Thursday, 15 September 2016

Nocuous stuff

I saw this lovely example of a backformation in my twitter timeline the other day: the use of 'nocuous', the opposite of 'innocuous'. It's an existing word and so perhaps not technically a backformation, but I'd put money on the writer having backformed it.

Thursday, 8 September 2016


I'm at LAGB all this week. I'll attempt to write some kind of post about what's been going on at some point when I'm less conferenced-out, but in the meantime, this happened.

At our committee meeting, I was reporting on my Membership Secretary duties. At one point, discussing how I'd been 'lapsing' members who hadn't renewed, I said I might have 'over-lapsed' some people (i.e. lapsed their account erroneously). Later on, I mentioned that people who register for the conference who aren't already members are 'forcibly enmembered'. By this point, people were noticing my neologisms and pointed it out. I said 'sorry; I over-morphologised'.

As I'm sure you'll appreciate, this amused me no end.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Bear cats aren't cats. Or bears.

This tweet appeared in my timeline today:
All of this is useful and important information, and it's cool how things get to be named things that they aren't, but the linguistic point I wanted to make is in relation to the last one.

Each of these has two parts to its name, either an adjective plus a noun (slow+worm, horny+toad) or two nouns (killer+whale, bear+cat). (I've analysed 'killer' as a noun here, but I suppose it might be an adjective too - it doesn't much matter.) In each case, it's the second part that tells you the type of thing that it is (or isn't): a worm, a toad, a whale, a cat. That's because when you put two things together in language, you (nearly) always have one that's the 'head' and the other part modifies the head in some way. Here, it tells you what type of worm/toad/whale it is: a slow one, a horny one, a killer one. This is a general fact of English: the Right-Hand Head Rule.

This means that even when the two parts of a compound are nouns and either could theoretically be the head (a bear cat could be a type of cat or a type of bear), we interpret the right-hand element as the head. This is evident from the wording of the tweet, where we're told they're not a type of cat, and the fact that they're also not bears is added as a humorous parenthetical, just in case we were tempted to think that.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The object of sleep

A while back, I wrote a post about what appeared to be a causative alternation with the verb wait: I said They wait you in the bookshop. In that post, I said 'sleep doesn't have an object', and this is true: it's the prototypical example linguists use of an intransitive verb (i.e. one that doesn't have an object).

Language is a flexible beast, though, and you can get things like I slept the whole night through, where one might argue that the whole night is an object. But this isn't so clear cut, as you might prefer to say that the whole night through is an adverbial phrase modifying the verb slept, the same as if it was I slept all night or I slept for ages.

However, last week I heard an example where sleep definitely did have an object, and it was the same sort of construction as the wait example in my earlier post. I was on holiday at a folk festival with some friends, including an 11-year-old boy. His mum commented on the fact that he'd only had a short nap, and he said I know but it slept me enough. In this sentence, the subject is it (the nap) and the object is me (i.e. the sleeper). I think that's quite cool.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Congratulations on being an alumni?

My final-year students are graduating today. They'll be graduands for the duration of the morning and afternoon, and by around 3.30pm they'll be graduates. I enjoy this use of Latin morphology: the -and ending comes from the Latin gerund and gerundives, which end in -andum or -andus/-anda/-andum respectively.

The gerund is a noun derived from a verb, so in English it would be something like Graduating is a reason to celebrate. The gerundive is an adjective, and it's translated as something like 'to be graduated' (or 'fit to be graduated' or 'ought to be graduated'). It's this gerundive sense that we use in English: they are the students who are (fit) to be graduated. (Notice that we're using an adjective to refer to a thing, as in 'the French'.)

It appears that we've knocked off the gender agreement ending (-us, -a, or -um) and this helps us out in English so that we don't have to worry about whether it's a male or female graduand. Incidentally, when we borrowed this word into English I'm pretty sure they'd have all been chaps so I don't think this was gender equality at work.

When the graduands morph into graduates, they also become alumni, another Latin word. It's plural, in that form, and pedants will have know that the singular is alumnus or alumna, depending on whether you're male or female. Again, this is a bit annoying for English speakers who don't really bother that much with gender other than pronouns, and even there we're not fully signed up to a gendered system (we make no distinction other than for singular humans that aren't me or you (he and she, in other words), and singular they is also available if we can't be bothered even with that).

Normal procedure when removing gender distinction is to go with the male for everyone: actors and actresses become actors, lady doctors become doctors, and so on. With alumni, we're taking to using the plural form for everyone. You're an alumni once you graduate. This ever so slightly grates on me but I am a good linguist and a descriptivist and do not go around correcting people. I don't know why we use the plural. We're familiar with this in words like cactus/cacti so we might have used alumnus as the singular; we just didn't. Perhaps it's because we use alumni in the plural way more often than the singular and, as it's not that common a word, that's the one that stuck.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Who are men?

News changes quickly at the moment and this article from last Friday is already well out of date. However, it contains an interesting turn of phrase.

It's about having a female Prime Minister, and being female in politics. It says this:
Even now women who choose politics have to decide how to define themselves in the context of gender in a way that would seem bizarre for men (although familiar enough to politicians from black and minority ethnic backgrounds). 
If I'm being generous, I'll say that it's contrasting women with men, and white people with people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and these two groups cross-cut each other (you can be both or neither).

If I'm not being generous, I'd say that 'men' here refers to 'white men', given that otherwise there's a weird contrast in that 'men' would find this situation bizarre but 'politicians from black and minority ethnic backgrounds', who are likely to be men, wouldn't.

OK, intersectionality is hard, and we haven't mentioned the fact that plenty of other sorts of people would recognise this disparity, but it is possible to avoid clumsiness like this.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Can you not?

I've written before about negation and the difference in meaning when it takes different scope. The other day, a friend in the pub said this, directed at a football 'pundit' on telly:
You're 60, can you not wear a suit and trainers? 
By this, he meant
Because you're 60 [and should know better/are too old], please don't wear a suit and trainers. 
It can have another meaning, though, and one that I think is much more accessible, or perhaps only available, in certain dialects:
You're 60, so is it impossible for you to wear a suit and trainers?
For me, both those readings work fine for the sentence and the intonation is pretty much the same in each case. The difference is once again a matter of how 'high' the negation is in the sentence:
Is it the case that
you can
[not wear a suit and trainers]?
Is it not the case that
you can
[wear a suit and trainers]?
For more on this, a very easy to read article (old now, but still good) is Bob Ladd's 1981 paper.