Our Sponsors

Technical Translation
Website TranslationClip Art
 

Archive for the 'Semantics' Category

Verb Agreement in English

Monday, January 9th, 2012

“Dave” recently wrote:

I just read your article ‘Bad Grammar or Language Change’ and wanted to let you know that I found a grammatical error in your article.

In the sentence ‘the number of suffixes for marking grammatical functions like number, person, tense, are disappearing faster than frogs’, the subject of the sentence is number. This singular noun does not agree with the verb in the sentence are. What is most curious to me is that the subject of nouns and verbs not agreeing is discussed only a few paragraphs above this sentence”.

Thanks for the edit. I have to say, in my own defense, that this is not an uncommon error. It comes from the fact that English speakers are losing their grasp of subject and object due to the loss of case endings. At least that is my opinion.

Kay Bock of the University of Illinois (a former student of mine) disagrees. She is trying to find a grammatical pattern among these mistakes. We coauthored a paper on the subject, where I was asked only to provide data for Russian.

What happens when speakers lose control of the subject – object distinction but not verb agreement? Well, one thing is that they rely on the noun nearest the verb to reflect agreement. That is how I compensated, along with the vast majority of US speakers.

Another way is to resort to semantics: if the subject noun refers to a group, then agreement is plural. If it refers to a single item, singular. That is the British solution. They say things like “the parliament are”, “the team are” but the “player is”, “the lamp is”.

Both these approaches are temporary. We are all waiting for the -s which distinguishes 3rd singular verbs from 3rd plural to fall by the wayside. That will solve everything.

Who is Stealing ‘Kumbaya’?

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

kum-bah-yah • Hear it!

Meaning: 1. “Come by here” in the Negro spiritual “Kum Ba Yah, my Lord”. 2. Human spiritual unity, often used sarcastically.

Notes: We have finally solved the mystery of where this word comes from (click here). We are still struggling as to how to use it. It is associated with singing around a campfire while holding hands as a symbol of spiritual (or pious) unity. But now that meaning is widely used sarcastically by cynics who think human unity a pipe dream while the answer to our problems lies in meanness and anger.

In Play: Although kumbaya has been contaminated by the Washington press, we do not have to yield the meaning of this word to the cynics just yet: “We were lucky that all our good intentions led to a kumbaya spirit that helped us quickly settle the church’s business.” By the same token, we cannot ignore the current (mis)usage: “If the town council thinks there is some kumbaya solution of the downtown parking problem that will please everyone, they are naive, indeed.”

Word History: “Kumbaya, my Lord” was first recored in 1927. The song was sung in Gullah on the islands of South Carolina between Charleston and Beaufort. Gullah is the creole language featured in the Uncle Remus series of Joel Chandler Harris and the Walt Disney production of “Song of the South.” American missionaries took the song to Angola after its publication in the 1930s, where its origins were forgotten. In the early 1960s the song was rediscovered and made popular by Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. It was quickly associated with the Civil Rights Movement and other liberal causes, which invited sarcastic use by conservatives.

Osculating Fans

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Sally Colby just shared a funny experience she had with the verb osculate that I thought should be shared with you all:

“I’ll never forget going to a department store to purchase a fan about 30 years ago. The (very young) sales girl showed us the features of various fans, including one she really liked.

‘This one is great,’ she said. ‘It works standing still, or it can osculate.’

It was hard not to laugh, but I sure chuckled in the car on the way home.”

Of course, you must mind your nose.

Don’t Miss the Giant Egress

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

Did you hear about the zoo manager who had trouble getting visitors to leave at closing time. Just before closing, he would put up a large a sign saying “This way to the giant egress.” Curious hordes went that way and, of course, found themselves back out on the street. Nothing misleading about that.

Dilemma, Trilemma, . . . ?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

My recent treatment of trilemma in the Good Word series prompted a response from the very creative mind of an old friend of alphaDictionary, Chris Stewart, way down in South Africa. I was so amused by it that I thought readers of this blog might enjoy it, too. Here is what Chris wrote. Notice he gives another common example of a trilemma, one that I didn’t think of when writing up the word.

“Indeed, [trilemma] is like the classic options of ‘lead, follow or get out of the way’. How do you respond to such an injunction when half way across a gorge on a tightrope?

If one is on the horns of a trilemma, is a triceratops involved?

