Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

It Was Never Said Anything About

Posted by Neal on February 25, 2007

Last month, I said in one of my posts that it sounded like Ira Glass, host of “This American Life”, had a uvular /l/. Justin “Semantic Compositions” Busch decided to hear for himself, and after doing so commented, “I can convince myself that I hear the uvular nasal when Ira Glass says his name at the 25:48 mark in the 1/5/07 broadcast, but most of the tokens of his /l/ don’t trigger that sensation for me at all.”

Since that time I’ve listened to a lot more of the weekly podcasts and archived MP3s (they’re somewhat addictive, even though they’re not all equally interesting), and I’m sticking with my call. The uvular /l/ is most perceptible at the beginning of words and in word-initial consonant clusters, not quite so much so intervocalically (between vowels), and hardly at all word-finally. If, like Busch, you want to hear some of these uvular /l/s for yourself, you can browse episodes to listen to here.

One of the more interesting episodes is “Family Legend”. As a bonus, if you listen to this one, between 20:37 and 20:45 you’ll hear the following utterance from a guy talking about whatever kind of scandal or impropriety his grandfather must have been involved in, such that his father and mother never mentioned him or had any documents or pictures relating to him:

It was just shut up, uh, not talked about, ah, not said anything about, never as far as I can remember.

This is an interesting sentence. Let’s take a look at how the not said anything about part would have been put if it had been cast in the active voice instead of the passive:

Nobody said anything about it.

In a typical passive phrasing, the anything would become the subject, and you’d get Anything was said about it by nobody. Well, no you wouldn’t; after adjusting to get the negation and the negative polarity item in a grammatical arrangement, you’d get:

Nothing was said about it (by anybody).

But this sentence wouldn’t fit very well in the context set up for it in the quotation above. There, the topic is it, the mysterious and presumably shameful event involving the grandfather. It is the subject of was shut up and [was] not talked about, and it would be nice if it could stay the subject for the next predicate, some kind of passive form of say X about Y. But to make a passive here with it as the subject, it would have to correspond to the X, and it actually corresponds to the Y. So what does the speaker do? He just goes right ahead and makes Y the subject, ending up with:

It was not said anything about.

In short, what we have is another possible circumstantial passive, like this one that I wrote about before:

That will have to be done something with today.

Once again, though, I have misgivings about labeling it as a true circumstantial passive. If you look at say something about as just a synonym for talk about (the second predicate in the quotation), then promoting the object of about for the one is no more surprising than it is for the other (or for other prepositional passives, such as Forks are to be eaten with, not played with). But if I’m going to make excuses for the phrase say something about, and try to rationalize it as a lexicalized chunk, then that commits me to claiming this kind of passive will never occur when you have a word (or words) other than something between say and about. So, for example, the following would be ungrammatical, no matter how convenient it would be in whatever context for the object of about to be promoted to subject:

It was…

  • …said a few words about.
  • …said something outrageous about.
  • …said horrible things about.

Am I right? Is there anyone out there for whom It was not said anything about is OK, and It was said horrible things about is bad?

Before I leave this topic, I want to point out this paper on prepositional passives by Jesse Tseng, which covers both was talked about and was said something about. It mentions some references that I really need to check, and includes the following example from Dwight Bolinger as an at least marginally acceptable example:

To be whispered such dirty innuendoes about would be enough to drive anyone crazy.

One Response to “It Was Never Said Anything About”

  1. […] this week’s This American Life episode today, and I came to the conclusion that Ira Glass doespronounce his /l/s as uvular nasals (commonly refered to as “swallowing your l’s”). It was a really good episode.  […]

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