Absent Demonstrata

I had an interesting “demonstrative moment” last Friday at the linguistics department. It happened in LingSem directly before Peter Gordon’s talk on Piraha counting. Peter and I and a Yale faculty member—who shall remain nameless—were waiting for the rest of the department to show up to LingSem, get their food, settled in, &c. So Peter points to the many portraits embellishing the walls of LingSem and asks, “Are these guys all old Yale linguists?”

I said that they were, and pointed to Sapir and said “There is Sapir.” I then pointed to another picture that looked down directly upon the spot where Peter would stand to give his talk and said “And that is Whorf.”

“I didn’t know they were from here,” Peter replied.

I nodded solemnly. The conversation moved on.

It was only a day or so later when I realized that the portrait I had pointed out as Whorf was not Whorf, but was actually Leonard Bloomfield. I was and am quite embarrassed about the whole thing—especially since I am the one who hung both Sapir’s and Bloomfield[Whorf’s]’s portraits to begin with.

The embarrassment persists. But now I am in the grip of an even greater problem, the arised question still haunts me, who was the demonstratum of my gesture? At least it is some consolation that to my knowledge there is not yet a portrait of Spiro Agnew hanging in LingSem!


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