Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Morphology’ Category

The Flesh-Presser

Posted by Neal on August 16, 2015

“So you’re going to be at the Tomato Festival?” Doug asked me. That would be the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival, our own addition to the list of small-town festivals celebrating odd things. In nearby towns we have the Circleville Pumpkin Show and the Millersburg Sweet Corn Festival, but here in Reynoldsburg we honor the tomato.

In any case, yes, I was going to the Tomato Festival, not so much because I’m a big fan of tomatoes (they’re OK in a salad or sandwich, or chili or spaghetti sauce), but because like many such festivals, it’s an opportunity for political candidates to get out and meet a lot of people, and during the teacher strike in our school district last year, I decided to run for a seat on the Board of Education.


In elementary school it was Neal the Banana Peel

“Yep,” I said. “I reckon I’ve got to get out there and press the flesh, as they say.”

“What?!” Doug said. “What do you mean?”

“You know, going out and shaking lots of people’s hands,” I answered.

“Ugh, don’t say that. It sounds obscene!”

“Really?” I asked. I searched for the term on my phone, and the first hit that came up was an Urban Dictionary definition. If there really was an X-rated meaning for press the flesh, this would be the place to find it. But the most popular definition read:

To meet people in person, particularly at an event where you can network with other people. The actual pressing of flesh here refers to shaking hands with people.

All the other definitions said essentially the same thing. Later, at the Tomato Festival, while Doug was off with his girlfriend and some of their friends, I saw her mother and father and told them the story. Her mother laughed. “Just because his mind’s in the gutter…!”

The girlfriend’s father, whom I”ll call Mr. J, just chuckled and wished me well as I went to continue my flesh-pressing.

Or at least, that’s all he did in my presence. When he caught up with Doug and his daughter later that night, he made sure to say to Doug, “So your dad’s off pressing the flesh, huh?” I learned this when we were all back home, and Doug asked, “Dad, did you tell Mr. J. to use the expression pressing the flesh with me?

Nice going, Mr. J.! Now I’ll just have to push it a little further by morphing the idiom into a gerund (flesh-pressing), or an agentive noun (flesh-presser), or maybe really mess with Doug by turning it in to a backformed compound verb, and saying things like, “I flesh-pressed a lot of potential voters out there last week!”

Posted in Backformation, Doug, Ohioana, Politics, Taboo | 2 Comments »

He Conquers Who Endures

Posted by Neal on November 29, 2014

I saw this on the back of a T-shirt when I was at the grocery store:

He conquers who endures.

Too bad for those people who endure. Even after all their endurance, they get conquered in the end. He, whoever “he” is, is a patient conquerer.

However, I suspect the wearer of the T-shirt probably didn’t realize that this was the meaning it was conveying. He probably thought it meant something like “The person who endures conquers,” or “He who endures conquers.” (Or to put it more gender-neutrally, “They who endure conquer.”) But that would mean that two unusual things were going on in this sentence. Neither of them is unprecedented, but both of them happening in one short sentence is noteworthy.

First, the clause who endures would have to be a relative clause modifying he. This doesn’t happen so much in present-day English. The best-known example in recent years is probably the epithet He Who Must Not Be Named for Voldemort in the Harry Potter novels. And even here, speakers didn’t realize they could change the He to Him when the name was a direct object, as observed by Q. Pheevr here.

Second, this relative clause who endures is separated from he. Now sometimes relative clauses do get separated from their head nouns: a book was published that would be read for centuries by countless generations; a woman appeared who was also carrying her head in her hands; What type of workers were there who participated in building the Pyramids. However, this usually happens when the subject of a clause would be ridiculously long if you refused to break it up. He who endures is just three words.

With my interpretation, though, there’s only one unusual thing going on: who endures isn’t modifying a noun at all, but is acting like a noun phrase all by itself. This is somewhat unusual, but not terribly so. It’s unusual because this kind of clause (known as a fused relative), more typically refers to things than to people. In other words, although sentences like That’s what I want and What you did was inexcusable are common enough, fused relatives like this one and the one in Who told me was my dad are somewhat rare. Exceptions include Can I help who’s next? and To whom it may concern.

