Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Diachronic’ Category

The Witch Mary

Posted by Neal on November 25, 2011

Grammar Girl is running a guest script I wrote today (that is, she’s running it today; I wrote it some time ago), on difficult syntax in Christmas carols in general, and in particular in “What Child Is This?” The script was inspired by a real-life misunderstanding that Doug had seven years ago, and which I blogged about at the time. I’ve also been thinking about that song because Adam has been practicing playing it on the piano, and he sounds really good!

As I wrote in that blog post and in today’s Grammar Girl podcast, part of the difficulty is due to the perennial confusion between lie and lay (which I also wrote about in this post about the song “If I Just Lay Here”). For a while, I considered concluding the podcast with a sentence or two about how other traditional Christmas carols can serve as good models of for using lie and lay in the way that is currently considered the standard:

  • Where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even
  • the little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head
  • the stars in the sky looked down where he lay
  • how still we see thee lie
  • …certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay

I decided against it, because I didn’t want to give the impression that the whole episode was just about lie vs. lay. But as my wife and I were thinking about other Christmas songs, she started running through “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (which I wrote about last year). The second verse goes like this:

In Bethlehem in Israel this blessed babe was born,
And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn;
The which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.

This one isn’t so good for helping you remember the difference between lie and lay. Sure, you could parse it as was [born and laid], the standard way, but if you don’t already know that’s how it’s supposed to be, you could easily just parse it as [was born] and [laid], with laid used nonstandardly as an intransitive verb.

However, that wasn’t the part that grabbed my attention. Before my wife could move to the third verse, I was interrupting with, “Mary, a witch?!” Then: “Oh, which!”

Two changes in English created this misunderstanding. First is the simplification of the consonant cluster [hw] to [w] for many speakers, as highlighted in this Family Guy clip that I learned about from Language Log a few years ago.

Having the last name I do, I think I still have the [hw] cluster in my language. Sometimes when I give my name over the phone, the person on the other end will hear it as “Quitman”, because they don’t have [hw] in their speech and figure that I must have been saying [kʰw] instead of [hw]. On the other hand, other times they’ll simply not hear the [h] at all, and think my name is “Wittman”, which makes me wonder if I actually pronounce [hw] as consistently as I think I do.

The second change is the loss of the which as a relative pronoun. I never knew about it until I listened to this verse. The which is in the Oxford English Dictionary, though. It’s sure enough archaic now, but was showing up in the 1300s, as in this OED citation:

How god bigan þe law hym gyfe Þe quilk the Iuus in suld life.

Their last citation is from 1884, from Tennyson:

He holp the King to break down our castles, for the which I hate him.

There have to be kids who got all confused when they learned Jesus’s mother was a witch. Any of you know of any?

Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Morphology, Phonetics and phonology, Prescriptive grammar | 9 Comments »

Trick or Treat!

Posted by Neal on October 31, 2011

In the course of writing a Visual Thesaurus column on aspects of the word Halloween, I looked into the history of trick or treat. Some of the questions I had about it were:

  • When did it become a verb, as in trick-or-treating?
  • If its origin is indeed a threat, why is the threat said first and the demand second? That is, why isn’t it Treat or trick, following the same demand-punishment template as Your money or your life or Truth or consequences?
  • What’s with the kids in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown saying “Tricks or treats”? Is that a 1950s/60s thing, or a regional thing?

In the book Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, by David J. Skal, I learned that trick-or-treating in the United States began only in the 1920s, or possibly slightly earlier, on a regional basis. Skal adds that it “became widely known and adopted as a distinct property-protection strategy during the late Depression” (54). The sugar rationing of World War II put a damper on it, but trick-or-treating really took off in the post-war years.

The earliest attestation of trick or treat in the OED is from right after the war, in a 1947 article in American Home:

The household larder needs to be well stocked on October 31, because, from dusk on, the doorbell rings, bright eyes peer through crazy-looking masks, and childish voices in ghostlike tones squeal, croak, or whisper, “Trick or Treat!”

However, Skal has the phrase eight years earlier, in a 1939 article in the same magazine. It’s not talking about trick-or-treating as we know it, but as sort of a password for a Halloween party, put on for the same purpose of allaying Halloween vandalism. Skal writes that this attestation is “apparently the first time ‘trick or treat’ is used in a mass-circulation periodical in the United States” (p. 53):

…they found our front door open and a jolly Jack o’lantern grinning from a window at them. Seeing me, they summoned nerve to speak the age-old salutation of “Trick-or-Treat!”

Skal notes that even though the article refers to Trick or treat as an “age-old” greeting, it gives no support for this claim.

Returning to the post-war years, Skal writes that the Donald Duck cartoon “Trick or Treat” in the early 1950s helped popularize trick-or-treating on a national scale.

All this agrees with the picture you get from the Google Ngram viewer:

So how soon did trick or treat become a verb? The earliest example in the OED is from 1950:

So let the kids go out tonight and have a grand time with their masquerading and trick-or-treating.

