Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Not As Much As You!

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2011

On April 30, I tweeted about an episode of The Big Bang Theory I’d watched the night before. I said

This is the kind of situation where grammar sticklers point out that there can be a big difference between more than I and more than me. In a nice summary of both sides of the argument, Grammar Girl writes:

[People who maintain that than is a conjunction rather than a preposition] would argue that the sentences Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I and Aardvark likes Squiggly more than me are both correct but have entirely different meanings. Both use than as a conjunction, but when you use the subject pronoun I, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly], and when you use the object pronoun me, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me. If than is a preposition, however, you would always use the objective pronoun me and then the same sentence would mean both things–you don’t care for Squiggly as much as Aardvark does AND Aardvark prefers Squiggly to you. It would be unclear which of the two meanings [was] intended. Avoiding ambiguity awards a point to the conjunctionists.

Of course, this distinction only works when there actually is a difference between nominative and accusative forms, which limits us to pronouns, and not even all of those. In particular, you can be either nominative or accusative, so Leonard could be saying either “Not as much as [I hate] you!” or “Not as much as you [hate Greek food]!”

I’d venture to say that in most cases, the ambiguity is only what Arnold Zwicky calls a potential ambiguity; not a realistic one that will confuse people. What’s fun about this example is that neither of the possible readings jumps out as the intended one. Sheldon is such an insufferable character, with so many showstoppers when it comes to food preferences, that you could imagine his roommate Leonard getting so fed up with Sheldon that he decides to punish him with that night’s purchase of take-out food for their group of friends. There are two ways doing this could punish Sheldon. On the one hand, Leonard could reason that although he (Leonard) hates Greek food, he’ll eat it because he knows Sheldon hates it even more. On the other hand, Leonard might reason that he (Leonard) hates Greek food, but he hates Sheldon more, so he’s willing to eat Greek in order to make Sheldon eat it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers of the show even intended this ambiguity.

Karen Davis (aka The Ridger) sent me another example of an ambiguous VP ellipsis that hinges on the pronoun you. It’s exactly parallel to the Big Bang one, except that here, instead of finite clauses like I hate Greek food, we have a nonfinite “small clause”: your ex living with us. In her email, Karen wrote:

Today’s Tiny Seppuku answers a question from someone whose parents like her ex enough to let him live with them. … In one panel, the parents say to the woman: “Let us tell you how much we enjoy having your ex living with us instead of you.”

One reading has …your ex living with us instead of [your ex living with] you; the other has …your ex living with us instead of you [living with us] Both were plausible, because the strip is about someone whose parents like her ex so much that they’re letting him live in their home, in their daughter’s old room. At least in print, you’re left wondering which meaning is intended. However, if you actually heard it spoken, the ambiguity would probably disappear. They would say either “your EX living with us instead of YOU [living with us]” or “your ex living with US instead of [living with] YOU”, and the focal stress would make things clear.

You get this kind of ambiguity with ordinary noun phrases, too. In my dad’s logic textbook from his college days, there’s an example of spurious reasoning that takes advantage of it. A passage goes something like this:

A psychological survey has revealed that whereas the value Mr. Jones places on money is slightly more than the societal average, the value Mrs. Jones places on it is slightly less. We can predict, therefore, that Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s marriage is unlikely to last. How could it, when Mr. Jones loves money more than his wife?

Again, the stress could disambiguate the spoken sentence: “Mr. JONES loves money more than his WIFE” vs. “Mr. Jones loves MONEY more than his WIFE.” But you can also pronounce it with a carefully evened-out stress that leaves the ambiguity open, which is nice because it lets you make the joke and confound your unwary listeners.

Go ahead and distinguish between than I and than me if you want to. There may be times that there are two plausible meanings to distinguish, but if you’re dealing with anything other than I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, you’ll have to disambiguate some other way.


Posted in Comics, Ellipsis, Prescriptive grammar, TV | 4 Comments »

The Gadhafi Bounty

Posted by Neal on August 28, 2011

I read the front page of the Columbus Dispatch earlier this week, and saw this headline:

I thought, they’re offering the guy a bounty? That is, I read it as diagrammed on the right. I saw the verb offer, and automatically seized the name that followed as the recipient of the offer (in syntactic terms the indirect object). The noun after that was the item offered (i.e. the direct object). This parse was also easy to fall into because of the line break, putting Gadhafi all by itself next to offer.

