Monday, April 26, 2010

On The Campus Frame

(UT Austin's Main Building)

On Saturday morning, I found the above sign pragmatically odd.

Wondering down Guadalupe that morning after my latte at The Hideout (and wishing I'd known about the Texas Round-Up 5k ahead of time so I could have run), I decided to check out the UT Austin campus. The morning was a gloriously sunny 70 degrees, no clouds or wind, and I love exploring college campuses.  UT has a nice, almost stereotypical layout with large academic buildings, rolling hills, stone staircases, the large football stadium to the West, and the UT Austin Tower ominously presiding over all. My meandering tour brought me up a series of stairs to the face of the tower's building. Academic buildings tend to be named after people (e.g., the building next to the tower is called the Dorothy L. Gebauer Building). But when I walked up to the tower building's sign, all I found was a pragmatics puzzle: Main Building.

I snapped the pic above and strode over to Caffé Medici to ruminate on why I found this sign so pragmatically odd. It is, in fact, less obscure than Dorothy L. Gebauer, right? Quite straight forward. This is one building amongst many which serves as some sort of center point for activity. First among equals, to borrow a term from the political realm. This should be a perfect instantiation of FrameNet's Locale_by_use frame (of which campus is in fact a lexical unit) whereby the NP Main Building evokes a Constituent_part ("Salient parts that make up a Locale") of a Locale (A stable bounded area). But why did did I find it odd? 

After lunching at Veggie Heaven (and escaping a near death experience crossing Lavaca), I could only come up with the suspicion that the high frequency of person names for academic building trumps the logic of the frame model. In other words, I accept that there probably exists some cognitively real conceptual object roughly equivalent to a frame, and our human language system uses frames in some way to build a semantic representation of an input like Main Building in order draw inferences about the role of that object in some state-of-affairs; nonetheless, if objects within that state-of-affairs have a statistically significant tendency to be named using highly specific non-functional terms, then a building with a general and functional name will stand apart as somehow not a proper member of the state-of-affairs. Membership in the group is NOT determined by its role in a frame, but rather by its similarity to other members of the group.

I'm reminded of the beer from Repo Man:

(image from

This generic BEER (which was, ever so briefly, a real product in American stores in the early 1980s) never quite took hold. It just didn't fit. I suspect BEER is a nice example of monopolistic competition. They flouted the need to distinguish their nearly identical product in a tough competitive market, hoping their floutestation alone would distinguish it (yep, I made that word up and I'm sticking with it). It would, however, take some logical flips and leaps to make the connection to the Main Building example (not saying there ain't a cognitive connection, just sayin I'm a lazy blogger). Phew! That took a lot of words to state the obvious...and explaining the card game frame necessary to understand my use of a trumps is another post entirely.

NOTE: Yes, I challenged myself to include as many Austin sites as possible in this post. Just 'cause I've been spending the last few weekend sin Austin. But rest assured, my morning followed almost exactly this story.

BTW: What the hell is that image on the banner of UT Austin Linguistics homepage? Is that an FSA leading into a spectrogram? Huh? If yes, shouldn't the nodes have state labels and the arcs have transition labels? And why does the final node transition to the little stop image? 

Oh yeah, and I really hate this:   (hint, see source for HTMl code).


outerhoard said...

In my city, there's Adelaide University and then there's Flinders University. I went to Flinders.

At Adelaide University, buildings, lecture theatres, etc are typically named after people. At Flinders University, they typically have functional names, for example there are lecture theatres called "North Two" and "South Three".

It's not surprising that different universities have different naming conventions, but I can see how it could be surprising to see a lone anamoly within a given university.

Stan said...

Could the sign's strangeness derive in part from its presentation? There's a lot of blank space surrounding "MAIN BUILDING", which might somehow contribute to the sense that the two generic words will be or should be replaced by more specific, descriptive, or emphatic words.

I was reminded of Bill Hicks's "orange drink" skit — not a million miles from the Repo Man product.

TomV said...

See this for an explanation.

TomV said...

Oops, sorry. The tag didn't work.
The link should be to

Anonymous said...

This brings to mind the name of the space-age building at the entrance to LAX: the Theme Building. And, tangentially, the old fort under the Golden Gate Bridge is called Fort Point, and it's located on Fort Point.

Chris said...

Thanks for all the comments! Good points, all.

@outerhoard, Interesting that Flinders has such functional names. I've never seen anything like that in the states.

@Stan, you're absolutely right, that sign looks sparse. And isn't it awesome that you're reminded of Bill Hicks, a Houston native and a former Austin regular. I saw a great documentary about him at SXSW in March. Here's his orange drink bit: Bill Hicks -- Orange Drink. Money Quote:

"Ya know, when I'm done ranting about elite power that rules the planet under totalitarian government that uses the media to keep people stupid, my throat gets parched. That's why I drink 'orange drink'... yeah, don't you see how it would all fit in. Don't you see how every word I said would be hollow and filled with nothing."

Ahhh, hollow, and filled with nothing, like the Main Building sign!!

@TomV, thanks for the links!

@Anonymous, California is the king of post-modern references. They broke the weird, incoherent, WTF! mold with that state (my home state, btw, haha).

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