Sunday 30 May 2010

On foreign ludicity

A correspondent from the US has sent me the list of winners in a recent New York Magazine contest in which you had to take a well-known expression in a foreign language, change a single letter, and provide a definition for the new expression. A few years ago, the Washington Post did a similar thing for English words, which I reported in my Language Play. It's good to see ludic linguistic ingenuity alive and well, and engaging with foreign languages - though I wonder, in this day and age, what proportion of the population will get the jokes.

Here's my top ten selection from the winners.

Can you drive a French motorcycle?

Lost in the mail

I came, I'm a very important person, I conquered

The cat is dead

Honk if you're Scottish

The king is dead. No kidding.

Support your local clown

Our cat has a boat

Fast French food

Out of any group, there's always one asshole

Tuesday 18 May 2010

On plural adjectives

A correspondent writes to ask why we say a drinks cabinet and not a drink cabinet, given that people use the singular form of nouns when they function as adjectives - a price list, a shoe box, and so on - even if the entities involved are more than one. He adds: 'As a teacher, I have always taught the rule that there are no plural adjectives in English - the big men, the young ladies, etc. - and therefore when a noun acts as an adjective it should not take an s.'

It's true that attributive nouns are normally neutral with respect to number; so we say Toothpaste protects against tooth decay, even though we're talking about all our teeth, I sat in an armchair, even though the chair has two arms, and a five-pound note, a three-year-old child, and so on, even though in postmodifying position the expressions would be plural - a child of three years, a note worth five pounds. But there are several kinds of exception, which are very common in British English and unusual in American English.

When people talk about a concept that is an institution or organization, the tendency is to keep the plural form, and this is especially so when there's a semantic contrast with the singular form:

an examinations committee
a prints and drawings exhibition
the heavy chemicals industry
the Obscene Publications Act
an arts degree [vs an art degree]
a careers administrator [someone who looks after careers in an institution] vs a career administrator [someone who has gone in for administration as a career]

The plural is also likely when there's a contrast between generic ('kinds of') and specific meanings. This is where drinks comes in, for a drinks cabinet means 'a cabinet in which various kinds of drink are to be found'. Other examples are entertainments listing and savings bank. And nouns which don't have a singular (in a particular sense) keep their ending:

clothes basket
arms race
Commons decision
honours degree
mains adaptor
contents list

Stylistic factors are also involved. Newspaper headlines in particular like to use adjectives attributively, as it saves space. So we encounter such headlines as:

Strikes issue back on the table
Recordings compromise reached

There's quite a bit of individual variation, though:

grassroot(s) level
saving(s) account
system(s) analyst
wage(s) freeze
communication(s) network
archive(s) administrator

And, actually, drinks cabinet is a further example, with some firms advertising drink cabinets these days (as a Google search quickly shows). It's an interesting area of language change, especially with American English usage influencing British English.

Sunday 16 May 2010

On useful tautology

A correspondent from the Guardian has asked what is to be made of David Cameron's reported comment that 'Our success will be the measure of our success' - also reported as 'This will succeed through its success'. Reporters have picked on this, and other remarks such as 'All the questions were rather subjecty subjects', as evidence of a new linguistic style, dubbed 'Cameronisms'. In fact, there's nothing new about them at all.

Let's take the 'success' example first. Tautology is usually thought of as something to be avoided. But there are occasions when saying the same thing twice actually has a purpose. We need to 'state the obvious', and in so doing, say something that is not obvious at all. If I return from a restaurant, and somebody asks me what the food was like, and I say 'You get what you get', that is saying more than what the words suggest. The food was pretty ordinary. There are dozens of cases like this.

It's as long as it's long.
It takes what it takes.
A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.
I'll be ready when I'm ready [and not before!]

Why do we say such things? The usual intention is to halt a dialogue. The speaker doesn't want to go into any further detail. There's no more to be said.

Depending on the context, these remarks can be interpreted in various ways (which in linguistics would be part of the subject of pragmatics). They could be an avoidance strategy: 'I don't want to go into this any further'. They could be an assertive strategy: 'Don't ask me pointless questions when I've got a job to do'. And there are other possibilities. A lot depends on the tone of voice in which the words are said.

We learn the value of tautology at an early age. Children encounter it all the time.

'Why is it time for bed, mummy?' 'Because it's time for bed.'
The beanstalk was as big as big could be.

The success example reminds me a little of the kind of word-class conversion which is such an important part of English grammar, and which is an important feature of Shakespeare's style. 'Grace me no grace, nor uncle me no uncle', says the Duke of York to Bolingbroke (in Richard II). As the Guardian reporter put it, rather cheekily, Cameron may have more in common with Shakespeare than George Bush. I'd rather say that what Cameron is doing here is echoing a proverbial strand of the language: 'Nothing succeeds like success' - one success will lead to another.

Nor is there anything new about the formation subjecty. A -y suffix means 'having the qualities of' the noun to which it is added, or 'full of' the noun. Rainy and wintry date from Anglo-Saxon times. Among dozens of later examples we find milky, leafy, and noisy. Modern coinages include doggy and horsy. Some are awkward: skyey, treey. Again, there are echoes of Shakespeare, who liked to coin words such as vasty, steepy, and plumpy.

So, a 'subjecty subject' would be a subject that is characterized by a recognized subject-matter, or one that has already been explored to the full, or one that requires more exposition than there is currently time to go into, or other such meanings. We'd have to explore the context to determine exactly what Cameron meant. But, whatever he meant, the novelty of the phrase may guarantee it a place in the catch-phrases of the next decade - much as Donald Rumsfeld's 'known unknowns' did for him a few years ago.