understanding.E.g. “Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien; beloved from coast to coast for mangling the two national languages with equal proficiency….”

And now, the pop quiz: When was “oink” first used in print as a verb? Pinker would, of course, have got his answer from the newest release of the OED, which I don’t have. Ooooh. I see that I’ve at least partly given myself away, so I might as well give the answer now. It’s later than you’d think. It’s 1969, this being one of the few exceptions I’ve seen to the general rule that word usages are always far older than I’d have thought possible.

And oh yes, for those who wish to cut to the chase, Pinker’s thesis, for which he uses those three hundred pages to make a seemingly airtight case, is that when you need a past tense verb, you first check your memory for an irregular form. These have to be memorized since there are no good rules for the generation of irregular past tense forms. If you do not get a hit in memory, then you apply the past tense generation rule to get the correct form. All this, of course, takes place in a fraction of a second.

My previous reading of any note was the last half of Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, subtitled John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. The first half, that dealing with Powell’s running of the Colorado River, I had read a couple of years ago and for some reason set the book aside, leaving Stegner’s treatment of the remainder of this astonishing man’s life for later.

It seems that I postponed a treat. Powell is just fascinating, and Stegner writes entertainingly. Case in point: On page 263, which I selected more or less at random, are two eminently quotable lines. Stegner is discussing James Constantine Pilling, the man who, devoted to Powell, devoted twenty years to the compilation of the first bibliography of American Indian tribes by linguistic affinity, a “vast tome…which grew as Pilling’s sight weakened.” Another of Powell’s associates said Pilling “reminded him of George Hurst, who in Tucson was bitten on the privates by a scorpion, which fell dead.”

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