Oberlin Blogs

What I Always Imagined Winter Term Would Feel Like

January 21, 2013

Ida Hoequist ’14

I wonder if you can write Winter Term projects into IM proposals. I should've looked into that when I was writing mine, because the group project I'm doing now is about as linguistics-course-y as it gets - we are reading the entirety of the third edition of Andrew Carnie's textbook on syntax and it's expanding my brain in ways such that writing this sentence suddenly hurts because I'm trying to make a syntactic tree of it in my head as I go along but I can't even remotely keep up because there's so much clause embedding going on I should stop.1 I think I'm actually finding out that syntax is not the subfield of linguistics that I want to deal with for the rest of my life. (Which is a happy realization, really, I've been trying to narrow it down for ages.) Syntax gets cooler and cooler the more you understand how it works and the more you use it to decode things about various languages, because a good theory of syntax is a powerful tool for thinking about what cross-linguistic data means not for individual languages but for Language, this thing that all humans have the ability to speak, and that is cool. But it's also really mind-bendy and technical in a way that is hard for me to connect to the way my voice gets a little too loud and my eyes start watering from grinning a little too hard when I talk about other parts of linguistics. I respect syntax. I value syntax. I'm having fun with syntax at the moment, I just I don't think I want to spend the rest of my life with syntax.

Reader, meet syntax. This is the tree for the sentence "John is likely to leave."

All that to say this: my favorite thing about this project so far isn't the material. The material is interesting and challenging, but the best part is the people. All six of us, including the professor we're working with (my advisor, Jason Haugen), are seriously huge nerds about linguistics. On the Friday of our first week doing this project, we met in a room in King and talked syntax for two hours (i.e. until our brains started oozing out of our ears), and then relocated to Agave for drinks. And didn't stop talking about linguistics. Jason had to leave after half an hour, but the rest of us stayed and basically vomited nerd joy all over each other - because, let me tell you, if you love something the way all of us love linguistics and suddenly discover four other people who feel the same way, you are instantly going to be friends.

It's all been bonding time from there on out. You know, the sort of bonding that you get when you struggle through something difficult with a small group of other people. That kind of bonding. Did I mention this textbook has one major flaw? Oh, I didn't? Yeah. While you can tell from Andrew Carnie's writing style that he's quite an interesting and/or amusing person (the textbook is mercifully readable and is peppered with examples like "Heidi bopped herself on the head with a zucchini" and "Fiona must not eat the sautéed candy canes"), he has an annoying habit of laying out a complicated bit of theory using definitions that he tells you are only provisional and then, as soon as he finishes, immediately throwing data at you that breaks the theory and asking you to make sure you can figure out exactly where it breaks. This is annoying because either you figure it out and then you have a broken theory on your hands, or you have no idea why it breaks and then you're in even deeper trouble. So whenever we syntax students meet to hash out what we've read, it involves some struggles.

We've had seven meetings so far. Every week, we read two chapters, do the problem sets, meet without Jason to hammer out what kinks in our understanding of the material that we can, meet with Jason to do the same all over again but better, and then tackle another two chapters for the second half of the week.

Usually, meeting without Jason goes like this:
Someone: "So, these chapters..."
Another person: "Oh my god, these chapters."
First person: "Yeah, let's just start at the beginning and compare answers."
Other person: "All right. Let's do it."
[three hours later]
Someone: "Guys. We have to stop. My brain says ouch."
Everyone else: "asldkfjaglsjfjh"

And meeting with Jason goes something like this:
Jason: "So, find anything interesting?"
Us: "Jason. What is going on in this problem. Help."
[much head-scratching and speculating]
Jason: "Um. Let me get back to you on this. Have trouble with anything else?"
Us: "YES."

And, actually, that's just about perfect.

Yes, I spend a few hours on linguistics every day, but that's awesome, and I still have what, in Oberlin, is roughly equivalent to a flying rainbow unicorn: free time. Thus far, I've been using it to get back into OSCA (winter term Pyle!), co-head cook some real good food with my partner (burrito bar meal with yam tortillas, guacamole, salsa, beans, rice, sautéed veggies, mole, and spicy chocolate pudding with whipped cream!), play my instruments (new whistles YAY!), learn cello (I feel stupid/excited!), host game nights that double as tea parties (I have a social life can you believe it because I can't!), train aerials and partner acro (muscles say ouch!), and go dancing. Next weekend a carful of us contra dancers is driving to DC to dance at Glen Echo, visit friends, and bring other friends back to Oberlin. Because, you know, it's winter term. We can do things like take the entire weekend off for no reason other than it sounding like fun. Also, this past weekend, we drove to West Side Market in Cleveland, which is a place every Oberliner - especially the foodies - should see at least once. I had a crêpe with smoked salmon, crème fraiche, spinach, chives, capers, and pepper. I also had ginger lemonade and a kind of pastry that is chocolate cake with chocolate mousse on top that has raspberry jam on top of that and is encased in chocolate ganache. West Side Market, I'm telling you, is worth it.