Real-world knowledge forced a re-read, and I quickly got the intended reading, as diagrammed on the left. Instead of taking offer as a two-object verb (direct and indirect), this time I took it as a simple transitive verb, and grabbed onto Gadhafi bounty as a single noun phrase for the direct object: “a bounty on Gadhafi”. Much more sensible, although it required a little more thinking to make Gadhafi an attributive noun describing bounty.

Of course, like McDonald’s fries holy grail for potato farmers, this ambiguity exists only because of the telegraphic style of newspaper headlines. In regular English, it would have been

The rebels offered A Gadhafi bounty

and there would have been no question. Or, if you really meant it the crazy way, it would be

The rebels offered Gadhafi A bounty.

Of course, if Gadhafi turns himself in to collect the bounty, I guess both readings could be true.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Syntax | 11 Comments »

Breaking and Entering Double Passive

Posted by Neal on August 20, 2011

I listened to a podcast of PRI’s The Changing World while I was shopping for groceries last week, an episode called “America’s Own Extremists, Part 2”. A BBC guy named Jonny Dymond was interviewing an educator who had been threatened by some white-supremacist types. She said,

Since then, every residence I’ve lived at has been either attempted to be broken into or actually broken into, in some cases burglarized.

It’s been a while since I’ve written about double passives, but this example was so nice I just had to collect it. Passive is a good choice here because first of all, she doesn’t know exactly who did the break-ins (though of course she has strong suspicions), and second, the important thing is that her home feels unsafe. Every residence I’ve lived at has the prominent subject position, with the stuff that happened to it in the passive voice. Except that one of the things that happened is that someone just tried to break in. How do you express that if you’re already pretty well committed to using passive voice? English, at least standard English, doesn’t have a solution, but one that has evolved outside the rules of the standard is just to passivize both try and break into. So we get has been … attempted and to be broken into in the same verb phrase.

I also got a smile out of hearing Dymond ask a follow-up question, asking how the woman had felt when her home was “burgled”, smoothly changing her burglarize into the equivalent British English backformation of burglar.

Posted in Double passives, Variation | 2 Comments »

One Bright Day in the Middle of the Night

Posted by Neal on August 18, 2011

One of the poems Dad taught me when I was a kid went like this:

One bright day in the middle of the night,
Two dead boys began to fight.
Back to back they faced each other;
Drew their knives and shot each other.
A deaf policeman heard the noise,
And came and killed the two dead boys.
If you don’t believe this lie is true,
Ask the blind man; he saw it, too.

I, of course, have taught it to Doug and Adam, along with other poems I learned from Dad, including “Don’t you laugh when the hearse goes by” and “Roses are red, violets are blue; I can ride a bicycle, can you swim?” The last time I recited it, I added, “Of course, this must have taken place in a polar region during the summer.”

Thinking more, I said, “And clearly it happened before the boys were dead. Kind of like saying, ‘The late so-and-so once said…’ and it’s understood that he said it when he was still alive.”

Doug and Adam started to get into it, too. You can face each other while you’re back to back if you each have a mirror you’re holding up. “And they must have had ballistic knives!” added Doug, who has learned about such things from playing Call of Duty. (This wouldn’t work so well in versions of the poem that have “Drew their guns and stabbed each other.”)

Hey, that was good. With ballistic knives in the picture, we were now on the home stretch. “‘A deaf policeman heard the noise’ — oh, that’s easy. Just like the boys weren’t dead at the time, this policeman wasn’t deaf yet, although he’s deaf now. And he killed the two dead boys? Well, clearly, that’s how they came to be dead.” The same reasoning also cleared the part about the blind man “who saw it, too.”

That just left the part about true lies. But then all of a sudden I realized: It didn’t matter! The clause about true lies was the complement of an opacity-inducing verb! “Hey, we don’t have to explain anything about true lies!” I told Doug and Adam. “You can believe that two plus two equals five, and there’s no contradiction. You can believe that a purple dinosaur lives under your bed, and the sentence is still true, even though you’re wrong.” Believe, unlike know, doesn’t presuppose that what follows is true.

I’m glad I was able to enrich this poem for Doug and Adam, and make it so much more fun and meaningful.

Posted in Lexical semantics, Semantics | 6 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 »

Make Me One with Everything

Posted by Neal on August 7, 2011

Glen drew my attention to a Language Log post a couple of months ago, which commented on the cultural knowledge you needed in order to get the joke

The Dalai Lama walks into a pizza joint and says, “Make me one with everything.”