As for the order trick or treat instead of treat or trick, as far as I can tell, the trick part has always come first. I wondered if it was some kind of phonetic thing going on, like roly poly or knick knack, but it doesn’t seem to fit the patterns. Unlike ping-pong or see-saw, the phrase trick or treat doesn’t have a front vowel followed by a back vowel: [I] adn [i] are both front vowels. And the initial consonants are the same, so whatever explanation you have for hanky panky instead of *panky hanky won’t apply. I tried to think if other common words or phrases had the [I]-[i] sequence, and didn’t come up with much: snickersnee (a kind of sword) striptease, and Mister T, but that’s about it.

Tricks or treats actually antedates trick or treat, as far as I’ve been able to determine. In Google Books, I found it in a 1938 issue of The Alpha Phi Quarterly:

Yes, it is Hallowe’en — the time for “tricks or treats.” But as far as Alpha Phi life is concerned, we know it holds only treats.

In an archive of Peanuts comics, I found that Charles Schulz had his characters saying “Tricks or Treats” all through the 1950s (sometimes with the addendum “Money or eats!”), though once he introduces storylines involving Linus and the Great Pumpkin in the 1960s, you don’t see it so much. Jumping forward to 1993, though, there’s a Sunday strip with Linus and Sally in the pumpkin patch, with Snoopy making an appearance at the end. In Snoopy’s thought balloon is “Trick or Treat!”, so somewhere along the way Schulz fell into line with the rest of the country. You can see in the Ngram View above that tricks or treats peaked in the mid-1950s.

One last item for those who read this far: Trick or treat! Smell my feet! Give me something good to eat! is noted as early as 1966 in the Keystone Folklore Quarterly. As for the further extension involving the pulling down of underwear, I can only date that back to my childhood in the 1970s.

Posted in Diachronic, Halloween, Phonetics and phonology, Variation | 11 Comments »

The Douche Totally Kicks Back

Posted by Neal on August 12, 2011

Last month, the wife and boys and I saw Super 8, the aliens thriller from J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Despite its cheesy ending, we liked it enough that we took Mom and Dad to see it when they came to visit a few weeks later. In fact, the movie was entertaining enough that it wasn’t until my second viewing that I noticed what should have been some glaring language anachronisms in a story that’s set in May of 1979. There were other anachronisms, too, which you can find (along with other goofs) on various websites.

The smallest temporal dislocation comes in a scene in which a character named Jen is flirting with a stoner dude named Donny. She tells him that her brother has told her Donny is a cool guy (or something along those lines), and then suggests that the she and he could “kick back”. Kick back meaning “relax” is only an anachronism by five years or so. I recall hearing it in 1984 or 1985, and its first attestation in COHA is from 1986.

In that same conversation, Donny responds to the comment about his being a great guy, “I totally am.” To the suggestion that he and Jen kick back, he says, “We totally could.” Also, in an earlier scene, the characters of Alice and Joe have an intense, emotional conversation. She asks him if he feels the same way she does about something, and he says, “I totally do.”

Totally, of course, can modify verbs, but until recently, only in its literal sense of “completely”. It’s hard to say when its sense of just “truly” or “definitely” developed, because in many cases either meaning works. Nevertheless, when totally began to be used with this sense, it was primarily with adjectives, most notably awesome. I don’t think it began to modify verbs that are incompatible with a “completely” meaning (such as kick back) until the 1990s or so. What’s more striking about all three examples in Super 8 is that they all modify an elliptical verb phrase, i.e. one with just an auxiliary verb. We’ve got a nice variety in these few examples: a modal (could), a form of be (am), and a form of do. All that’s missing is have. In both COHA and COCA, this only starts to happen in the 1990s.

The most jarring of the language anachronisms comes from Donny. Actually, Jen can’t stand him, and the only reason she’s flirting with him is to persuade him to give her brother and his friends a ride back into their evacuated town, where they plan to break into their school to look for top secret stuff. (It’s a government cover-up evacuation, of course, so the scene of Donny and the kids driving against a flow of outgoing traffic into a danger zone is probably deliberately reminiscent of Close Encounters.) Donny objects to the boys’ demand that he stay outside the school while they conduct their search, and says something like,

So what, I just wait here like a douche?

Like a douche? It’s only been in the last couple of years or so that I’ve gradually become aware of the insult douche. Other people noticed this anachronism, too, like the guy in an online movie forum who wrote,

One character says something like ‘I’m supposed to sit here like a douche?’ Douche and douchebag didn’t become ubiquitous insults until pretty recently. (And aren’t you glad they did?)

and the one who wrote,

I wasn’t aware that “douche” was ’79 slang. I thought that was a more recent thing.

This obvious hater was called out by another participant, who wrote,

I am utterly amazed at the depths to which people in the forum are willing to stoop, just to try to find something to criticize about this film. … Oh, and “douche” as a pejorative has been around since at least the 1960s, and probably a lot longer than that.

