Tag Archives: Through the Looking Glass

The Dudes Do ATIA 2015: Day 2 – Of Powwows and Portmanteaus

The day before the Dudes left for the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference happened to be Lewis Carroll’s birthday. Folks who know me well – and maybe some who just happened to have heard me in presentations – will be painfully aware that I recommend Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to anyone with the slightest interest in language. In fact, both books should be on the required reading list for all Educators and Speech and Language Therapists/Pathologists – seriously. Read the following single sentence as spoken by the Duchess in Wonderland and savor the complexity:

Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

Now parse it. There’s glory for you [1]. The books are just overflowing with words, phrases, and sentences that can provide enough material for several seminars on morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics.

Time for a Powwow

Time for a Powwow

Coincidentally, or perhaps serendipitously, on the same day a Twitter colleague, @TactusTherapy, posted that she was about to take part in an appathon, which is clearly a blend of the words application and marathon. This is commonly referred to as a portmanteau word, a term first used by Carroll in Through the Looking Glass, when Humpty Dumpty is explaining what the words in the poem Jabberwocky mean:

“Well, slithy means ‘lithe and slimy.’ Lithe is the same as active. You see it’s like a portmanteau ‚ÄĒ there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

He then gives another example of a portmanteau with mimsy, which is a jamming together of miserable and flimsy. Linguists call these blends, or perhaps more specifically lexical blends – as distinct from, say, phonological blends where two or more sounds run together to end up as one. Other examples include positron (1933: positiveelectron); guesstimate (1936: guessestimate); skort (1951: skirtshorts); modem (1958: modulatordemodulator); metrosexual (1994: metropolitanhetero/homosexual); and hacktivist (1995: hackeractivist). My @TactusTherapy colleague also pointed out that she’d just come across a new portmanteau, listicle, to refer to one of those “5 Ways to Drive Your Lover Wild” or “10 Words Guaranteed to Get You a New Job” articles, where it’s basically a list modified into prose. Hence it’s a portmanteau of list and article.

ATIA15 Powwow 1

Moving ahead to Day 2 of the conference, I spent some time over lunch with a group of AAC/AT folks who had at some time attended one of the Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series, or PALSS [2]. It’s a good excuse to get together with a group of like-minded folks for an informal powwow. Curiously enough, the word powwow (or pow-wow) may be another example of a portmanteau except from a non-English source. It can be traced back to the Narragansett language and pawwaw meaning a priest, shaman, or healer. It’s suggested that this in turn came from an earlier language, Proto-Algonquian [3], and the phrase *pawe-wa, which means “he who dreams.” The two words were blended into one by the elision of the middle syllable, and became the portmanteau, powwow.

During this powwow, yet another new portmanteau made its way into the discussion: the spamference. It’s clearly derived from spam and conference, and represents a relatively new concept in the field of academia – the junk conference. Basically, it’s a conference created not for the “free exchange of ideas and research from leaders in the field” but “a way of generating revenue for conference organizers by way of inviting folks to exotic and faraway places for a good time.” The typical invite goes along the lines of:

“Dear Speech Dude

As a recognized leader/expert/authority in the field of AAC/Linguistics/Toad Husbandry, our panel of professionals invite you to chair a session at our upcoming prestigious conference in Maui/Maldives/Vegas/Fiji (insert name of any place in which you’d love to spend a week).

As a conference chair, your registration fees will be discounted by 75% and hotel rooms by 25%. You will also be acknowledged as an Editor/Reviewer in the conference proceedings.”

And so on, and so on. The first hint of bogosity is the unsolicited nature of the invitation from someone who you’ve probably never heard of, and also that slightly hard-to-avoid-but-it’s-probably-true realization that you are maybe not quite the leader/expert/authority that you’d like to think you are!

Of course, if you want to beef up your resume and can get someone to fund you for your trip to Hawaii for “the conference,” then there’s nothing actually illegal going on here. Nothing. Like the whole “Open Access Journals” discussion – where you can get published so long as you stump up some cash – it’s a fundamentally grey area with advocates both for and against.

But spamference is definitely a portmanteau.

[1] This comes from a discussion between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass about unbirthday presents. It ends with a classic definition of “the word” that’s beloved by linguists around the globe:

“There’s glory for you!’

`I don’t know what you mean by “glory,”‘ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”‘

`But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument,”‘ Alice objected.

`When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

`The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

`The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’

See what I mean about great seminar material?

