Tuesday 8 July 2008

On txtng

The publication of Txtng: the Gr8 Db8 last Saturday, extracted in the Guardian, has brought a flurry of correspondence. Of greatest interest have been an encounter with the unusual ways in which people have been using text-messaging - and indeed going well beyond it.

I'd not come across the SMS Guerilla Projector before - a device which lets people project text messages in public spaces onto walls or people, for instance. Then there are the performance art applications, illustrated by TXTual Healing. But probably the most remarkable phenomenon, from a linguistic point of view, is LOLcats, LOLdogs, and related sites. This started by showing cute pictures of the animals and captioning them in nonstandard English. It goes well beyond the limited conventions of text-messaging, and is now developing into a genre of its own. Most of the Old Testament seems to have been translated into it, it seems, as this LOLcat Bible site shows. The opening lines of Genesis 1 will give you the flavour.

Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.
Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz.

It only started in July 2007, and a year later about 60 per cent of the Bible is done. They're even trying to standardize it - see How to speak lolcat. It's an interesting mixture of baby-talk, animal-speak, and netspeak, along with some conventional nonstandard spelllings.

It's amazing what's out there, when you go looking!

Saturday 5 July 2008

On receiving a poem

One of the correspondents to this blog has sent in a poem, as a comment on the post 'On complaining about the tide coming in' (last December). Rather than bury it there, I reproduce it here. Thanks, Kate.

For the man who complains about people using words in senses which the dictionary has yet to record:

by Kate Gladstone

(tune: "The Irish Rover")

People say the English tongue
Is coming quite unsprung,
When words get new meanings, lose the ones they had.
Check the Oxford Dictionary,
And you'll find this isn't scary,
Degenerate, or new, or even bad.

In the days of Chaucer, once
You called your friend a DUNCE,
And meant he was a high-class intellectual:
But if you called somebody NICE,
What you meant, to be precise,
Was to label him as dim and ineffectual.

CHORUS: They lament what we've done
To the old mother tongue,
Howling "crime" and claiming multitudes misuse it ...
If they'd practice what they preach,
They'd speak eight-hundred-year-old speech ...
If they won't, they shouldn't say that we abuse it.

If you call word-changes bad,
And you say they make you SAD --
This, eight hundred years ago, meant down-to-earth ...
If all usage must be old,
Then STARVE is "die of cold,"
And AMUSED is "stunned," instead of "touched by mirth".

NAUGHTY now means nothing much --
An infant's prank or such --
But long ago in Chaucer's day medieval,
Or even Shakespeare's time,
It meant "hostile", "prone to crime",
"Worthless" (morally, or otherwise), and "evil."


If you call a girl a HUSSY,
And she gets all mean and fussy,
Say you haven't cast aspersions on her life,
Tell her that your speech is pure,
And she therefore should be sure
That you meant -- like men of old -- she's a "housewife."

Find an English-usage smarty
And invite him to a party.
Offer POISON. He will think you've lost your mind.
You should whine and act offended
That your friendship now is ended,
Like the former meaning: "drink of any kind."


He'll call your behavior AWFUL.
As a compliment it's lawful
To accept this, for as such it has no flaw --
If words mustn't ever change
To new meanings, it's not strange
That he kindly found his host "inspiring awe."

If they call me SILLY, I'll
Just bow my head and smile --
For this once meant "holy," also "full of joy" --
So this word you surely may
Use of anyone today
Whose devotion to old meanings might annoy.


I hope you liked this song,
And you didn't find it long --
Call it PRETTY and I'll know just how you feel:
If changed meanings are obscene,
"Crafty's" all that word may mean,
And the meaning of "attractive" can't be real!

Friday 4 July 2008

On being superior

A correspondent writes to ask about superior, having heard someone say Federer is so superior to the rest of the field and then He is very superior. Are these acceptable? He adds: 'It seems to me that it has something to do with whether superior is a comparative form or not. I asked myself whether one could say, He's so better than the rest of the field and concluded that one could not. So I took it that so can't modify a comparative. Then I asked myself whether one could say He's very better than the rest of the field and found that this definitely sounded wrong. So I concluded that very can't modify a comparative either. But then I couldn't work out whether superior was a comparative or not, and so I could not tell whether so superior or very superior were OK. It seems to me that one can definitely say He's far superior to the rest of the field (compare: he's far better...) and also: He's so far superior. But then one can't have far with a non-comparative (compare: He's far good). But what about so on its own modifying superior? Does that work (as it would for a non-comparative: He's so good) ? Or does one need far (or much) between the so and the superior: He's so far superior?'

I quote this at length because it is an excellent example of how to explore a usage issue. My correspondent is developing a real sense of the complexity of this area of grammar. And it is complex. We are, to begin with, dealing with a group of Latin derived comparatives which don't work exactly like others in English - senior, junior, superior, inferior, prior, major, minor, anterior, posterior.... They have been called 'implicit' or 'absolute' comparatives (though the latter term is not advisable, as it conflicts with the general use of 'absolute' to mean the basic form of an adjective). Their main distinguishing feature is that they don't work like normal comparatives in being followable by than. we can say X is bigger than Y but not X is superior than Y. They are, then, comparative in meaning, but not in syntax. (Some verbs are comparative in meaning too, incidentally, such as exceed and diminish.)

Premodification of comparatives is also quite tricky. They are usually preceded by amplifiers, such as (so) much: X is much more difficult than Y. Others include somewhat, far, rather, a good deal, a damn sight. Intensifiers which work with the absolute form of the adjective won't work for the comparative: we can say X is very good but not X is much good. And conversely: we can't say X is very bigger; it has to be very much bigger.

If superior is not a true comparative, then, it won't work in exactly the same way as other comparatives with respect to the kind of modification it accepts. Because it's midway between absolute and comparative, we find both patterns in use, depending on how people think of it: I've heard both X is very superior and X is very much superior. Hence, you will find Federer is so superior... alongside so much superior.

I would thus expect to hear all kinds of mixes in the way these words are used with postmodifying constructions. Like my correspondent, I've heard such sentences as X is so superior to the rest of the field and X is very superior to the rest of the field. And there are signs of a construction with than emerging. It's not one which is grammatical in my idiolect, but you'll find on Google such constructions as the proposal is far superior than the current system and suchlike. I wouldn't be surprised to see this becoming standard one day.

But all of this is in the melting pot, now that the use of so has altered. Today we hear it being used with nouns and noun phrases, with strong stress - That is so 1960s, That is so Marks & Spencers. People who do that are not going to think twice about He's so better than the rest of the field. The usage isn't especially recent - the OED has intensifying uses of so going back to 1913, mainly American - but it certainly has taken on a new lease of life in the UK in the last decade or so. Because the Latinate adjectives also have nominal function (e.g. X is a junior), we can therefore expect such usages as That is so junior. And this development will make people feel much more comfortable with examples like the Federer one.