How does one extend it further? Poly-, multi-, omni-, mega-, sub-, super-, peri- … ? Sometimes I feel I am experiencing all of the above.

Chris also reminds us of how the phrase “on the horns of a dilemma” came about. Dilemma originally meant a tough decision between only two choices, both of which are unpleasant. Since horns also come in pairs and can be painful, voila, the analogy.

Today we have all but lost sight of the meaning of dilemma. Its semantics has fallen into such a disarray that many are using it now as a simply synonym for “problem”. We hear such utterances today as, “Traffic downtown has become such a dilemma.”

No, actually, it hasn’t unless we are faced with only two corrective measures, neither of which is appealing. I was tempted to say much more about dilemma in my essaylet on trilemma but resisted. I guess I should take it up some day.

Umlauts and Diereses

Monday, February 14th, 2011

Jeremy Wheeler and Rabbi Zev-Hayyim Feyer have so far caught what they consider an oversight in our recent Good Word sprachgefuhl. In that writeup I claim that this word is sometimes spelled with an umlaut over the U, which is to say, Sprachgefühl, and explained umlaut as a synonym of dieresis. Although the two are generally used interchangeably, there is reason to maintain a distinction based not on the two dots themselves, but how they are used.

Dieresis comes from the Greek word for “split” and, before English began borrowing words from Modern German, it was used only to refer to an umlaut placed over the second of two successive vowels to indicate that both are pronounced, as in the case of naïve Chloë, Noël, Aïda.

Of course, this alternate spelling is now rare in English and other diacritics serve the same or a very similar purpose. In fiancé, attaché, cliché, communiqué it is the acute that tells us the vowel is pronounced. So the plot, as plots are wont to do, thickens.

I assume the people who named the diacritics did the best they could with what they had to work with. Since we have no word for German Umlaut in English, I still think it reasonable if not preferable to use dieresis for the two dots, regardless of their function.

We do not distinguish between other diacritics on the basis of their use, so far as I recall. Why make an exception here? My use of dieresis followed modern trend of referring only to the two dots placed over some vowels for whatever reason.

Are We All Ready for Already?

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Dianne Ericson recently questioned the good Doctor’s use of the word all in his treatment of the Good Word already. Here is what she asked:

“In your example today, ‘The children were all ready and bundled up warmly to go caroling on the snowy evening,’ is all really an adjective, or is it an adverb modifying the adjective ready? If it were a discrete adjective, then the sentence would still make sense if the adjective ready were omitted. I’m afraid that doesn’t quite work.”

In this particular sentence all is an adjective modifying children. We can’t say, “The children were all” (unless you are Pennsylvania Dutch, in which case it means “there were no more children”) but we can say “The children were all (ready, gone, happy, reasonable, crying, etc.)”

The oddness of this sentence comes from the fact that all is misplaced. It is an idiosyncrasy of the adjective all that it may be placed in the predicate even though it modifies the subject. “The children were all ready” is synonymous with “All the children are ready.”

We all especially appreciated this note, which Dianne was kind enough to add to her question:

“Thanks for all the wonderful help. Thanks to you, my child has the best vocabulary in her 8th-grade class!”

Your child can compete with Dianne’s daughter if he or she is subscribed to our daily Good Word or Good Word, Jr.

The Edges of Water and of Words

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Brock Putnam made a comment on riparian that brought to light a guiding principle I use in writing both the glossaries that Lexiteria produces and the daily Good Words on alphaDictionary. He wrote:

I’m most used to encountering it as part of a legal term: “riparian rights.” Several court cases (at least one of which went to the US Supreme Court some forty years ago) were concerned with riparian rights – the right of access to beachfront or waterfront land.

Usually, the issue is a contest between people who own waterfront (usually beachfront) property and the right of the public to have access to it. A significant case in New Jersey went all the way to the Supremes: the final decision of the court went back through American law, English common law, and finally resided in provision of the Magna Carta!

One of my editors made this point, too. I decided that the second part of my definition, “related to the bank of a body of fresh water”, covered the legal sense of the word. One of my peeves with traditional dictionaries is that they multiply definitions to the point that they overlap up to 90%.

I try to find what meanings have in common and create definitions that are general enough to cover as many traditional definitions as possible. You may have noticed yourself what I’ve been observing for decades: outside techincal vocabularies, the meanings of words tend to be vague and fuzzy, especially around the edges.