[2] The Pittsburgh AAC Language Seminar Series is a 2-and-a-half day event run by Semantic Compaction Systems in, no surprise, Pittsburgh. It’s focus is on implementing the Unity/Minspeak language system, with each seminar having a nationally recognized guest speaker. The seminars are monthly and registration is free but there are limited numbers – only 24 folks per seminar. It’s pretty cool because food and lodging is free AND you can get $150 towards your flight or mileage. Oh, and you get to meet me on Thursday morning – and that’s gotta be worth the trip! If you’re curious, here’s the link:

[3] A proto-language is one for which there is no direct evidence but can be (re)constructed, hypothesized or inferred on the basis of the structure and behavior of words that are verifiable. Algonquian is a genus of languages spoken primarily by Native American in north-eastern regions of North America, and Proto-Algonquian is thought to be the version spoken around 3,000 years ago. Here’s a link to a map of the family of Algonquian should you be curious – and if you’re still reading, you are ūüėČ THE ALGONQUIAN FAMILY

“The Annotated Alice” – An Essential Book for Speechies

Don’t try this without a safety net or three mojitos. Parse the following sentence:

Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

If you’ve given up and decided to drink another mojito¬†instead, you’re in good company. Even linguist Geoff Pullum, co-author of the phenomenal Cambridge Grammar of the English Language¬†has said that he can’t decide whether it’s grammatical or not. On the other hand, if you’ve sobered up and actually created a tree diagram that looks more complex than¬†the¬†map of the London Underground, congratulations and please send us a copy.

This magnificent sentence comes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a book that somehow never seems to make it onto the recommended reading list for Speechies but that deserves to be made obligatory. And the particular version to get hold of is The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, edited and annotated by Martin Gardner, and containing the original artwork prints of the Victorian artists, John Tenniel.

The Annotated Alice book

Annotated Alice

Combining both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, this book cannot fail to appeal to Speech Therapists, teachers, and linguists, or in fact, anyone with any interest in language. Carroll plays with words the way kittens play with string. He bends them, stretches them, chops them up, and puts them back together in entertaining ways. Just one chapter of the Alice books could form the basis for a semester of study.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe

Sheer brilliance. He start out by a pronoun-verb contraction to hit us with twas and without skipping a heartbeat trots out a new word, brillig. You may never have heard the word before but somehow we feel it means something akin to bright or brilliant. We at least know it’s an adjective despite the fact you won’t find it in a dictionary.

The Jabberwock

Beware the Jabberwock

And how about slithy? That, surprisingly enough, does get a mention in the Oxofrd English Dictionary as an adjective from 1662, itself a variation of the word sleathy, originating from the Old Norse slŇď√įa meaning “to drag or trail behind.” But Carroll used it to mean “smooth and active” (Carroll, 1855), which is very different from the previous use. In fact, it comes from a mix of slimy and lithe, which is called a “portmanteau word” – a phrase also coined by Carroll himself!

According to Humpty¬†Dumpty,¬†¬†toves¬†are “something like badgers, they’re something like lizards, and they’re something like corkscrews. Also they make their nests under sun-dials, also they live on cheese.” The fact that the word toves¬†appears immediately following the definitive article alerts us to the interpretation that a tove¬†is a noun; the final “s” also signals nouniness.

As you can see, we are just at the end of the first line and we’re talking about phonology and morphology (the /s/ at the end of tove); syntax (an article precedes a noun); contractions (twas); and blends (slithy). So tell me again why you wouldn’t want this book on the undergraduate reading list. Why, you could write a 5,000 word essay on The Derivational¬†and Inflexional Morphological Structures Inherent in Jabberwocky and their Relevence to English Language Development! Well, at least I could ūüėČ

But it’s not just the fact that you can lose yourself in Carroll’s text alone that makes this book so fascinating; it’s the comments and scholarship of Martin Gardner, whose knowledge of all things Alice is encyclopedic. His commentary covers not only language but philosophy, physics, history, mythology, and mathematics. The list of references takes up several pages and the budding Alice scholar could do no better than to ouse this book as their primary reference.

Pedagogy aside, there’s another reason to read this book. It’s fun! It’s easy to pop in the Disney Alice in Wonderland DVD and think you know the story, but if you’ve never picked up the books before, you are in for a rare treat. So pop down to your local Borders before it closes completely and splash out on a copy, or help your local bookstore go out of business by ordering from Amazon. Whatever way you choose to do it, as long as you get the real, physical book rather than some awful electronic format, you’ll have something to take with you on your vacation.

Oh, and college lecturers… Get this on the reading list for your students. They WILL thank you for it.

Lewis Carroll’s diaries:the private journals of Charles¬†Lutwidge Dodgson (1993): The Lewis Carroll Society.