Actually, the way I heard this joke years ago was, “What did the Zen master say to the hot dog vendor?”, but no matter. Glen wrote:

But oddly, given the source, the post doesn’t mention the linguistic knowledge (perhaps implicit) that you must also have. It seems like the joke requires understanding how direct and indirect objects can occupy the same spot in a sentence.

Indeed it does, and more specifically, it requires knowledge of two different syntactic frames that make can fit into. To the right is a diagram of make me one with everything with its meaning of “make for me a pizza that has every topping on it”. The first branch is the verb make; the second branch is the NP consisting of the pronoun me. The third branch is the NP one with everything, which itself consists of the NP one, modified by the PP with everything.

Now let’s take a look at the diagram for the other meaning. Which one, though? There is the Zen punch line reading: “Unify my essence with that of the universe.” But there’s also another reading where one with everything still refers to a pizza with all the toppings: “Turn me into a pizza that has every topping on it.” That’s the reading Glen and I would play with when our baby sister Ellen (she’s a second-year medical resident now, by the way) would ask us, “Will you make me a peanut butter sandwich?” We’d say, “Sure! Abracadabra — you’re a peanut butter sandwich!” Then she’d say, “No! A real peanut butter sandwich!” And we’d say, “Oh, well why didn’t you say so! You’re a real peanut butter sandwich!”

The “turn me into a pizza with everything” reading would correspond to … well, actually, that would correspond to the same structure I had in that last diagram. In fact, so would the nirvana reading. Some ambiguities just don’t correspond to different syntactic structures. To distinguish the structures associated with these different meanings, we need to label the branches with not only their syntactic categories, but also the grammatical functions that the phrases they’re labeling play. The diagram on the left below belongs to the no-funny-business meaning, with me as indirect object, and one with everything as direct object. The one on the right belongs to the funny “you’re a pizza” reading, with me as direct object, and one with everything as a predicate complement. And … it also belongs to the funny Zen reading. The two funny readings still are identical structurally. Unless…

It seems to me that the special meaning of one to mean “integrated with, coextensive with” is more of an adjectival meaning. But it’s hard to find a reason to justify that claim. You can’t have comparative or superlative forms of this adjective: *oner, *onest. It can’t be used attributively: *a one-with-everything Zen master. Of course, there are other adjectives that aren’t gradable, such as binary and nonexistent, and other adjectives that can’t be attributive, such as asleep, ajar, afraid, etc. But having one of those properties would make for a more decisive labeling. There is one fact, though, that may be what is tilting me toward an adjective diagnosis: You can only use one with X as a predicative when it has this meaning. You can’t use it as a subject, direct or indirect object, or object of a preposition: [*]One with everything just walked through the door, [*]I saw one with everything. (The asterisks mean that the sentence is grammatical, but not with the meaning you’re looking for.) So with that in mind, we could diagram the Zen meaning of make me one with everything like this:

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Syntax | 10 Comments »

It Could Be Months

Posted by Neal on August 5, 2011

I was reading about the temporary funding deal for the FAA this morning, and was confused by this paragraph:

“This issue is still unresolved as far as I’m concerned,” said Dan Stefko, an engineer with the FAA who has been out of work for nearly two weeks. “It could be 1 1/2 months before we could be right back in the exact same spot.”

The first time I read it, I was imagining a job that required an FAA engineer to visit different airports on a schedule. The temporary fix was no good because … he had been unable to do his job in the place he had visited most recently, and by the time his route took him there again, it would be 1 1/2 months later, and by then problems that he could have fixed now would have gotten worse. Was that it?

I read it again, and this time took the exact same spot metaphorically, referring to a sudden lack of funding. I finally began to get Stefko’s point: The temporary fix was no good because in six weeks the problem would have to be addressed again. Well, that’s always an obvious objection to a temporary fix, so why was it so hard for me to get that meaning?

I blame the It could be before syntax. If he had said,

We could be right back in the exact same spot in 1 1/2 months

I would have had no problem. By putting the time period up front, Stefko was putting the focus on it, and the usual reason for that is to emphasize how long something is going to take. That is, unless you do something to cancel that assumption, like

It could be as little as 1 1/2 months before we could be right back in the exact same spot.

I did some Google searching for “It could be * months|years before”, and just skimming through the first few pages of results, didn’t find any that were emphasizing how little time might pass before something happened. What about you? Can you get the “as little as” reading with It could be ___ before constructions?