Overall, then, my parse is the better choice syntactically. After a bit of internet-searching, though, I found that this is a translation of a Latin quotation from an ancient Roman satirist named Persius, although the opinion seems to be that he wasn’t being satirical when he wrote this:

Vincit qui patitur.

People who explain this quotation talk about the need for persistence in order to achieve victory, which definitely sounds more like the “They who endure conquer” interpretation. OK, so maybe it’s possible that I chose the incorrect interpretation for that guy’s T-shirt. But now I can write about how Latin is more precise than English, and you pick up this ambiguity in translation! Except that the same ambiguity exists in the Latin phrasing. Here’s how…

Vincit means “conquers”. Like its English translation, it can be transitive (as in Omnia vincit amor, “Love conquers all”) or intransitive (as in In hoc signo vinces, “By this sign you will conquer”), so you have to use the context to tell whether a nearby noun phrase is a subject or direct object. Usually in Latin, case endings do this, as illustrated below:

Vincit rex. “The king conquers.”
Vincit regem. “He/she conquers the king.”

Qui patitur means “who suffers (or endures)”, and it’s acting as a fused relative, just like its translation in English. Even in Latin, though, we can’t tell if that fused relative is a subject or an object. It’s the same problem that confuses English speakers about whoever and whomever. So actually, what we have here is a translation that is faithful even in preserving the ambiguity of the original!

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns, Relative clauses | 7 Comments »

Sleep Like Death, Death Like Sleep

Posted by Neal on May 19, 2014

The boys, the wife and I watched the latest episode of the rebooted Cosmos last night. About 10 minutes in, Neil deGrasse Tyson began talking about the idea that life on Earth may have begun by arriving on meteorites. It’s known that rocks from Mars, for example, have ended up on Earth this way. It’s also known that some bacteria are able to survive in space, as proven by bacteria that survived a stint traveling on the outside of the International Space Station. Finally, it’s known that some bacteria can survive for a long time without a food source. On this point, Tyson talks about some recently revived bacteria found in Antarctic ice:

Even more amazing are these creatures, awakened from a death-like sleep of eight million years…

I was interested to hear Tyson put it that way, because I’ve also been hearing another person talking about death-like sleeps recently, but she phrases it differently:

Did you hear that? She said:

Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she will fall into a sleep like death!

Both phrases are talking about a sleep, not about death. We know this from the context, and from the fact that the verbs fall and awaken collocate more strongly with sleep than with death. But they’re phrased in completely opposite orders from each other! Furthermore, it’s syntactically possible for each phrase to be referring to death, not to a sleep. No, I haven’t actually found any examples of this, but it could happen, OK?

Here are the structural differences all sorted out. The diagrams on the left refer first to a death that is like sleep, and then to a sleep that is like death. In these parses, the adjective like is looking for a noun-phrase complement on its right to form an adjective phrase. The diagrams on the right refer to a sleep that is death-like, then to a death that is sleep-like. Here, the adjective like forms a compound adjective with the noun phrase on its left.

Dead, or Just Resting?

The situation reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s “snake eating cake”.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Compound words, Diagramming, Movies, TV | Leave a Comment »

Don’t Follow to Unfollow

Posted by Neal on February 9, 2014

“Don’t follow to unfollow,” said the last line in the Instagram profile.

What did that mean? It seemed to be saying, “To unfollow me, simply don’t follow me!” But that interpretation didn’t make sense!

Morphologically and semantically, the prefix un- doesn’t work that way. When you attach it to a verb, it refers to reversing an action. So unfollowing someone wouldn’t mean simply not following them; it requires that you follow them first. In fact, even that verb meaning makes sense only with the reversible social-media sense of follow: In Instagram, Twitter, or whatever app you’re using, follow means “click a button once to add someone’s updates to your news feed”; unfollow means to click again to remove them. In real life, though, following isn’t a reversible action. The closest you can come is to stop following someone. The reverse of following would be … what? Following their footsteps backward to find out where they started? In any case, you can’t unfollow someone on social media without first following them.

