HOW TO MAKE A LINGUISTIC THEORY*
*This manuscript was found in an empty xerox-paper box at Harvard
University. Within the history of linguistic science we believe it
dates from the early medieval period, but we do not really care much.
Assemble a judicious amount of grammar, preferably English
grammar since you’re aiming at readers of English. (If you feel
there might be a market for linguistic theories written in Cebuano,
by all means, give it your best shot.) Be sure to include passive
constructions, accusative-with-infinitive constructions, and
constructions with front-shifting. Leave everything else to future
research (don’t worry, you’ll never have to actually do it).
Set up two levels of linguistic representation; call them
Level 1 and Level 2, or even better, Level Alpha and Level Beta.
This is to divide your explicanda into two conceptual domains so
you can let one explain the other. Leave these levels and all
constructs supporting them undefined; these will be your
Theoretical Primes. Define everything else, however, not only as
rigorously as possible but using as many symbols from the predicate
calculus as you can understand.
Be sure to leave undefined the notion “mu.” Now make “mu” a
unit at both undefined levels. For each “mu” use ordinary English
spelling, but in upper case letters on one level, and in lower case
letters on the other. Use abbreviations with upper case; for
example ERG, PRO, +ITAL for “ergative,” “pronominal,” “borrowed
From this point on you need a graphics expert. Draw guitar
strings (don’t call them that, of course) from units on one level
to units on the other level. Count and classify the various
arrangements of strings you need for the amount of grammar you
began with; then pronounce all other logically possible
arrangements of strings forbidden by Universal Constraints.
Give each constraint a handy name, such as “The Adjustable Bridge
Constraint,” “The Open-String Pull-Off Constraint.” Always
capitalize and use “the” with constraints.
At this point it will be proper, though not absolutely
necessary, to bung in a bit of data from other languages. Since
ultimately theories like yours can be constructed only by trained
linguists who speak natively the languages they are examining,
frankly, the Second Coming will be upon us well before you’ll
really have to think seriously about other languages. Besides, you
have this neat argument:
Premiss 1: If my theory won’t account for English,
then it won’t account for all languages.
Premiss 2: My theory won’t account for English.
With regard to marketing your theory, this is a cinch because
of the way the academic world works. Your theory won’t work, even
for English, right? That’s a foregone conclusion. But for twenty
or thirty years, other people will make such a good living patching
it up that they’ll praise you as a genius even while they’re
bashing the daylights out of you, since without you, where would
Make occasional references to Kuhn.