Posted in Pragmatics, Syntax | 4 Comments »

Un-Nibbled by Cats

Posted by Neal on August 2, 2011

One day last week, Doug got up at 7:00, in an attempt to be able to fall asleep faster that night. He’d been trying to do it for several days, without success. He would just turn off his alarm without even waking up. I suggested the low-tech solution I’d used in college: Put the alarm clock on the opposite side of the room, so he’d have to get up out of bed to turn it off. And it worked. Now, here he was, up and dressed by 7:30, eating toaster waffles and microwave bacon.

Adam, though, was still asleep at 8:00. I put the remaining two slices of bacon back in the microwave to keep them out of our cats’ reach until Adam could get to them. I had also spooned some yogurt into a bowl, and had a piece of proto-toast in the toaster for him. I wanted Adam’s breakfast to be ready for him when he got up, because I would be running an errand by then. I didn’t want him to just come downstairs and skip breakfast in favor of playing video games.

So where to put the yogurt? Back in the fridge? OK, but the bacon had to stay in the safe. Room-temperature bacon is all right, but not refrigerator-cold bacon. And what about the toast? Darn it, by the time Adam came down, it would probably be stale. All right, I decided. Adam would just have to get up and get his butt downstairs for breakfast before he got dressed or anything else, that was all. I placed all three items on his placemat, and then went up to knock on his door.

“Who is it?” I heard a muffled voice ask.

“It’s me. Hey, I’m going to run an errand. Your breakfast is on the table. You might want to come down and eat it while…

…the toast is still warm, the yogurt’s still cool, and the bacon is still un-nibbled by cats.”

Awright! I was just trying to get my breakfast-making duties out of the way, but in doing it, I had spontaneously created a bracketing paradox!

Here’s the deal. Un-, everyone agrees, is a prefix. It can attach to one adjective to create another adjective. In this case, it’s attaching to the adjective (more specifically, past participle) nibbled to create the adjective un-nibbled, i.e. “not nibbled”. Then the prepositional phrase by cats attaches to that to give us the adjective phrase un-nibbled by cats, as shown in the diagram below:

Going by the morphology

But wait. Can PPs do that? Can they just attach to an adjective to give you an adjective phrase? Sure, if you have the right kind of adjective. Fond forms an AdjP when it attaches to an of-PP; so do great and with child. But un-nibbled isn’t an adjective that takes a PP, any more than, say, green or scary are. Green by cats? Scary by cats? What would those phrases even mean?

The meaning we’re after is, “It is not the case that the bacon is nibbled by cats,” so why not parse the phrase so that nibbled by cats forms a chunk, and then let the un- attach to that? Something like this:

Going by the semantics

Great! Now the negation clearly takes scope over the entire part about being nibbled by cats. But now un- isn’t a word prefix anymore. It might as well be the free-standing word not, the way it’s sitting outside the phrase nibbled by cats. Hence, the bracketing paradox.

Now there is one other parse of un-nibbled by cats, one that isn’t a bracketing paradox. It exists because of a peculiarity of the prefix un-. As Ben Zimmer wrote in a 2009 “On Language” column:

Ever since Old English, the un- prefix has come in two basic flavors. It can be used like the word “not” to negate adjectives (unkind, uncertain, unfair) and the occasional noun (unreason, unrest, unemployment). Or it can attach to a verb to indicate the reversal of an action (unbend, unfasten, unmask).

So if we take un- in its guise as a verb prefix, then we can parse un-nibbled by cats this way:

Taking "un-nibble" as a verb

Unfortunately, a completely different meaning comes with this parse. And not only is it not the meaning I want; it’s a meaning that can’t even happen in this world. Living with five cats, I can tell you that they never un-nibble anything!

Posted in Cats, Food-related, Gerunds and participles, Morphology | 6 Comments »