But wait, you say: Untied shoes can be shoes that were never tied! The unopened can of chocolate-covered peanut brittle like the one my wife gave me tonight had never been opened. (It’s open now.) This is true, and it’s because of the other way that un- can be used: It can prefix an adjective to form the negation of that adjective. So untied is not the verb untie with the suffix -ed turning it into an adjectival past participle; it’s the adjectival past participle tied, with the prefix un- giving it the meaning “not having been tied”. As for the verb untie, you don’t untie something by leaving it alone. It has to be in a knot already, and you remove the knot. For more on all this, read Ben Zimmer’s 2009 Boston Globe column.

“Don’t follow to unfollow”–was it a Zen thing? Kind of like “The only way to win is not to play”? I decided to ask Doug and Adam, who are more familiar with the latest trends in this area.

“Oh, I hate when people say that!” Doug said. “Some will even say, ‘Don’t unfollow, I have the app.’ “


Some people, Doug explained, advertise that they will follow anyone who follows them; “follow back,” in the parlance. Right, I said.

Some other people, Doug went on, will follow those people, and then when those other people follow these followers back, the original followers will turn around and unfollow the people they just followed.


To get their follower-to-following ratio up! So when people say “Don’t follow to unfollow,” what they mean is, don’t pull this kind of funny business.

Suddenly, it clicked into place for me. It was an attachment ambiguity. I had been interpreting to unfollow as a purpose infinitive modifying the imperative Don’t follow, as in the diagram on the left. In actuality, to unfollow was modifying just the verb follow, as in the diagram on the right.

The reading I was getting

The reading I was getting

The reading I was supposed to get

The reading I was supposed to get

Even if I had parsed the sentence correctly, though, my interpretation wouldn’t have been right. In my grammar follow to unfollow makes even less sense than my earlier interpretation. It means, “In order to unfollow me, follow me!” The intended meaning is really “Don’t [[follow to get me to follow you back] and [then unfollow me]]. A shorter phrase that would probably also work: Don’t [follow only to unfollow later]. Actually, that does get a few Google hits, but only 28, compared to the thousands for “Don’t follow to unfollow.”

But all this really brought home a kind of sad side of social media that I hadn’t been aware of. First of all, that there are people who care so much about their following size, and believe that so many others share the sentiment, that they promise to follow everyone back. They don’t care how dull or stupid anyone’s stream of content is; they just want that person to follow them. Second, that some of these people try to break the rules of this pitiful game by buying a follower and then stopping payment. Third, that players of this game are so invested in their bogus follower numbers that they send out pre-emptive threats: “Don’t follow to unfollow; I have the app.” The app, I’m assuming, is Who Unfollowed Me? or something like it, as the guy in the video describes. These apps typically advertise how easy it is to unfollow those that unfollow you, as if that’s just naturally the next step to take when you find out that someone unfollowed you. What next? Apps that find out who unfollowed you, and then force them to refollow you?

Now that I understand Don’t follow to unfollow better, I guess my original interpretation could work after all. The users who don’t want me following and then unfollowing really would prefer that I did my unfollowing by never following in the first place: To unfollow, don’t follow.

Posted in Attachment ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Morphology, Negation | 6 Comments »

All of Which

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2013

Picture from

Picture from

Last week was the last football game of the season for Doug’s high school. As such, it was “senior night,” when the seniors on the football team received a pre-game recognition. As I looked on, I heard the announcer say

…our senior players, all of which are donning their uniform for the final time tonight.

All of which?

I know that which hasn’t always been reserved for inanimate things. Just look at the Lord’s Prayer in the King James version of the Bible: “Our Father, which art in heaven….” But I’m not used to hearing it in present-day English. I suspect that the preposition is responsible, because speakers are trying to avoid saying whom but aren’t quite comfortable with saying of who, either. Actually, I was surprised at how much confusion there was on the issue in the answers to this question on One commenter even stated that friends, most of which was “technically correct,” but that he would say friends, most of whom only because he hated the sound of friends, most of which.