No, I don’t think so. Douchbag, yes; douche, no. I first came across douchebag in Pat Conroy’s book The Lords of Discipline, which was set, if I recall, in the 1960s. Of course, Conroy could have been using some anachronistic language himself, but a search through COHA turns up this 1951 attestation in From Here to Eternity:

“The trouble with you, Pete,” the voice … said savagely, “is you cant see any further than that douchebag nose of yours.”

It also shows up as a derogatory (I assume) nickname in the 1939 novel Ninety Times Guilty, for a character called Jimmy Douchebag.

But as for douche, the earliest definition submitted for it in Urban Dictionary is in February 2003. Three months earlier was the original airdate of an episode of South Park titled “The Biggest Douche in the Universe“, and that’s the earliest I’ve been able to antedate douche as a term referring to a person. I totally could see South Park popularizing a new piece of obscene slang, and maybe even inventing it, but can’t say for sure yet. If you heard it earlier than November 2002, or find an earlier attestation, leave a comment. (And not just any comment; a comment giving that attestation.) As for Donny’s line, a more era-appropriate insult would have been dork, but since he uses that one at least twice at other times in the movie, maybe J.J. Abrams wanted something else. Something else beginning with D. In that case, since The Dukes of Hazzard began airing in January 1979, my humble suggestion would have been dipstick.

Mar. 2, 2012, UPDATE: Had I checked the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, I would have found out that douche as an insult is attested in at least one population from the 1960s, as I learned from this

Posted in Diachronic, Music, Syntax, Taboo | 7 Comments »

If I Had Known

Posted by Neal on July 19, 2011

Back when Doug was in preschool, we took him to the doctor one day for a rash on his face and chest. The diagnosis: fifth disease. Fifth disease? What the hell was that? After Googling it, I learned that another name was slapped cheek syndrome, which made more sense. I didn’t object so much to a disease being called fifth disease, except that that was the only disease I’d come across with a numeric designation. Why hadn’t I ever heard of the first four diseases, or the diseases from the sixth onward?

As it turns out, diseases 1-4 go by the names measles, rubella, scarlet fever, and Duke’s disease, while the sixth is more commonly known as roseola. Furthermore, these numbers don’t encompass all diseases; just childhood diseases that involve rashes. That’s a little better, I guess, but why is it only the childhood rash diseases that got named this way? It reminded me of comics in the newspaper that do occasional running-gag strips on a theme like “Signs You’re the Parent of a Teenager” or “Essential Activities of Summer”, and each strip is labeled with a number. They don’t start with one and go sequentially; they label each entry with a randomly chosen number, as if to say, “The list goes on and on.” Ads in glossy magazines do this, too.

With that in mind, here is the topic suggestion from a reader named Karl, the second winner of my Grammar Girl book giveaway:

I’ve … noticed that 80% or more of Americans don’t use the past perfect form of verbs when the other clause in the sentence is a third conditional. They use the simple past form instead. I find myself doing it when I speak fast. For example, talking about a party which has finished: “If I knew you were there, I would have said hello” instead of using “had known”. Do other English speakers in other countries do the same thing?

“Third conditional”? This kind of conditional sentence is what I think of as a past-time counterfactual. Actually, I’m now moving to the terminology of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and will refer to these as past-time remote conditionals. Remote refers to the falseness, or at least unlikelihood, of the situation described in the if clause. “If I had known you were there” — but I didn’t know. Anyway, this is the second or third time a commenter has used the term third conditional on me, so now I was finally curious enough to try to find out where this term came from, and what first and second conditionals might be. I still don’t know where it came from; the earliest I’ve found in Google Books is in an 1822 grammar of Spanish.

However, I can now tell you that a first conditional is a present- or future-time open conditional. For example, If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, or If you touch my stuff, I’ll kill you. It’s an open question whether you are knowingly happy, or whether you’ll touch my stuff. Maybe you are, or will; maybe you aren’t, or won’t.

A second conditional is a present- or future-time remote conditional, such as If you really loved me, you’d do it, or If I won the lottery, I’d quit my job. The implication is that you don’t really love me, and winning the lottery is unlikely.

The third conditional, of course, is the past-time remote conditional. I got all this from an online grammar reference from Capital Community College of Hartford, Connecticut. Now that I know about first, second, and third conditionals, though, not only do I still think the names are poorly chosen and uninformative, but they also miss a fourth possibility: past-time open conditionals. I’ve laid them all out in the table below, and you can verify that the bottom left corner is the one that got left out in the cold. It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of conditionals. Not because it has bulging eyes, starred in movies such as Back to School and Caddyshack, and does standup comedy with lots of one-liners, but because it gets no respect. But you probably figured that out.