Summer Links

Posted by Neal on July 29, 2011

  • A thorough investigation of the history of different from/than/to from Stan Carey.
  • The hilarious linguistics love song (h/t to Stan Carey)
  • Another blog post from Stan Carey, this one linking to no less (uh, fewer?) than four websites that allow you to easily type and display IPA characters. I’ve put all the stuff I got from Stan first to get it out of the way. Seriously, you should just subscribe to his blog. He’s always writing about, or linking to, interesting stuff.
  • A post on the African American English blog Word, on black sign language.
  • David Crystal on why and how the past tense texed for texted might have arisen.
  • The puzzlers from this year’s International Linguistic Olympiad, being held this week in Pittsburgh. (h/t to Language Log)
  • The Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, a fledgling database that catalogs regional variation in American English, not in pronunciation, not in lexical items (soda vs. pop), but in syntactic constructions (might could, needs done, etc.), with links to research papers.
  • The Idiomizer, another site that was created only recently, but should be a good translation resource as it accumulates more data. The goal: Input an idiom in a source language, find the functionally equivalent one in the target language. I asked it for “a little bird told me” in French, and sure enough, got (in French) “my little finger told me”.
  • A video of Michael Erard’s interview with “hyperpolyglot” Alexander Arguelles, who describes his mind-blowingly intense, driven, sustained, and disciplined daily regimen for learning whichever dozen or so languages he’s currently working on.

Posted in Linkfests | 3 Comments »

Just You and Me. And Maybe Them.

Posted by Neal on July 23, 2011

All right, time to finish making good on my Grammar Girl book giveaway contest. Today I’m writing on the topic suggested by the third of the winners, named Anne. Anne wrote:

Last year I enrolled in an Ancient Greek language course. The cases, tenses, verb agreements etc. came as a shock to me and for that reason I began searching out how to use English correctly. My impassioned instructor told us of the trade culture of Papua New Guinea that necessitated words that specified relationships between parties. He said there was a word for “you and me”, a word for “you and me but not them”, a word for “you and me and them” etc. It got me thinking about how extremely specified English is, yet rarely … are the definitions of words heeded when used.

To tell you the truth, I’m not quite sure what Anne had in mind with that last sentence. Maybe she meant was thinking about people who say in lieu of when they mean in view of, or hysterical instead of hilarious. But I didn’t choose this topic because of that last part, which would probably be too broad for a single blog post anyway. I chose it because the first part brought back memories, and the second part happens to be something I was just reading about.

Anne’s story of learning Ancient Greek took me back to a late summer day in El Paso, Texas, just before I started my freshman year in high school. I walked to the Eastwood High gym that afternoon to pick up my textbooks for the coming year, including volume 1 of Living Latin. After two years of junior high school Spanish, I was eager to begin learning Latin, and as I walked back home, I opened the book to see what was in store for me.

Some pictures with Latin labels: “FEMINA”, “FLVMEN”, “CANIS”. A few sample sentences, the only one of which I remember is Manus manum lavat: “One hand washes the other.” Then there was some stuff about noun declensions. Declensions? What’s a declension? That worried me a little. I flipped to the back and found the appendix, and my slight worry grew into moderate anxiety as I saw phrases like fifth declension, accusative case, and fourth conjugation. When I came across pluperfect tense, I knew I’d better do something before school began. Even if I didn’t know what declensions, cases, or conjugations were, I had thought I at least knew what a verb tense was. I knew about past, present, and future tense in English, and the present and preterite tense in Spanish. (That’s right: two years of Spanish; two verb tenses learned. At least for regular verbs.) But with this “pluperfect” tense staring back at me, I realized I needed an English grammar refresher (or more accurately, a fresher) before I started anything in Latin.

When I got home, I found a section on English grammar in the back pages of our dictionary, and finally learned what the present perfect, past perfect, and future perfect tenses were. And the subjunctive mood. Before, those had just been vague terms that were good only for conversations when you wanted to talk about grammar jokingly, kind of like when people talk about a nonexistent distant relation as “my father’s ninth cousin, twice removed”. (You know they don’t know what they’re talking about when they say that, because if they did, they’d say “my tenth cousin, once removed”, or “my ninth cousin, three times removed”.) I still didn’t know what declensions were, or the pluperfect tense, but now I didn’t have the uneasy feeling that they were things I should know at the outset. So that’s how learning a classical language helped Anne and me with our English: By scaring us into learning English grammar on our own!

Now, as for the second part of Anne’s suggestion, I read a paper called “‘We rules: The impact of an inclusive/exclusive opposition on the paradigmatic structure of person marking,” by Michael Cysouw (in Pronouns — Grammar and Representation, 2002, ed. by Horst J. Simon and Heike Wiese). He had investigated a sampling of languages from around the world to find out what patterns there were to homophony among pronouns (and among its person markers for its verbs). For example, Standard English uses just one pronoun, you, for second person singular and second person plural. German uses Sie for both third person singular feminine (“she”) and second person plural (or polite singular). And in what should be Standard English, they functions as both third person plural and third person singular common gender. Cysouw found that there was a correlation between the kinds of pronoun homophony in a language and how it handled the concepts of inclusive and exclusive “we”.