In COCA, I looked for sequences of a determiner (like all, some, none) or a number followed by of which, and found about 15,000 hits. Inspecting a few pages of hits, I found which with mostly inanimate antecedents, but I did turn up a few animate whiches:

  • Now you have got a field of candidates, some of which are perceived to be to his right.
  • …the increase has pushed illegal immigrants to the streets, “some of which go on to commit further crimes.”
  • This is what he said in confidence to his friends, one of which went to gossip to Don Honorato…
  • The task recorded by the helicopter’s night view camera was to try find and rescue survivors. Two of which were who were found bobbing in a life raft.
  • Well, but do you think that congressmen, the two of which I just cited, are they capable of moving beyond that calculation?
  • Between 1946 and 1966 more than 2,500,000 immigrants were admitted to Canada, 900,000 of which were sponsored.
  • According to British estimates in February 1949 the total number of former “Palestinians” — those who remained behind and those who fled — was around 900,000 of which 320,000 … now lived in the Jordanian territory in the West Bank or across the Jordan

Four of these are from spoken English, so it’s possible they were speech errors, or whom avoidance. But the other three are from fiction and academic prose, and in the academic stuff I don’t imagine whom avoidance would play a role. So it’s just possible that animate which lives on, at least after prepositions.

That wasn’t the only linguistic surprise last Friday night. One by one, the senior players marched to the middle of the field, as the announcer introduced them, and added “escorted by” and the name of their parents, or a parent. I did a double-take when one player walked out cradling a baby in his right arm.

I mean, really, doesn’t that seem to stretch the definition of escort?

Posted in Lexical semantics, Pronouns | 8 Comments »


Posted by Neal on October 13, 2013

One day in August, I picked up Doug and a couple of his friends from band rehearsal (remember Ken and Holt?). It was a special day, because after a couple of weeks of anticipation, the band members’ bibbers had come in. Doug, Holt, and Ken were each carrying a plastic bag with a folded black garment in it. Those, I presumed, must be the bibbers. I had never seen or heard of a bibber before.

Well, correction. Whatever a bibber was, I had probably seen one any time I watched a marching band perform. I was interested to see exactly what Doug’s looked like when we got home. It turned out to look something like this:

Bibbers, doing some serious bibbing

During the next couple of weeks, we adjusted the straps, pinned and hemmed the legs, then washed and hung up the bibber. Doug has now been wearing it for the halftime shows at the football games, and the marching band competitions that his school has participated in. So I figured I was pretty well familiar with bibbers, until one Friday early this month, as Doug was getting ready for the evening show, he asked his mother, “Mom, have you seen my bibbers?”

She asked me, “Neal, do you know where Doug’s bibbers are?”

“It’s hanging in the laundry room,” I said. “Why do you two keep calling it a ‘bibbers’?”

“For the same reason I don’t say I put on my pant,” Doug told me.

Oh! I suddenly got it! Like pants, and shorts, and jeans, and trousers, and undies, and other words for other items of clothing that “have two holes, one for each leg,” bibbers was a plurale tantum. Shoot, even overalls is a plurale tantum, and when I got my first look at Doug’s pair unfolded, I’d thought to myself, “Oh, a bibber is like a pair of overalls!” Why hadn’t I made the connection?

My world shifted just a little bit, as I reconciled this new knowledge about bibbers with my previous experience with them. I realized that up until this conversation, the only time I’d seen bibbers when I was learning the word was when there was more than one pair at a time. “The bibbers are here!” “Come get your bibbers!” My bibber was a backformation, pure and simple. Just to confirm, I did a Google search for bibber, and all I found was a handful of proper names, and a most likely bogus Urban Dictionary definition: “A self described big-penised man who in reality isn’t.”

It took me a while to feel natural calling Doug’s “bibber” his bibbers. I knew I’d succeeded, though, when Doug came home from a long day of two band competitions yesterday. He staggered in, unlaced his shoes and dropped them on the kitchen floor. He slipped out of his bibbers, and opened up the pantry door so he could hang them over it. If he had his way, they’d be hanging there for a week, keeping the pantry door hanging open, blocking my view of the TV screen from the kitchen table. And I’d told him not to do it at least twice before. As Doug reached up to put the straps over the pantry door, I nipped things right in the bud, saying, “Don’t you put those there!”

Those, not that! In an unplanned utterance! Re-coding complete.