Open and Remote Conditionals

What’s interesting about present-time remote conditionals and past-time open conditionals (the light green squares) is that they both use a past tense verb form: If he was/were sorry in the examples. CGEL looks at it this way: The past tense has several functions in English, only one of which is to express past time. Another function is to express “modal remoteness”–i.e. unlikely possibilities or impossibilities. Each of those functions is shown in a light green square. (For every verb except one, the verb form in these two squares would be identical. I’ve chosen the one and only verb for which there’s a difference: be, with its was for the open conditional, and were for the remote one. And even that distinction has disappeared for many speakers, who uniformly use was in sentences like these.) When both functions are in play, then a “double past tense” does the job. I show this with the darker shade of green in the bottom right, with the if clause in the past perfect tense: If he had been sorry.

I’ve noticed what Karl is asking about in past-time remote conditionals, too; for example, there was If only we swam as good as we look. Then there’s the old song “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d’ve Baked a Cake”, which I first heard sung by Cookie Monster on Sesame Street. But how prevalent are these nonstandard conditionals, really? It’s hard to search for any and all conditionals that use a simple past tense or a past perfect tense, so instead I decided to search just for If I knew and If I had known in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which contains 425 million words from 1990 to 2011. The search turned up 198 tokens of If I had known, 196 of which are past-time remote conditionals, like this one:

This was not a publicity stunt. Of course, if I had known that all of this would happen, I would have done this years ago!

(The other two were indirect questions, in which the if can be replaced by whether, as in, “He asked if/whether I had known about the cozy relationship between News of the World and Scotland Yard.” That’s not an actual example, but I forgot to record the ones I found.)

COCA produced 609 tokens of If I knew. Of these, 48 are present-time remote conditionals; for example:

I’ll say anything on a runway. I’d speak Hebrew or Arabic or Swahili if I knew them, anything to hedge my bets. But today I am too exhausted to bargain with God.

Sixteen of them are past-time open conditionals. Look, here’s one now:

Ethan was just a friend. … And if I knew what was good for me, I’d keep it that way. (past-time open conditional)

Twenty-two were irrelevant. The remaining nineteen are all nonstandard past-time remote conditionals, along the lines of:

We all know Julianne Moore is an Oscar-nominated, Emmy award-winning actress, but who knew that she liked to clean? If I knew that, I’d have given her Tuesdays at my house for a little light dusting.

Extrapolating that last number to the 609 hits for “if I knew”, I estimate that there are 120 nonstandard past-time remote conditionals. Add to that the nearly 200 standard past-time remote conditionals in COCA, we have a total of about 320 past-time remote conditionals. Of them, about 38% use the simple past tense instead of the past perfect. Well short of Karl’s guess of 80%, but still pretty sizeable. And of course, the numbers for what he hears and reads may well be nearer to 80%. Also, when I narrowed the search to If I knew then and If I had known then, I get a total of 37, only eight of which use the standard past perfect tense. In other words, 78% of the tokens used the simple past, right in line with Karl’s guess. I wonder if the signaling of past time by then makes it less necessary for the verb to do so.

To get an idea whether Americans or British used the nonstandard phrasing more, I looked at the British National Corpus (BNC), which contains 100 million words from 1985 through 1993. For If I knew, I got 90 hits, only two of which were nonstandard:

I would never have given him the sweet if I knew there was acid in it.
if I knew what I know now, I would never have left Pontypool.

For if I had known, I got 18 hits. That makes two nonstandard conditionals out of 20, for 10%. So, to the extent that the older BNC data still reflects modern usage, and to the extent that my single example is representative of past-time remote conditionals more generally, Americans are almost four times as likely to use a simple past tense in them as British speakers.

Feel free to run your own searches in COCA, BNC, or other corpora (maybe the Corpus of Historical American English) with other verbs. Let us know what you find. Karl, thanks for your suggestion!

Posted in Conditionals, Diachronic | 24 Comments »

If You Can Say “Graduated College,” Can You Say “Graduated Harvard”?

Posted by Neal on May 31, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, my latest column is on the annual (or at least, annually relevant) arguments over whether it’s grammatical to say that someone “graduated college” or “graduated high school” (or even “graduated elementary school”), instead of “graduated from college/high school,” etc. I talk about the different versions of graduate that take different combinations of direct objects and prepositional phrases, and put them in a larger context of verbal diathesis alternations. My columns are usually behind a paywall there, so if you don’t have a membership, you have several options. One, of course, is to get a membership for something like $20, which you might find worth it just for the articles alone, by Ben Zimmer, Nancy Friedman, Mark Peters, Stan Carey, and others. Another, of course, is not to bother reading the column. But now there’s a third option: Wait three months and then go to the Vocabulary.com magazine. There you can find the formerly premium content that is more than three months old.

