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Archive for the 'Semantics' Category

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.

Porn in the Slow Lane

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

My favorite newspaper, the Sunbury Daily Item, carried an article with this lead sentence last Friday: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man has been charged with stealing $500 raised by middle school students to purchase porn videos from an Internet site.”

This sentence immediately catches the eye because you wonder why middle school students were raising money to purchase porn in the first place. Moreover, didn’t the 57-year-old do us all a favor by stealing the money and keeping porn out of the hands of those children?

Well, reading further we discover that the money was actually being raised for middle school band and chorus activities and that it was the thief who purchased the porn, keeping good and evil in proper alignment. Of course, that is not what the lead sentence says.

The infinitive phrase “to purchase porn videos . . .” in the first sentence is closer to “middle school students” than to “57-year-old Lewiston man” and for that reason goes with the former and not the latter.

Restructuring the sentence to correct it in journalese is a bit difficult and the author probably should have just worked on a different story. It seems to me that this is one of those situations where a passive sentence might work despite the bad reputation this construction has among journalists. “$500 raised by middle school students was stolen by a 57-year-old Lewistown man to purchase porn videos from an Internet site,” is perfectly good English that states the case more clearly.

The active variant would be: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man stole $500 to purchase porn videos on an Internet site from middle school students in Beaver Creek.” This variant lets you pack more information about the middle school kids into the sentence but is a tad clunky.

Anyway, the sentence that went to press wrongly stated the facts by misassociating the infinitive phrase, thereby frightening readers with the suggestion that we had somehow swerved into the fast lane in the not-too-distant past.

Back to Back-to-Back

Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Actually, I’m not coming back to this funny little idiom, I just thought the title was catchy and, if you are reading this, it would seem to have worked.

Of course, idioms like “back to back” cannot be analyzed but must be taken at face value (so to speak). However, I did try to imagine how eight episodes of “Murder She Wrote” could be shown “back to back” as was announced sometimes in the not too awfully distant past on some television channel I occasionally peruse.

As I visualized these episodes, the first would have to be played forward, the second backward for them to be shown back-to-back. This means that episode two and three would be shown face to face–if anyone was still watching after number two was shown backward. Episodes three and four could then be shown back to back again.

Of course, I should be writing this idiom with hyphens, “back-to-back”, as do the dictionaries. “Back to back” without hyphens would mean literally “back to back”, as to stand back to back before stepping off ten paces in a duel.

We could avoid all this confusion with another phrase, face to back, but no one seems to be using this expression. We need it. That is the way bands march and people sit in auditoriums. Why isn’t it around? Let’s start using it. That’ll teach them.

Pitching Black Jets

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Luke-a-lele left the following comment in the Alpha Agora, “…I never really understood the jet in jet black myself. I’ve never seen jet any other way in regards to color. Are there different shades/hues of black? To me black is black, though there are other words used, e.g., ebony.”

At about the same time, Bucknell librarian Bud Hiller dropped me the following note:

Pitch jet black“I was wondering about the phrase ‘pitch black’. In this case, is pitch specific to black as in “black as pitch”, or is it a modifier, as in ‘very black’?” [The question] came up when I was talking to someone in the library about how quiet it was at 7 AM and I described it as “pitch quiet”. Of course, pitch can also be used for sounds, and then we talked about it for half an hour.”

Well, jet is an extremely hard type of coal that can be carved and polished. It was once used for statuettes, buttons, and children’s toys. Pitch is another word tar, a word I heard a lot in my youth referring to substances for filling chinks in roofs or even covering roofs on commercial buildings, a word that I don’t think I’ve ever heard since moving north.

The first interesting question these expressions raise is why do these epithets remain after their critical constituent loses its original meaning? Words in compounds and crystalized phrases like these two generally disappear shortly after either constituent slips out of use. For instance, to and fro has become back and forth since we stopped using fro.

I can’t imagine anyone saying “pitch quiet”, knowing myself what pitch means unless, since the meaning of pitch has been lost in most US dialects, the assumption is that pitch means “very”. Well, it does, sort-of.

The possibility of pitch becoming an adverb meaning “very” arises from the second interesting question expressions like these raise: if jet and pitch are themselves black, why do we need to repeat the concept of blackness? It is like saying “as black as something black”. Prescriptive grammarians have tried for centuries to rid the language of redundancy for logical reasons, but redundancy is the very stuff and grammar that distinguishes it from logic and other mental processes.

Repetition (redundancy) is interpreted by all human languages as emphasis. That is why we say things like “very, very good” and “a red, red rose”, or even “a drinkable wine”, when the only purpose for wine is drinking. “Drinkable” is built into the definition of wine. Jet black and pitch black are another face of emphatic redundancy commonly found in languages.

Languages also love to specify variable qualities like colors, moods, sounds by comparing them with familiar objects in our lives: dirty as a pig, eat like a horse, fly like the wind. The problem with these two expressions is that the objects of comparison are no longer familiar.

A Blizzard-like Storm

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

The local newspaper carried this headline today: “Blizzard-like Storm Coming!” I’ve been trying to figure out what to expect all morning. How much like a blizzard must a snow storm be in order to be an actual blizzard?

A blizzard, of course, is a heavy snow storm with high winds. Will we be having heavy snow with little or no wind? Or a heavy wind with little or no snow? Would that, too, be a “blizzard-like” storm.

The two parts of the word blizzard are not equal: a blizzard is a kind of snow storm, so snow, unfortunately, will be at the bottom of whatever we receive tomorrow.

The accompanying article confirms this, unfortunately. Wind clearly will be playing little or no role in the heavy snow the blizzard-like storm will drop on top of the aftermath of the last blizzard-like storm.

I can’t complain, though: we have had a relatively mild winter up to this point.

The Subtleties of English Words

Friday, January 15th, 2010

David Stevens commented on the Good Word cataclysm by noting that calamity is in with those [words = catastrophe, cataclysm] also, but probably connotes less than a catastrophe.”

He is right. My response is that I am always amazed at the subtle differences in words of the same semantic category available to careful speakers. In this case we can find a long continuum of words that indicate increasing intensity of problems: problem < trouble < calamity < catastrophe < disaster < cataclysm.

There may be other words that we could insert in this continuum but we find such continua in words expressing almost every category of variable concepts.

Perambulating Perambulators

Monday, December 14th, 2009

I’ve been terribly negligent of the Language Blog. My apologies, though I’m afraid the Christmas holidays will not make things any easier. Faye and I are traveling to Colorado where we will be taking the grandchildren out to high tea and their first performance of “The Nutcracker” by the Colorado Ballet.

However, yesterday’s Good Word perambulate brought out such a good story from Eileen Opiolka that I must drop everything and report it. Eileen wrote:

“Today’s good word [perambulate] reminded me of my husband’s first visit to Cambridge’s colleges over 30 years ago. In those days his Latin was stronger than his English, so when he saw the notice “No perambulators”, he docilely decided not to go in. Pity!”

I consider this evidence that a vocabulary too large is as liable to mishap as one too small. Anyway, I presume this incident did not preclude Eileen and her husband to eventually meet and, no double, perambulate many times together.