Posted in Backformation, Doug, The wife | 3 Comments »

We and They

Posted by Neal on October 7, 2013

I was asking Doug about his classes a couple of weeks ago, and a little tingle of anticipation went up my spine when he told me that in English class that day, his teacher had been talking about grammar. Yes! It was about time for some grammar, after all that business with their summer reading project, and this “narrative” thing they were starting to write. What kind of grammar?

“We were learning to say things that sound wrong.”

Things that sound wrong? Like “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”? This might be shaping up to be the best high-school English class ever.

“Like ‘we and they,'” Doug said. “She said, ‘I know people don’t actually talk like this, but you gotta learn it.'”

So much for best high-school English class ever. But, Doug — we’ve talked about this before! Don’t you remember? You were in fourth grade! I can remember it as clearly as if I’d written a blog post about it…

For those of you who didn’t follow the link, Doug lost a few points on a grammar worksheet when he was given the sentence “him and her take ice skating lessons on wednesday” to correct. He sidestepped the issue of the coordinated pronouns and corrected it like this: “They take ice skating lessons on Wednesday.” As I wrote at the time, “She had wanted them to change him and her to he and she, Doug said, but that sounded weird.”

But this time around, I noticed, the pronouns were plural. It wasn’t the typical he and I instead of him and me, or she and he instead of him and her. This time it was we and they. It occurred to me that I didn’t really know if some speakers tended to say us and them where Standard English would call for we and they. If they do, it certainly isn’t enough to land injunctions against us and them are in the grammar manuals, much less enough to give us hypercorrections like between we and they. I decided to take a look at COCA to see how often coordinations like we and they actually did come up.

I searched for all coordinations involving clearly plural animate personal pronouns (we/us, they/them) coordinated with pronouns that were clearly singular (I/me, he/him, she/her) or clearly plural. (In other words, no you.) I searched for coordinations of nominative with nominative (e.g. we and they), and accusative with accusative (e.g. us and them). I also looked for both mixed cases (for example, we and them and us and they), but didn’t get any hits there. Here are the results:

Coordinated pronouns
All nominative COCA hits All accusative COCA hits
I and we 1 me and us 3/0
we and I 0 us and me 0/0
I and they 0 me and them 32/1
they and I 15 them and me 22/0
he and we 13 him and us 19/0
we and he 3 us and him 7/0
he and they 35 him and them 18/0
they and he 4 them and him 8/0
she and we 9 her and us 5/0
we and she 2 us and her 2/0
she and they 8 her and them 10/0
they and she 3 them and her 2/0
we and they 9 us and them ~115/0
they and we 19 them and us 61/0

The first thing to notice is that people do use coordinated nominative personal pronouns, at levels comparable to the use of coordinated accusative personal pronouns. This is especially true when you consider that there are more occasions to use accusatives than nominatives. You use the accusative forms for direct objects, indirect objects, objects of prepositions, and (for all but the most insistently archaic rules) complements of be — not to mention pronouns in isolation. The only thing the nominatives are used for is subjects.

The second thing to notice is the slashes between the numbers in the accusative hits column. The first number represents attestations for which Standard English rules would prescribe accusative (for example, between us and them). The numbers after the slashes represent the examples for which the rules would prescribe nominative (for example, us and them are… instead of we and they are). (I counted complements of be as a context where we would expect the accusative case.) The numbers show that not only do speakers use nominative forms like we and they where they’re called for; they generally don’t use accusative forms like us and them in those places. In all the coordinations I tested, I found only one nonstandard example: “Yeah, me and them are buds,” I said.

By comparison, if you do a COCA search for the coordination of singular pronouns me and him, in the first page of results, you’ll find example after example of it being used as nonstandardly as a subject, and hardly any examples of it being used standardly as an object.

