A Smurf Based Approach to Placeholder Expressions

I read an interesting paper:

A Smurf-based Approach to Placeholder Expressions, July 2021, by Manfred Sailer and Annika Dörner

which apparently appeared in:

Proceedings of the 27th International Conference on Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Online (Berlin/Seattle), 2020.

First, Head-driven phrase structured grammar is a real thing. I have no idea what a head-driven phrase structure grammar is. I have no expertise or general knowledge of (I believe) linguistics, so this paper is beyond me. I do like the paper because it’s written in English about German particulars of language from comic books.

The paper begins with some philosophy about “placeholder expressions”, phrases like “watcha-ma-callit” or words like “thingy”. Apparently German has a word, “dingsbum”, used much the same way. The authors even give an example in Chinese, so it must be a human phenomenon.

That’s interesting enough, we rarely see any philosophy of language, but Sailer and Dörner go on to analyze “smurfing” from The Smurfs comic books.

Parenthetically, this kind of smurfing is different from the street usage, purchasing small amounts of pseudoephedrine in several stores or by groups of people, with the purpose of using it to make metamphetamine.

According to Sailer and Dörner, “smurfing” is what The Smurfs do when they talk to each other.

smurfing example

Thank you for your service, Vulgar Smurf.

They break down smurfing into “morphological smurfing” and “phonological smurfing”:

p-smurfing vs m-smurfing table

I think in the above example “smurf” is an example of p-smurfing, and “smurfer” is an example of m-smurfing.

The “head-driven phrase structured grammar” part of the paper is a bunch of imposing diagrams like this:

strange diagram

“Kataschlumpfe” is from a German The Smurfs comic book, apparently smurfed from “Katastrophe”, or “catastrophe” in English. The authors do all their serious head-phrase structuring in German. I suppose in English, the smurfed word might be “catastrosmurf”, or maybe “smurftastrophe”.

All-in-all, a challenging paper to begin with that fades off into such specialized material that it becomes incomprehensible to laymen.

Download the paper

This isn’t the only serious paper on smurfing.

Optimal smurfing in English and Greek, Catherine Chatzopoulos, 2008. This paper looks interesting, and introduces the term “smurpheme”.

There’s also a doctoral dissertation by Lingga Suryawinata, 2001, which does not appear as such on the web.