Litotes in Kansas

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Dee Scrogin caught this line in an article about capping the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in the Wichita Eagle (May 27, 2010) and wondered if it were not an example of litotes, the Good Word for May 22, 2010:

“So far, ‘top kill” isn’t failing to plug oil leak”

Dee wrote, “I wonder if this is an example of litotes which you discussed recently? (5/22) I’d never heard the word but found it interesting about a double negative appealing to the positive. I enjoy your daily word; a friend, Ed Garvin, recommended you.”

Indeed, “isn’t failing” is a perfect example of litotes since “not” is built into the word “fail” = “not succeed”. You do not have to see the two negations as in “not uncommon” to make a litotes. So long as two words imply negation, they are litotic.The implication in this phrase is that top kill isn’t failing but isn’t succeeding, either. This is the expected effect of litotes.

Why Gender?

Monday, May 10th, 2010

David Kelley of the Bucknell Electrical Engineering Department just dropped a note that I thought worth sharing with the world. Here is what he asked and how I answered.

I enjoyed reading Sam Alcorn’s ‘Ask the Experts‘ profile of you that has just recently appeared on Bucknell’s web site. There is an aspect of language that has puzzled me for 25 years. I have never found a satisfyingly complete answer to my question, so I thought I would ‘ask the expert’.

Does anyone know why (or have a good theory for why) gender developed in most of the world’s (or at least Europe’s) major languages? I know French and Spanish have masculine and feminine nouns, and I know German adds “neuter” to the list. Even more intriguing to me is why English, which is derived from German and has borrowed heavily from French and Latin, has lost the classification of nouns by gender.

David, thank you for your note. I’m happy that you enjoyed Sam’s interview with me; I was pleased with it myself.

We should keep in mind that we are not looking for logical reasons for gender, so the question “why?” begs the question. Gender exists for grammatical reasons alone and our mental grammar has its own rules. Grammar interacts with other mental processes but it should not be confused with them: it is an independent human mental faculty with rules of its own.

That said, gender is actually a category of the lexicon, out mental vocabulary, the dictionary of words we have in our heads. Grammar, the rules for organizing words in sentences, works together with lexicon to bridge our minds and the real world. Their job is to provide a speedy means of the expressing ideas about the real world to others out there. The first step in this process is to categorize everything.

Just as we have semantic (conceptual) categories like animal, vegetable, bodies of water, countries, we have lexical categories that group words so that they may be quickly grasped and understood in speech: gender, number, person. These categories are usually reflected in the dress of words, the suffixes, prefixes, endings, that they bear. Gender is one of those categories, a category with two or three members, usually masculine and feminine, but also neuter in some languages.

Now, remember that the lexical categories have to do with words, not semantic categories. The names “masculine” and “feminine” are therefore misleading for they also refer to the semantic categories of males and females. Masculine and feminine nouns are not limited to males and females. The word for table in Russian, stol, is masculine while la table in French is feminine. As I hope is obvious to all, tables have no semantic gender at all. Moreover, in Russian, the words for “uncle”, “judge”, “daddy”, and all male nicknames are feminine and the word for “girl” in German, Mädchen, is neuter.

Lexical gender, then, is an arbitrary set of classes and all nouns must belong to one of them. There is a tendency to associate semantic categories with lexical categories because of the confusion between the two that led to the names “masculine” and “feminine” for the lexical categories. Still, speakers have to memorize which class a noun belongs to just as they memorize each word’s meaning.

Languages that have gender also have agreement. This means that when a noun is used with an adjective or verb in those languages, that adjective and verb must bear an indicator (suffix or prefix) associated with the class of the noun. This helps the mind of the listener keep up with which adjective and which verb goes with which noun in complex sentences that have multiple adjectives and verbs. This is generally the purpose of lexical categories and, as you can see, it is purely grammatical, not semantic or logical.

The relation is not logical because languages like Chinese and Vietnamese have no prefixes or suffixes, no gender, no agreement yet speakers and listeners have no trouble processing these languages. English historically has been moving away from gender-agreement to the Chinese and Vietnamese model. We use only a handful of affixes now and there is evidence that they are losing their grip.

Why? No one knows. Clearly gender and agreement are not required of a functioning language; they just come and go for the arbitrary “reasons” of language alone, reasons linguists have not yet been able to establish.