First, some background. Cysouw excluded from his study languages that had number distinctions like dual (just two participants) or paucal (a few), and focused only on those that distinguished singular from plural. For these languages, there are eight possible categories for person, three of them singular and five of them plural. The singulars are the familiar first person (speaker), second person (single addressee), and third person (anyone else). For the plurals, there is second person (multiple addressees) and third person (multiple others), which makes five total. The remaining three are all versions of first person plural. There’s the “exclusive ‘we'”, i.e. speaker plus other(s) but not including the addressee(s), which makes six. I would have thought the “inclusive ‘we'” would bring the total to seven, but I was surprised to find that there are two kinds of inclusive “we”, as Anne mentioned. Speaker plus addressee(s) and no one else, i.e. “you and me but not them”, is known as the minimal inclusive first person plural. Speaker plus addressee(s) plus others, i.e. “you and me and them”, is the augmented inclusive first person plural.

Theoretically, among these eight possibilities, any pair of person categories could be homophonous, but in fact, only a few kinds of homophony tend to occur. By my calculations, there are 618 possible ways for homophony to exist in these eight categories, if you sum up the possibilities for zero homophony, only two homophones, only three, four, five, six, and finally complete homophony. But out of 265 languages, Cysouw found only 62 arrangements of homophony. Nine of those arrangements accounted for about 70% of the languages. I’ve illustrated eight of them below, with matching colors (other than white) indicating homophony. The ninth case is the case of zero homophony, which I didn’t include because eight diagrams make a tidier picture, and because you can picture this schematic without any color in it yourselves.

Patterns of pronoun homophony

Latin would be the pattern on the top right. As far as its present tense suffixes go, English isn’t among these nine. As far as pronouns go, English comes closest to the top middle diagram: We make no distinction between any of the three kinds of “we”, and our second person singular and plural are homophonous. If we take singular they into account, the fit is closer because of the homophony on the bottom row, but not perfect because of the distinct he, she, and it. The patterns on the bottom row are languages that distinguish between inclusive and exclusive “we”, but not between minimal and augmented inclusive “we”.

One thing that you can notice immediately about the most common pronoun setups is that any homophony is between (or among) contiguous cells in the table, though homophony among noncontiguous cells is certainly attested in languages of the world. For example, first and third person singular are sometimes homophonous; in Spanish, these two forms are identical in the imperfect, present subjunctive, imperfect subjunctive, and conditional.

One thing that Cysouw noticed is that when a language has a distinction between inclusive and exclusive “we”, none of its singular forms are homophonous. None of the four common patterns on the bottom row have singular homophony (or in the top row, either, though that’s not relevant here), nor did any of the rest of Cysouw’s sampled languages that had this distinction. Furthermore, languages with the inclusive/exclusive “we” distinction usually don’t show plural homophony, either (beyond minimal and augmented inclusive “we”). Only 12% of Cysouw’s languages with the inclusive/exclusive distinction had some kind of plural homophony, compared to 28% for those that didn’t have the distinction.

Cysouw further observed that the level of pronoun homophony for the singular or plural columns in these most common patterns follows a kind of hierarchy. If there’s going to be any person homophony at all, it will be between minimal and augmented inclusive “we”. If there’s more person homophony, it will be to erase the distinction between inclusive and exclusive “we”. Beyond that, you’ll find that second person plural is thrown in. If there’s even more person homophony than that, it will be for first and second person in the singular to be homophonous as well. However, this hierarchy is only true of personIndependent of this hierarchy, there can be various kinds of number homophony (or as Cysouw calls it, “horizontal homophony”) going on, too.

Cysouw made several other generalizations about person marking, both in stand-alone pronouns, clitics (unstressed pronouns that can’t stand alone), and marking of the verbs, but the above are the most salient. What I wonder now is whether there are any languages that distinguish between all of these kinds of “we” plus the “speaker + speaker” version of “we” — in other words, the “we” that refers to two or more speakers saying something in unison, like “We wish you a merry Christmas.” And although I’m sure they have a way to do it, I wonder how languages with first and second person plural homophony express the thought, “Just between you and me.”

Anne, thanks for the suggestion; good luck with Ancient Greek; and get good use out of Grammar Girl’s Ultimate Writing Guide!

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