Here is a list of examples of each kind of coordinated nominative personal pronoun I found:

  1. I was assured that as long as I created scenes, behavior and dialogue consistent with the way they were depicted in the book — which resulted in a lawsuit — that I and we would be safe.
  2. In the middle of apologizing to them, I decided they and I needed to accept the reality
  3. disease

  4. He needed killing, and he and we needed it to be accomplished at the hands of Americans.
  5. He proceeds back to the doorway, where we and he see Fell,
  6. Was Hitler not fully Hitler, the Nazis the Nazis, until he and they annexed Poland?
  7. the passion and release that they and he crave so much.
  8. As you know, George, both she and we agreed to party rules
  9. the many meetings and public hearings on this issue in which we and she have participated
  10. Perhaps she and they somehow missed the last 50 years of Eastern European history.
  11. As she followed the frustrated felines she noticed that they and she had left footprints in the dust on the steps.
  12. We and they thank you for your cooperation in this time of national crisis,
  13. They and we have a right to expect better excuses for wrong-doing from our government

Why such a marked difference between coordinations of two singular pronouns and those involving a plural? Thomas Grano‘s 2006 honors thesis has a hell of a lot of other research about all kinds of coordinations of English pronouns with other pronouns and full NPs, but doesn’t seem to address this situations. Grano does develop a principle of frequency-based prescriptive conformity, which says that the more frequently some nonstandard form shows up, the more likely it is to be exposed to “prescriptive pressure” and changed to the standardized form. However, nonstandard us and them and the other coordinated accusative pronouns don’t seem to be very frequent at all, so the principle is silent here.

Meanwhile, I need to try to elicit some coordinations involving plural pronouns from Doug and Adam. If we and they sounds wrong to them, but us and them as a subject is so rare in the language input they’ve been hearing, what will they actually say?

Posted in Coordination, Pronouns | 2 Comments »

Headless Aviators

Posted by Neal on June 29, 2013

I didn’t even know “aviator sunglasses” were a recognized type of sunglasses, but apparently they are, and so much so that the full compound aviator sunglasses has become the headless compound aviators. My discovery of this was a bit startling, because it didn’t happen simply by me hearing someone talking about wearing aviators. Instead, when I took Doug and Adam for their eye exams, I saw on the reception counter a cardboard display showing small, laughing children wearing colorful, plastic-framed, wide-lensed sunglasses. The altered Top Gun logo told me that these unbelievably stylish sunglasses were called Babiators.

All at once, not only did I have to infer the existence of aviators as a noun referring to a kind of eyewear instead of a group of airplane pilots; I also had to take it in as part of an offensively cute portmanteau word, in a display for a product that shouldn’t even exist.

However, it is an interesting portmanteau. Component A: baby. Component B: aviators. On the one hand, you could break this portmanteau down as just baby + aviator: the beginning of the first component, the end of the other, and that’s all. On the other hand, there are some portmanteaus like the ones I described in this piece for

Sometimes, though, an identical string of sounds at the end of one word and the beginning of the other allows for a blend in which neither word has to give up anything. In a portmanteau such as bromance, everything is kept intact. Like an electron shared between two covalently bonded atoms, the ro belongs to both bro and romance. The same thing happens in guesstimate and netiquette.

Is babiators one of those? Almost, but not quite: [ebi] and [evi]. The [b] and the [v] don’t match. Still, they’re both voiced consonants made with the lips. A similar kind of overlap happens with the voiceless counterparts [p] and [f] in the verb refudiate that Sarah Palin raised our awareness of. (For what it’s worth, there are two differences with refudiate. First, the component refute still loses its final [t] consonant instead of being completely preserved. Second, I believe it was an unintentional mashup, not a consciously blended coinage.) So, was babiators created by the same kind of blending that gives us guesstimate and netiquette, or by the simpler kind that gives us spork? Or by some kind of discontinuous overlap?

On the semantics side, this is a portmanteau that was only possible once aviator sunglasses had become the headless aviators. The phrase babiator sunglasses would have to mean sunglasses worn by babiators. And whatever those might be, it would be even sillier than the actual idea behind the trademarked Babiators.

Posted in Compound words, Portmanteau words | 2 Comments »

Anti-Passive! It’s Like a Passive for Ergative Languages!

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2013

This ain't no pasta!

Over the weekend, I speculated on how English might work as an ergative language. Today, on National Grammar Day, I’m taking it a step further into the reversed grammar of ergative languages, to show what might happen if you tried to use the passive voice in ergative English. What would that even look like, when our ergative English already has its transitive verbs agreeing with their patients?