Anyway, here’s a detail that didn’t make it into the VT column. For me, although graduate from college/high school is the normal phrasing, graduate college/high school is not too bad. However, once you put in the name of a particular school, you can’t drop the preposition. So to my ears, graduated college is a little sloppy but OK, whereas graduated the University of Texas is out. I asked my followers on Twitter what they thought, and got a couple of responses that agreed with me, but as I thought more about it, I began to wonder if speakers would say graduate plus a school name after all. Here’s what I found in a small search in COCA:

  • graduate from Harvard vs. graduate Harvard: 115 to 1
    The one example of graduate Harvard was I guess my middle-schoolers would be graduating Harvard this year if the bumblers at their school had know [sic] about this smaller class size.
  • graduate from (the) Ohio State University vs. graduate (the) Ohio State University: 5 to 0
  • graduate from Stanford vs. graduate Stanford: 40 to 2
    The two: I graduated Stanford, and I’m also a member of the Horror Writers Association, and Lives in Palo Alto, Calif, and graduated Stanford in’ 98 with a political science degree.

Feel free to try this with other school names, and report in the comments!

One of the Twitter respondents was L. Michelle Baker, who goes by the handle of corpwritingpro. After her first tweet (which stated that from was customary before the school name), she surprised me with this one:

Wow! A professional writer was not simply dismissing graduate high school, nor even grudgingly accepting it in informal contexts, but actually granting it fully standard status, complete with a semantic distinction between graduate high school and graduate from high school. Furthermore, the part about describing an accomplishment is precisely what I found in Beth Levin’s English Verb Classes and Alternations as the difference between, for example, walked on the grounds and walked the grounds, or escaped from New York and escaped New York. I’m confused by how graduating from high school denotes less of an accomplishment than graduating high school, but maybe the fact that speakers look upon graduation as an accomplishment is what’s driving the loss of the preposition. Have any other readers noticed, or developed in your own usage, a semantic distinction between graduate from X and graduate X? And does it matter whether X is a common noun like college or high school, or a proper noun naming the institution?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Prescriptive grammar, Verbal diathesis alternations | 7 Comments »

Live TV

Posted by Neal on March 31, 2011

My brother Glen tweeted last Friday:

Hey #Fringe fans — let’s prove FOX right by watching live tonight, okay?

Fringe wasn’t doing a gimmick like ER did back in 1997, of airing an episode that had not been prerecorded. It was a regular episode like all the others. Glen meant to watch it as it was broadcast, not hours or days later on the DVR. I was interested to see him use live in this way, because I had been noticing one of the menu options on our newly installed cable TV system: “Watch Live TV”. That option doesn’t take you to a menu of live news and sports channels; it just gets you out of your programmable recordings and puts on the screen whatever TV show is on your current channel.

I was reminded of going to the gas stations in the late 1980s, when the term regular was shifting from meaning “with lead” to meaning “unleaded”, and unleaded was fading away. But unlike leaded gasoline, what I’ve thought of as live TV isn’t going away. There will still be breaking news and sports events broadcast as they occur, so I wonder how the speakers will accommodate with the term live TV.

The adjective live meaning “alive” has been around since the 1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It serves a useful purpose because alive itself, like other adjectives beginning with a-, can’t go before the noun it modifies. Somewhere recently, I read a short paper arguing that such adjectives are distributionally the same as prepositional phrases, which in fact is how they arose in the first place: alive was originally on life. If you know what I’m talking about, leave a comment. And it wasn’t this paper in the current issue of Language, interesting though that is.

Alive and the adjective live are clearly related, of course. According to the OED, live arose from alive by a process called aphesis: “The gradual and unintentional loss of a short unaccented vowel at the beginning of a word”.

The phrase live TV had to have appeared only after the invention of TV, and for that matter, the adjective live meaning “not recorded” must have developed only after the invention of recorded sound. The OED gives this definition, dating it to 1934:

Of a performance, event, etc.: heard or watched at the time of its occurrence; esp. (of a radio or television broadcast, etc.) not pre-recorded.
1934 B.B.C. Year-bk. 248 Listeners have … complained of the fact that recorded material was too liberally used … but … transmitting hours to the Canadian and Australasian zones are inconvenient for broadcasting ‘live’ material.

Video cassette recorders have been available since the 1970s, but even in the heyday of video rental stores, I never noticed this shift in the meaning of live. According to the current Wikipedia article, digital video recording has been around since 1999,
but even so, the earliest use of live TV that I’ve found with the meaning of “TV programs watched at the time of broadcast” is from the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003:

Phone giant Sprint Corp. and a small Berkeley company today are introducing cell phone TV, a new service that brings wireless phone users live television broadcasts from networks like MSNBC, the California Music Channel and the Discovery Channel. (link)

Live TV could still have its older meaning in this example if they had mentioned just MSNBC, but I suspect that most of the programming on the California Music Channel and the Discovery Channel was pre-recorded.

As of 2010, the latest date in the Google News Archive, most examples of live TV in the first page of results has the older meaning. When I do the search on the main Google News site, about half the hits on the first page seem to have the older meaning. The success of smartphones and computers with the ability to stream and rewind video feeds seems to have pushed along the new meaning of live TV more than the existence of mere recording capability.

My prediction for the future of live with regard to TV is that we’ll have a retronym, possibly by way of contrastive reduplication: “Is this live live TV, live TV, or a recording?”

