Let’s Get Literal
Posted by Neal on June 25, 2004
Welcome to Literal-Minded. I’ve started this blog after a few months of guest-blogging on my brother Glen’s blog, Agoraphilia, and a few days of it at The Volokh Conspiracy. A while back, I thought it might be fun idea to do a linguistics-related blog, good for just writing about the kind of ideas that would ordinarily go into an observation journal and not be publication-worthy for a long time (if ever). I’ve since learned that this is, in fact, such a good idea that more linguistics blogs are appearing every month (see Language Log, and its list of other linguistics blogs). So now I have a new reason: If all these other people are doing linguistics blogs, then I can, too!
So, do I really take things too literally? Though I can certainly recognize figurative speech, I’ve come to realize that I do tend to take things much more literally than most people, and get snagged on the syntax, pronunciation or ambiguities of someone’s utterance if something strikes me as odd. It’s happened since I was a kid. I remember singing the first line of the song “Bingo” in kindergarten:
There was a farmer had a dog, and Bingo was his name-O.
It wasn’t the name-O that got to me so much (I could see that the O was just a syllable to fill out the meter), but the There was a farmer had a dog. While everyone else was singing with no apparent confusion at all, I was thinking, “There was a farmer … had a dog? Which is it: There was a farmer, or A farmer had a dog?” I just couldn’t get past the squishing together of the two thoughts. For me, there had to be a who between farmer and had, and with every repetition of the verse, from I-N-G-O to N-G-O to G-O to O to just the 5 claps, the strangeness hit me again.
And it stayed with me. Flash forward 20 years to my syntax II class in the Ohio State graduate linguistics program. The professor was talking about relative clauses with omitted relative pronouns. In standard English, he noted, they could only be omitted when the modified noun was acting as an object in the relative clause (for example, the book (that) I wrote, with the book acting as the missing direct object of wrote), but in some dialects it could happen when the modified noun acted as a subject. He had hardly finished the sentence when I said, “Oh! Like, There was a farmer had a dog!”
My first publication in a refereed journal was due to my literal-mindedness. The idea for the paper came when I was walking down High Street in Columbus and noticed the sign in the window of a bar and restaurant called Street Scene. The sign said, “A special place to eat and drink.” I laughed, because if “a book to read” is something which can be read, then “a place to eat” must be something which can be eaten. I pictured a towering, B-movie monster crashing down the street, lifting up the whole restaurant and eating it, bricks, diners, and all. But after the initial laugh, the question became why a place to eat was ambiguous in this way, while a book to read wasn’t.
Though many of my posts relate to literal interpretations of things, not all do. In particular, my sons Doug and Adam are a good source of linguistic data from people who are still learning the language. And anything that strikes me as linguistically interesting is fair game for an entry here. My wife will thank me: The more thoughts that get written up here, the fewer she’ll have to listen to!