In you’ve forgotten what that looks like, here’s the suite of sample sentences we arrived at in our morphologically and syntactically ergative version of English. The pronouns in red are in the ergative case; they denote agents who do things to others. The pronouns in blue are in the absolutive case; they denote either “subjects” (in this context, someone or something that performs an action which doesn’t directly affect someone or something else), or patients who are affected by an action.

    1. She kiss me.
    2. I kisses her.
    1. Her smiles.
    2. Me smile.

Before I go further, I need to comment on the vocabulary. First of all, the terms agent and patient have to be understood as referring not only to very obviously agentlike roles such as “hitter,” “writer,” and “creator,” and very patientlike roles such as “struck,” “written,” and “created,” but also to pairs such as “seer” and “seen,” or “one who loves” and “one who is loved.” This is true for ordinary English as well as our imaginary ergative variety.

Second, we saw earlier that the term subject has a specialized meaning when we’re talking about whether a language is ergative or not (or more concisely, its morphosyntactic alignment). It’s not just any subject; it’s the subject of an intransitive verb. So what term do we use when we want to talk about the subject of a transitive verb? In the last post, we called them agents, in keeping with the subject-agent-patient terminology of morphosyntactic alignment. But now, the agents aren’t going to be the … subjects? … anymore. In Language Universals and Linguistic Typology, Bernard Comrie’s attitude is “Tough noogies, welcome to the real world!” That is, it’s no simple matter crosslinguistically to say what’s a subject. Is it the thing that the verb agrees with? Maybe, but in some languages, transitive verbs agree with both their agents and their patients. So before reading further, say goodbye to your old notions of what’s a subject. The closest we’ll come is when we note which noun(s) a verb is agreeing with.

So now, onward to passives and antipassives. Ordinary English, as well as many other so-called “nominative-accusative languages” gives you two options for expressing a transitive verb. There’s the more straightforward option of the active voice, with agent as the noun that the verb agrees with (She kisses me; I kiss her); and the more complex passive voice, in which the patient is promoted to the place where verb agreement goes on, and the agent disappears or is expressed in a by phrase (I am kissed (by her); she is kissed (by me)).

In ergative English, the more straightforward option has the patient as the noun that the verb agrees with: She kiss me; I kisses her. The more complex option, analogous to the passive in ordinary English, is the antipassive. To show antipassive, I’ll use the passive morphology from ordinary English, to give you the maximum effect of how things are turned around here. In the antipassive, the agent gets promoted to agree with the noun, and the patient gets moved to the background:

  1. Me am kissed (by her). [Think of it as “I do some kissing (on her).”]
  2. Her is kissed (by me). [Think of it as “She does some kissing (on me).”]

That’s crazy!

Now actually, ergative English probably wouldn’t use an antipassive to express these thoughts. Just as ordinary English tends to use passive in situations where the agent is unknown, unimportant, or just less important than the patient; ergative languages tend to use antipassive when the patient is unknown, unimportant, or less important than the agent. (This is according to Ann Cooreman in “A Functional Typology of Antipassives”, in Voice: Form and Function, 1994, edited by Barbara Fox and Paul J. Hopper.) Functionally, they’re like detransitivized English verbs, such as eat, teach, write, etc. When you say “I’m eating,” or “I’ve taught for years,” or “Write every day,” the patient is assumed to be something obvious: food, courses or students, stuff you write.

Thinking about passives and antipassives, I thought about the disapproval of passives that speakers use to avoid placing (or accepting) blame. “Don’t say ‘Mistakes were made’! Admit your responsibility and just say, I made a mistake’!” If English were an ergative language, would English teachers tell their students, “Don’t say ‘Me am eaten!’ Take responsibility for your actions and say what you ate! Don’t try to gloss over it!”

Well, no, they wouldn’t, because all that was phrased in ordinary English. They’d say … let’s see … “Let no one say ‘Me am eaten’…” Ah, forget it! It was tricky enough to get my ergative examples straight as it was. Right now I am absolutely ergatived out!

Posted in Morphology, Passive voice, Syntax | 6 Comments »

Ergative English

Posted by Neal on March 3, 2013

As National Grammar Day approaches, I’ve been thinking about one way in which the grammar of some languages can be mind-bendingly different from the grammar of English. Specifically, I’ve been wondering what it would be like if English were an ergative language.

