Thursday April 12, 2007

Friendly Milk

"Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers."

This is from a hilarious sketch by Fry and Laurie (via), which you can watch after the jump.

This is a great send-up of pompous, abstruse academese, and a slightly alarming window into what we linguists must sound like to the rest of humanity.  It's especially on target, I think, because several of the points Stephen Fry's character makes are recognizably taken from linguistics.  The distinction (which he wants you to "mark") between language and speech is probably inspired by Saussure's concepts of langue and parole, and it's just the sort of fine distinction that people inside the field think is crucial and people outside the field, I suspect, think is silly.  Fry's character also refers to the infinite generative capacity of language, an idea due to Chomsky, when he says, "...our language, hundreds of thousands of available words, frillions of legitimate new ideas, so that I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication," followed by the sentence quoted above.  (He's also referring to Chomsky's famous "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously", I think, though the purpose of that example was to point out that it's possible to distinguish grammatical and ungrammatical sentences even if they're not meaningful.)  It's worth noting that Fry's character has even got the numbers approximately right—an English speaker probably does have on the order of hundreds of thousands of words in his or her mental lexicon, and the number of legitimate new ideas is probably on the order of frillions (i.e. more than zillions, but less than brazillions).

I think my favorite part is his long metaphorical definition of what language is:

Language is my mother, my father, my husband, my brother, my sister, my whore, my mistress, my checkout girl.  Language is a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipe-ette.  Language is the breath of God.  Language is the dew on a fresh apple.  It's the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning light as you pluck from an old bookshelf a half-forgotten book of erotic memoirs.  Language is the creak on a stair.  It's a spluttering match held to a frosted pane.  It's a half-remembered childhood birthday party.  It's the warm, wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl.  It's cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.

That would make a great bumper sticker.

As long as I'm making another YouTube-based post, let's see if I can tie it in with my previous post about musical covers and cameos in music videos.  For the cover, here's Hugh Laurie as House on House playing a snippet from the Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays" (with Dave Matthews):

For the music video cameo, here's Laurie again in Annie Lennox's "Walking on Broken Glass":

There, I think that ties it together nicely.

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
05:07 PM in Improbable Sentences , Linguistics , Music | Submit: | Links:


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With John Malkovich, too! (See, I watched the videos.)

Let the record reflect Hugh Laurie making the "drinky drinky" gesture.

Posted by: The Wife at Apr 12, 2007 9:26:51 PM

After Hugh Laurie's repeated "We're talking about X" comments, I was expecting him to round off the sketch with a punchline along the lines of "I have no idea what we're talking about." The actual one was much funnier.

Posted by: Pete Bleackley at Apr 13, 2007 1:32:50 AM

That would make a terrible bumper sticker. It's far too long. You linguists have no sense of proportion!!!


Posted by: Erkki at Apr 13, 2007 2:42:08 AM

Fry did a bunch of philology classes at Cambridge and Laurie has a degree in anthropology, so it may even be that the approximate correctness wasn't an accident!

Posted by: Claire at Apr 13, 2007 7:10:47 AM

Why do you use that annoying expression "after the jump"? You cannot predict what resolution the users screen is, to what extent the browser is or isnt maximised, whether the text is being zoomed or not, or whether some plugin like Adblock is at work that affects the page layout. In short wherever the "jump" may appear to be on your screen, it is unlikely to be in the same place on the screens of other people.

Much as you may want to sound like you are hosting a TV show (sounds suspiciously like "after the break") there IS NO JUMP. Get over it, this is a webpage - not TV.

Oh - and apart from that - its a good site with great content!!

Posted by: prustage at Mar 29, 2010 4:36:29 PM

prustage: Thanks for your concern. There IS a jump if you're reading the post on the main page of the blog, where just an excerpt appears. "After the jump" isn't an attempt to sound like TV -- it's a bit of old newspaper jargon. See here for more details.

Posted by: The Tensor at Mar 30, 2010 1:22:00 AM