My wife and I DVR’d the Fringe episode, by the way. But at least we still watched it on Friday night!

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, TV | 14 Comments »

We Don’t Speak the Same Language

Posted by Neal on March 23, 2011

Parents often complain that they and their teenage kids don’t speak the same language. They mean it jokingly, figuratively, but from a linguistic point of view it’s true in a literal way. Every generation of speakers has to create their native language anew from the little of it they hear. The language they end up with is like a starfish whose body has been regenerated from just one or two cut-off legs. (The analogy breaks down when you try to compare the language of the previous generation to the original starfish that has to regenerate its lost legs, but still.) When you think of it that way, it’s no surprise that language changes from generation to generation. The amazing thing is how close to the earlier generation’s language the regenerated language manages to come.

I’ve known this intellectually from the first class in historical linguistics I took, but it’s still disconcerting to find myself realizing that Doug and I speak different languages. Sure, I’ve enjoyed observing his acquisition of English and how it differs from what I speak, like when I heard him say, “That’s what he was like” to mean, “That’s what he was thinking”, or when he shared the reasoning he went through that led him to prefer on accident to by accident, or various other things you can read about in the Darndest Things tab. (One of these days, I’ll break it into separate tabs for Doug and for Adam.) But the differences have been building up, and when he talks on the phone with his friends, and laughs at dirty jokes I thought would go past him (all in his cracking voice that I hope will settle into its final form soon), I continually have to acknowledge how much of his language he’s getting from sources other than his family.

A couple of tweets I sent out last month:

Defiance! When I told my 10yo son singular of “biceps” is still “biceps”, my 12yo son dared to say he’d continue to call it “bicep” ANYWAY! (link)

More filial defiance! Son unapologetically says he will continue to call “(” a parenthesee. “Parenthesis, parenthesee, whatever.” (link)

Of course, these overgeneralizations are well-established in prior generations of English speakers, too, but the point is that while they’re not in my English, they’re entrenched in Doug’s.

Other differences between Doug’s language and mine reflect more recent developments in English. No matter how many times he says that something is “jacked up“, whether it’s a glitch in a video game or an unfair grade his friend got, I keep thinking of changing a car tire, and want to tell him, “Say ‘messed up’!”, or even the tabooed synonym that I’m almost certain must be the source of jacked up.

Need I even mention that he doesn’t use random the way I do?

But what really brought home the differences between Neal-language and Doug-language was a discussion I had with him about my most recent Visual Thesaurus column, on the possessive relative pronoun whose. Near the end, I mention the innovative form that’s, as in:

the only one that’s title has been released

That was from Doug in 2009, talking about upcoming volumes in a series of novels he was reading. I made note of Doug’s use of that’s at the time, and noticed it again a couple more times recently. And when I mentioned it to him in our conversation, did he suddenly see why that’s was so unusual? No way! He was a little surprised to learn that that’s as a possessive relative hadn’t been around for very long, but it didn’t bother him at all. He even said he’d most likely use it instead of whose in the examples I was talking about.

Doug and I are speaking different languages.

Posted in Diachronic, Doug, Pronouns, Variation | 15 Comments »

Nuclear Contamination

Posted by Neal on March 16, 2011

With the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan, there has been a lot more occasion to hear nuclear-related vocabulary on the news. I’ve been learning new terms, and getting a scary refresher on others I hadn’t been entirely clear on before. I’ve now learned about containment vessels and control rods, and have also learned that a meltdown is so named because the fuel rods literally melt, a detail I’d been unclear on before. (Hey wow, unclear and nuclear are anagrams.)

On the American Dialect Society email list, a discussion has been going on about another nuclear-related term: fission. The question is: Is it pronounced more like fishin’ and mission, or like vision? That is, is it pronounced [fɪʃən], or [fɪʒən]? Before Sunday, I would have said [fɪʃən] (a lot like fishin’), no question, but that afternoon I heard Adam’s den leader pronounce it as [fɪʒən]. I dismissed it as one guy’s error, but judging from the ADS-L thread, the pronunciation is pretty common.

To me, it sounds like another case of contamination. We have a set of semantically related words; in this case, the pair fission and fusion. The words have something in common phonetically as well as semantically: their initial [f] and final [ən] syllable, not to mention the fact that both [ʃ] and [ʒ] that are similar acoustically. The words become even more alike phonetically when the [ʃ] in fission becomes an [ʒ] like the one in fusion. The different vowels in the words’ respective first syllables remain different from each other: one remaining phonetic difference to convey the semantic difference.

Why did fission become more like fusion and not the other way around, so that fusion ended up more like fuchsia and Confucian? Because fusion is the more familiar word, appearing in collocations such as fusion cuisine or jazz fusion. It’s also transparently related to the verb fuse. Although I see that fission also has biology- and anthropology-related meanings, the only time I ever hear it is in the context of nuclear stuff, and it has no related verb. Well, it does, but just not in English; the Latin verb source is findere.