Imagine this. Imagine that in a sentence like She kissed me or I kissed her, the agent has the nominative she/I case form, and the patient has the accusative me/her case form.

Hmm. All right, I guess, you don’t have to imagine that, because that’s how English is already. But now also imagine this. Let’s take a sentence like She smiles. The way English is now, the subject of this intransitive verb has the same form, she/I, as the agent of the transitive verb kiss, and the patient of the transitive verb kissed is the odd one out, with its her/me case forms. I’ll sum it up in a list, with the matching case forms having the same color:

    1. She kisses me.
    2. I kiss her.
    1. She smiles.
    2. I smile.

Now suppose that instead, the subject of this intransitive verb has the same form as the patient of the transitive verb kiss, and the agent of the transitive verb kissed is the odd one out. It might look something like this:

    1. She kisses me.
    2. I kiss her.
    1. Her smiles.
    2. Me smile.

In an arrangement like this, the she/I forms would be called ergative case forms, and the her/me forms would be called absolutives. So that’s how English might look if it were an ergative language.

Eh. That’s not so mind-bendingly different. But it’s also not as ergative as we can make it. So far, we’ve grouped intransitive subjects and transitive patients together in having the same case forms, but what if we also made the verbs always agree with the absolutive noun phrase? Here are our four sample sentences again, this time with the verbs agreeing with the absolutes. To bring it out more prominently to the eye, I’m underlining the verbs and what they agree with:

    1. She kiss me.
    2. I kisses her.
    1. Her smiles.
    2. Me smile.

Now this is starting to look pretty weird. But it’s still not as ergative as it could be. At this point, we’ve just made English “morphosyntactically ergative”. When we replaced the nominative/accusative case forms with ergative/absolutive ones, that was just a change in the morphology of the pronouns. When we also changed the verb agreement rules, we started to get the syntax involved, and hence the term morphosyntactic. However, we could let this ergative/absolutive way of thinking infect the syntax even more deeply, and turn English into a thoroughly “syntactically ergative” language. The main way that this shows up (at least, the way it’s demonstrated in the sources I’ve read) is in coordination.

In ordinary English, you can combine sentences with like subjects the way I’ve done with our examples below:

She kisses me; she smiles. –> She kisses me and smiles.
I kiss her; I smile. –> I kiss her and smile.

The single, factored-out subjects She and I function as both the agent of kiss and the subject of smile. In ordinary English, that’s no problem, because both those things are considered to be subjects. What you can’t do is try to factor out a noun that’s the patient of a transitive verb and the subject of an intransitive. In other words, sentences like these next ones can’t be shortened, where the person getting kissed is the one who smiles:

She kisses me; I smile. [No way to factor out the me/I]
I kiss her; she smiles. [No way to factor out the her/she]

In syntactically ergative English, what you can and can’t do get reversed. If the same person is doing the kissing and the smiling, you can’t shorten the sentence:

She kiss me; her smiles. [No way to factor out the she/her]
I kisses her; me smile. [No way to factor out the I/me]

On the other hand, if the same person is getting kissed and smiling, you can factor that patient/subject out:

She kiss me; me smile. –> She kiss me and smile. [I’m the one smiling!]
I kisses her; her smiles. –> I kisses her and smiles. [She’s the one smiling!]

And these aren’t even all the possibilities. This presentation is based on information I got from Bernard Comrie’s Language Universals and Linguistic Typology, 2ed (1989), which also describes languages that are syntactically ergative while still maintaining nominative/accusative case forms, languages in which some verbs work ergatively and others don’t, and various other combinations and degrees of ergativity. But if you’re like me, just the stuff I wrote up here should have been enough to get your mind thoroughly bent out of shape.

Still, you may be wondering something. English does have a way to make patients of intransitive verbs serve as subjects: the passive voice. So do ergative languages have some analogous workaround for when you don’t want the patient of a transitive verb to serve as the thing that the verb agrees with? Tune in on National Grammar Day to learn about … the “anti-passive”!

Posted in Morphology, Syntax | 7 Comments »


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