We are too intent on putting those crêpes in our mouths to pose for a picture.

The part of this month that's going to be the hardest to give up, though, is the part where I get to read for pleasure. It's incredible! I mean, reading for pleasure! That's crazy talk! But I'm doing it! I've already gotten through Terry Pratchett's Unseen Academicals, Eoin Colfer's And Another Thing..., Bill Bryson's English: The Mother Tongue and How it Got That Way (which was supremely irritating, but that's neither here nor there), Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, and am currently halfway into The 5 Minute Linguist. (That's not counting the five or so books I read in the week between Christmas and leaving home, of course.)

So basically, my winter term is exactly what I'd envisioned when I thought about staying here for the month: about 30% of the stuff I usually do, and 0% of the stress. There's nothing better than hanging out in bed until lunch every morning by yourself, reading. Or if there is, it's this: not waking up until your partner has already made coffee and poured you some and is sitting on the side of the bed, checking emails with a cozy sweater on that you can cuddle around while you wait for your brain to start working. Or maybe: the accumulation of shared moments with people who you all of a sudden cross paths with often, such that every time you meet up again, it's like you can almost see the tiny increment by which your friendship has grown. Or: knowing that the end of January is approaching far too quickly, as usual, but also knowing that it's not quite here yet.

1. Fun fact: embedding sentence clauses in each other, or 'recursion,' as we like to call it, is considered by many linguists to be the defining feature of human language. Interestingly, the expert on a language called Pirahã claims that it does not have recursion. This is a hotly debated matter in the linguistics community. The aforementioned expert, Daniel Everett, wrote an article called "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã" in which he argues against not only the universal nature of recursion but also Noam Chomsky's ideas about universal grammar in general - I read it for class last term, and it's really an easy read, so if your interest is piqued, see if you can get your hands on it. (Or ask me. I'm happy to blather on.)

Responses to this Entry

...you don't actually have free time?

Posted by: Will on January 22, 2013 9:59 PM

Ah, free time. You know, It's even better than we dreamed it would be - I don't plan more than two days in advance anymore; I'm not sleep-deprived at all; when I finish a task, I don't have the next five lined up already... I mean, it's ten thirty right now and I haven't left bed yet, not even to practice cello or play my new whistles or anything. And yes, I am drinking coffee. And eating marzipan-filled chocolates. There's a reason I compared free time to flying rainbow unicorns and not, say, Jörmungandr.

Posted by: Ida on January 23, 2013 10:25 AM

Agh, NP-swooping. So notwithstanding Chomsky's having reduced transformations down to the rule "move alpha", textbooks are still using roughly Aspects-period description. Personally, I think good old 8th-grade sentence diagrams are just as much fun, and no more blatantly wrong, as you are finding out. For what it's worth (and wroth), we were doing the same thing in the 70s, including the finding of holes in the description and arguing about center-embedding.

Posted by: charles on January 23, 2013 2:13 PM

Your comment about learning cello reminds me of how I felt when I first picked up the banjo during winter term two years ago. It made me feel so clumsy and so happy at the same time. And yes, reading for fun is amazing! Luckily lots of the stuff I'm assigned to read for classes is awesome, but picking books just because I want to read them is unbeatable. I recommend Ivan Coyote's short stories, which I've been devouring.

Posted by: Nora on January 24, 2013 1:19 AM

Dad: I just got to the chapter that introduces the Minimalist Program and covert vs overt movement and the like (so it's not that textbooks are disregarding Chomsky's reduced movement rules, they're just being long-winded about the explanation so you understand why the rules are the way they are. Or at least this one is). Anyway, at this point I'm pretty convinced that syntacticians have collectively lost their marbles.

Nora: I've been devouring Ray Bradbury short stories. I love his writing. Swap books when you get back?

Posted by: Ida on January 24, 2013 10:56 AM

Chocolate cake things = monks. They're the greatest.

Your last two sentences describes why I loved winter terms in Oberlin so much. It's much like summer, but colder. It's got an appeal that summer doesn't have, though :)

Posted by: Ma'ayan on January 24, 2013 1:32 PM

Summer is such an expansive time. There's so much daylight and so much outdoors. Winter is more like huddle/cuddle/get-closer-to-other-humans time, I feel. It seems like a more focused and intense season.

Posted by: Ida on January 24, 2013 11:20 PM

Ah, so the book does get to minimalist stuff and thus reaches the 1980s :).
It's hard to disagree with you when you are right: syntacticians' marbles do seem to have been knocked out of the circle a while back.
Oddly, the whole transformational notation seems to have survived better in writing out phonological/phonetic processes than syntactic ones. (quick, diagram that sentence, paying close attention to the underlying structure for 'seems'!)

Posted by: Dad on January 30, 2013 10:44 AM

Actually, we got into the last part of the book ("advanced material"!) during the last meeting and it was, like, theories from the 2000s and such. Some of them were... even wackier.

Posted by: Ida on February 1, 2013 8:51 PM

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