Donald A. Burquest

Poetry about Linguistics

These poems were written to be read orally on the last day of class, in commemoration of that occassion. "We Privileged Few" is for an introductory class in linguistics, for which 3311 and 5300 are the undergraduate and graduate course numbers, respectively. The Odes are for foundational courses in phonology and syntax.

We Privileged Few

Linguistics thirty-three eleven
Is—let's just say it—made in heaven,
And joined with five three double-oh,
If not prime time, it's still a show.

The fact that we communicate
(Although we sometimes irritate)
Is so amazing! To this day
"Miraculous!" is all I can say.

And what that shows is phones and stuff
And phonemes aren't just bits of fluff,
For morphemes built of these combine
With others to make words sublime.

And sentences! Oh, there are so many,
If for each one we had a penny
We would be so full of cash
No bank could ever hold our stash.

It's all because our three-pound brain
With UG stuffed inside our cran-
Ium is not just something yucky.
We're humans—Oh! we are so lucky!

Of course, it's not just sounds and words
And sentences. That thought's absurd!
It's too the meanings we convey,
In fact it's that which makes our day.

For when a person kind should deign
To speak to us with good words plain,
We have to smile, we can't resist!
That puts them topmost on our list.

And so, dear friends of class just past,
Let's all admit it's been a blast.
We linguists are a privileged bunch
To get to feast on words as lunch.

Now it's on to what's to follow.
We need much more to fill this hollow
Place where knowledge needs to root.
So courses more, and more to boot!

Meanwhile I won't be sitting by,
So someday from the clear blue sky
Our paths may cross yet once again.
I hope so. And I'll see you then.


Ode to Three-Dimensional Phonology
upon the last day of class

It's still the case that some might say
Phonology is all passé.
It's syntax that should have the glory,
Or better yet, text is the story.

But wait a moment, would you please?
Let's just sit back and take our ease
And think about what's come to pass
That gives phonology real class.

I speak of tier-based organization,
And principled association
Of autosegments, fresh as roses,
Physically based, yet each language disposes.

These autosegments make me smile,
For it's this notion gives us style
And frees poor features locked in braces
To let them roam over wider spaces.

And with a CV tier at core
To build a syllable is no chore—
We glide, delete, and then—surprise!—
Sometimes we even epenthesize.

But even if all that should fail,
Exceptions stand clad in chain mail,
We still can turn to lexical strata
To help us see just what's the matta.

And so, my friends, do not despair!
Drink deep of sounds without a care!
'Cause this be true whate'er abounds:
There ain't no language if there ain't no sounds.*

*This is, of course, poetic license. Various "signed" languages have all the stunning complexity and elegance of expression of spoken language.


Ode to Principles and Parameters Theory
upon the last day of class

Transformational Grammar,
It's wonderful stuff.
It makes you feel all soft and silky,
Not calloused and rough.
You start with D-Structure,
Then move on to S-Structure and sound.
Shoot, Transformational Grammar's
The best thing around.

You look at the rules and
You're tempted to say just "That's nice."
But then when you see them applying
You have to think twice.
It makes you sit up and take notice
And say "Goodness me!
My D-Structure's got to the surface
Like fine poetry!"

Phrase structure, lexicon,
Principles, Parameters galore—
Together a candy store package
That makes you want more.
In fact, with text-based rules also
It's a wonderful sight.
But most amazing of all is,
It just might be right.

Noam Chomsky, we thank you.
Please accept our profound gratitude
For helping us see that our language*
Is not clumsy and crude.
In fact, we're amazed,
Even startled, to see its pizzazz.
You have made of our dusty linguistics
A discipline with class.

Indeed, it's a fact, transformation
Is what we all need
To allow our D-Structures to surface
And reveal us indeed.
It takes lots of practice
And lots of plain raw courage too.
But remember: Joan gave flowers to Harry
Can be: Harry Joan gave flowers to.

*Any language, though "our language" here logically refers to English, that of the author.