Posted in Contamination | 14 Comments »

Who Told Me Was My Dad

Posted by Neal on January 15, 2011

Driving home from Doug and Adam’s piano lessons last night, I heard a fluffy piece on NPR about Elizabeth Hughes, an eight-year-old girl who was singing the national anthem at a hockey game (well, before the game, actually), when her mike cut out, and the entire crowd picked up from where her sound went out. Well, there were probably some people in there who were just mouthing it, but enough sang to bring the song to a rousing finish. Mee-chele Norris was interviewing Hughes, and asked her how she happened to be picked to sing at the event. Hughes answered:

Who told me about this was my Dad.

Wow! A fused relative with who! A fused relative construction is something that looks like an interrogative (in this case, who told me), but acts like a noun phrase (in this case, by serving as the subject of was my dad). Huddleston and Pullum call this kind of structure a fused relative in CGEL because, to use this example to illustrate, you can think of it as equivalent to a noun modified by a relative clause: the person who told me about this. But in what the girl actually said, the who standing in for the whole string the person who. We get fused relatives all the time with what; for example, That’s what I want, which you could defuse (as it were) into That’s the thing that I want. (This reminds me of one of those great intentional ambiguities in a country song; this one involves a fused relative and a pseudocleft. Wait till you hear it; it’s great. But it’ll have to wait for another post.) Shoot, I even used a fused relative headed by what myself a couple of sentences ago. Did you see it?

Anyway, back to fused relatives with who. I’ll yield the floor to Geoff Pullum, who wrote about them on Language Log in December 2005 after hearing a barista ask, “Can I help who’s next?”:

In Rockport, Massachusetts, I observed another grammatical construction that might well have been thought extinct for many decades, but like the ivory-billed woodpecker and the supplementary relative that-clause, it seems to have survived in one very limited contextual environment. I was waiting in line in a small coffee shop and I heard a young woman behind the counter call for the next customer by saying “Can I help who’s next?”. This wasn’t my first observation; I hear the phrase in Santa Cruz, California, too (and since first posting this I have heard that it is familiar elsewhere, from ice cream scoopers in Cleveland, Ohio, to bank tellers in Gainesville, Florida). So it’s not local; it’s spread across the entire breadth of the continent. What’s interesting about it is that it’s a fused relative construction with human denotation, headed by the relative pronoun lexeme who. And that is a possibility that has mostly been extinct for some fifty to a hundred years.

In general, fused relatives with who just aren’t used in contemporary English. In Shakespeare’s time it was commonplace (recall Iago’s remark in Othello: Who steals my purse steals trash; ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands). It survived down to the 19th century. But it did not survive down to the present day.

Except in this peculiar use in coffee shops and the like, because in Can I help who’s next? we have a fused relative construction: it’s the object of help.

Like Pullum, I had noted the atypicality of Can I help who’s next?, and figured it was just an exceptional piece of syntax that wasn’t part of some bigger pattern. But now, from an eight-year-old girl, we have another fused relative headed by who, in a completely different context, used as a subject instead of a verb, and not part of some set, formulaic expression. Could this kind of fused relative be making a comeback, or was the phrasing unintentional? You can hear Elizabeth Hughes and decide for yourself. The story is also featured on the NPR blog, and if you listen to the first audio clip there, you’ll hear the phrase at about 1:19.

I was still thinking about this fused relative as we pulled into the garage, and Norris was asking Hughes if, since she never got to (audibly) finish her solo at the hockey game, she’d like to do it right now on the radio. I quickly turned off the ignition and set the parking brake, and the boys and I got right out of the car, just in time not to hear Hughes say, “No, that’s OK, I’m cool.”

Posted in Diachronic, Fused relatives | 6 Comments »

Fossil Phoneme Discovered in Living Language

Posted by Neal on January 14, 2011

If you (a) are not a linguist, and (b) have heard of “click” languages at all, it’s probably been in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. That was certainly my first awareness of this kind of sound. When I heard people in the movie talking, I found it hard to believe that the clicks were actually part of the speech, instead of a sound effect that had been added. A few years later, when I took a phonetics course in college, I was further surprised to learn that there was more than one kind of click; more like four or five actually. One of them, the dental click written as [|] in the IPA, even exists in English, but since we don’t have letters to represent clicks, we write it as “tsk”. (If you actually pronounce tsk, tsk as “tisk, tisk”, well, that’s not a click. You probably also pronounce ahem as “a-hem”, don’t you?)

Amanda Miller

In recent years, though, I’ve gone beyond surprised and into overwhelmed when I learned that five clicks is just scratching the surface. Thanks to the field research of Amanda Miller, one of my former fellow grad students, I’ve learned that there are on the order of 40 or 50 click consonants. It’s fascinating research, and she does it with technology that just didn’t exist a few years ago (because it was Amanda who developed it). This slideshow presents it well.

Cool though that all is, there’s more. I attended Amanda’s talk at the Linguistic Society of America conference last week, and as I listened to her, I was reminded of a famous story in the history of linguistics. In 1879, Ferdinand de Saussure published a paper about Proto-Indo-European, and hypothesized that it had had three sounds in its phonetic inventory that had morphed into other sounds in every known daughter language. Sally Thomason retells the story in this 2007 post on Language Log, and writes, “the idea of reconstructing unknown, unattested consonants did not appeal to traditionalists.” But several decades later, Saussure was vindicated with the decipherment of Hittite in the early 20th century, when two out of those three consonants were discovered in the Hittite texts. (That is, some words for which Saussure had proposed these sounds in PIE showed up in Hittite writing, with a mysterious character appearing where these consonants would have been.)

In her talk, Amanda talked about the African languages !Xung and Ju|’hoansi. In Ju|’hoansi, there is a pair of homophones, pronounced [gǃűű], which mean “water” and “belly”. ([!] is an alveolar click, a bit like [|], but sharper and louder.) Meanwhile, in the closely related !Xung, specifically the dialect spoken in an area known as the Mangetti Dune, the words aren’t homophones. “Belly” is still pronounced [gǃűű], but “water” is [gǁűű]. ([ǁ] is a lateral click, in which the tongue tip stays in contact with the alveolar ridge behind the upper front teeth, while the sides of the tongue move downward. According to the Wikipedia article, this sound is used by English speakers to call horses.)

The conclusion, then, is that in Proto-Ju, the ancestor language to M.D. !Xung and Jo|’hoansi, these words weren’t homophones. Suppose they had been. If the Proto-Ju word had been *[gǃűű], then we’d expect both “water” and “belly” to still be homophones in M.D. !Xung, pronounced as [gǃűű]. Likewise, if the Proto-Ju word had been *[gǁűű], then we’d expect both “water” and “belly” to still be pronounced as [gǁűű]. It would be highly irregular for the same sound in the similar phonetic environment (you can’t get environments more similar than in a pair of homophones!) to undergo a sound change for one word and not another.

So if “belly” and “water” in Proto-Ju weren’t homophones, how were they pronounced? “Belly” is easy: Since it appears as [g!űű] in both M.D. !Xung and in Ju|’hoansi, the most reasonable guess is that’s how it was in Proto-Ju, too. But what about “water”? We’ve already established that it most likely was not [g!űű] in Proto-Ju, since that would have made it a homophone with “belly”. So maybe it was *[gǁűű]. That’s where we’ll leave it for now.

Meanwhile, in 2003, Bonny Sands published a paper arguing that in Proto-Ju, there had been yet another click consonant, a retroflex click (in which the tongue tip curls backwards), which she wrote as [!!], which disappeared, gradually coming to be pronounced as [!] in Ju|’hoansi, and as [ǁ] in M.D. !Xung. Like Saussure’s reconstructed sounds for Proto-Indo-European, the sound [!!] was unattested in any known language.

However, Amanda has now found this sound, like a Coelacanth in the Indian Ocean, still present in a living (albeit endangered) language! With high-speed ultrasound technology, she has recorded this sound in the speech of a different variety of !Xung, spoken in the area known as Grootfontein. As in M.D. !Xung, “water” and “belly” are not homophones in this language. As we would expect, “belly” is once again pronounced [g!űű], but the word for “water” is [g!!űű], containing the heretofore unattested retroflex click! [UPDATE, Jan. 14, 2010: I should add that this kind of “minimal pair” data, in which a single difference in sound is all it takes to convey a different meaning, is the gold standard of evidence that two sounds are separate phonemes in a given language.]

So to sum up the parallel developments of the words for “belly” from Proto-Ju to Ju|’hoansi, M.D. !Xung, and Gfn !Xung:

  • Proto-Ju *[g!!űű] develops into Ju|’hoansi [g!űű], where the merger of [!!] and [!] creates the homophones for “water” and “belly” that exist today.
  • Proto-Ju *[g!!űű] develops into [gǁűű] in M.D. !Xung. It doesn’t create any homophones there.
  • Proto-Ju *[g!!űű] remains [g!!űű] in Gfn. !Xung.

To support this clasim, Amanda presented both acoustic evidence (waveforms, etc.) and articulatory evidence (the ultrasound data, plus palatograms and linguograms — results of a test involving painting the tongue or palate with a mixture of olive oil and charcoal dust, having the speaker make the sound, and then seeing where the oil/charcoal mixture has been rubbed off). Her diagnosis is that the merger of *[!!] and [ǁ] along the way to M.D. !Xung was motivated acoustically (i.e., the two sounded alike), while the merger of *[!!] and [!] along the way to Ju|’hoansi was motivated articulatorily (i.e., the two sounds are made in much the same way).

What I’ve summed up in this one post covers an incredible amount of travel, technical development, fieldwork, and lab analysis. An amazing piece of work!

Posted in Consonants, Diachronic, LSA | 8 Comments »