Wednesday, December 12, 2007

a zed and two nods

Recently I’ve been pondering something that sets some people’s teeth on edge: verbing nouns, i.e., deriving a verb from a noun, which used to be called a denominal verb and is best illustrated by the Calvin & Hobbes strip about verbing weirds the language. Anyway, I’m tired of shrill and uninformed grammar fascists pissing and moaning about the state of the language and how letting words into the dictionary from the demon Web is destroying the language. I mean if it was good enough for Shakespeare—“it out-Herods Herod (Hamlet III.ii)”—it’s grammatical enough for me. It’s not enough that these dour, so-called lovers of language are more-than-often clueless about the basics of the English language and how it works, they are hostile to linguistics as a field of study, usually without having bothered to read anything, popular or academic, whatsoever. They seem to have retained some odd sound-bites of their grammar school teachers parsing and diagramming sentences and filled in the cracks in their crackpot theories of the devolution of language at the tongues of teens, foreigners, and other unpopular kinds of folks, with illiberal, toxic doses of Strunk & White or Fowler’s Modern English Usage (first edition please and thank you). The only linguist they’ve ever heard of, not read though, is Noam Chomsky. The works of Sweet, Saussure, Bloomfield, Sapir, Jespersen, and others, are as unknown to them.

The fear of verbing nouns is due mainly to ignorance. English, for about thousand years now, has been less of an inflectional language (think Latin and all those declensions and conjugations) and more of word-order language (see Chinese for the ultimate example of this). One of the few things that most people remember from their grammar classes (really an ragbag of usage fiats and ukases posing as grammar) is parts of speech. English has a whole slew of words that it borrowed (when are they going to be returned?) from Latin and French, and those languages are more inflectional than present-day English is. So, we have groups of words like receive and reception, jeopardy and jeopardize, et al. The grammar nazis suffer from affixal envy. They crave a derivational morphology that explicitly shows a word’s lexical class on the surface. What most of them don’t realize is that there is a vast literature on the grammatical analysis of language that their grammar school teachers kept from them so their little pea brains wouldn’t explode. For example, this is what a real grammarian had to say over 80 years ago about verbing nouns:

We may imagine two extreme types of language structure in which there is always one definite formal criterion in each word-class, and one in which there are no such outward signs in any class. The nearest approach to the former state is found, not in any of our natural languages, but in an artificial language such as Esperanto or, still better, Ido, where every common substantive ends in -o (in the plural in -i), every adjective in -a, every (derived) adverb in -e, every verb in -r, -s, or -z according to its mood. The opposite state in which there are no formal signs to show word-classes is found in Chinese, in which some words can only be used in certain applications, while others without any outward change may function now as substantives, now as verbs, now as adverbs, etc., the value in each case being shown by the syntactic rules and the context.

English here steers a middle course through the inclining more and more to the Chinese system. Take the form round: this is a substantive in “a round of a ladder,” “he took his daily round,” and adjective in “a round table,” a verb in “he failed to round the lamp-post,”, an adverb in “come round tomorrow,”, and a preposition in “he walked round the house.” While may similarly be a substantive (he stayed here for a while), a verb (to while away time), and a conjunction (while he was away). Move may be a substantive or a verb, after a preposition, an adverb, or a conjunction, etc.

On the other hand, we have a great many words which can belong to one word-class only; admiration, society, life can only be substantives, polite only an adjective, was, comprehend only verbs, and at only a preposition.

To find out what a particular class a given word belongs to, it is generally of little avail to look at one isolated form. Nor is there any flexional ending that is the exclusive property of any single part of speech. The ending -ed (-d) is chiefly found in verbs (ended, opened, etc.), but it may also be added to substantives to form adjectives(blue-eyed, moneyed, talented, etc.). Some endings may be used as tests if we take the meaning of the ending also into account; thus if an added -s changes the word into a plural, the word is a substantive, and if it is found in the third person singular, the word is a verb; this, then, is one of the tests for keeping the substantive and the verb round apart (many rounds of the ladder; he rounds the lamp-post). In other cases the use of certain words in combinations is decisive, thus my and the in “my lover for her” and “the love I bear her” as against “I love her,” show that love is a substantive and not a verb as in the last combination (cf. my admiration, the admiration as against I admire, where admiration and admire are unambiguous.

It is, however, very important to remark that even if round and love and a great many other English words belong to more than one word-class, this is true of the isolated form only: in each separate case in which the word is used in actual speech it belongs to one class and to no other. But this is often overlooked by writers who will say that in the sentence “we tead at the vicarage” we have a case of a substantive used as a verb. The truth is that we have a real verb, just as real as dine or eat, though derived from the substantive tea—and derived without any distinctive ending in the infinitive. To form a verb from another word is not the same thing as to use a substantive as a verb, which is impossible. Dictionaries must therefore recognize love sb. and love v. as two words, and in the same way tea sb. and tea verb. In such a case as wire they should even recognize three words, (1) sb. ‘metallic thread,’ (2) ‘to send a message by wire, to telegraph’— a word formed from the first word without any derivative ending, (3) ‘message, telegram’, a sb. formed from the verb without any ending.

Otto Jespersen. 1924. The Philosophy of Grammar, pp.60ff.

And some more on prepositions and adverbs:

In nearly all grammars adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections are treated as four distinct “parts of speech,” the difference between them being thus put on a par with that between substantives, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs. But in this way the dissimilarities between these words are grossly exaggerated, and their evident similarities correspondingly obscured, and I therefore propose to revert to the old terminology by which these four classes are treated as one called “particles.”

As regards form they are all invariable—apart from the power that some adverbs possess of forming comparatives and superlatives in the same manner as the adjectives to which they are related. But in order to estimate the differences in meaning or function that have led most grammarians to consider them as different parts of speech, it will be necessary to cast a glance at some words outside of these classes.

Many words are subject to a distinction which is designated by different names and therefore not perceived as essentially the same wherever found, namely that between a word complete in itself (or used for the moment as such) and one completed by some addition, generally of a restricted nature. Thus we have the complete verb in he sings, he plays, he begins; and the same verb followed by a complement in he sings a song, he plays the piano, he begins work. In this case it is usual to call the verb intransitive in one case and transitive in the other, while the complement is termed its object. [...]

If we now turn to such words as on or in, we find what is to mind an exact parallel to the instances just mentioned in their employment in combinations like “put your cap on” and “put your cap on your head”, “he was in” and “he was in the house”; yet on and in in the former sentences are termed adverbs, and in the latter prepositions, and these are reckoned as two different parts of speech. Would it not be more natural to include them in one class and to say that on and in are sometimes complete in themselves and sometimes followed by a complement (or object)? Take other examples: “he climbs up” and “he climbs up a tree,” “he falls down” and “he falls down the steps” (cf. “he ascends, or descends” with or without the complement “the steps” expressed); “he had been there before” and “he had been there before breakfast.” Is near in “it was near one o’clock” a preposition or an adverb according to the usual system. (Cf. the two synonyms almost and about, the former called an adverb, the latter a preposition.) The close correspondence between the object of a transitive verb and that of a “preposition” in seen in those cases in which a preposition is nothing but a verbal form in a special use, as for example concerning (G. betreffend) and past in “he walked past the door at half-past one,” which is simply the participle passed written in a different way; in “he walked past” it has no complement.

Ditto, pp.87ff.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Erling Wold said...

Hah! But I have tricked all those gloomy and stickbutted lovers of the law. I no longer speak, blog or write in English but in another language of my own devising which just happens to be very similar to English but has a set of rules carefully fabricated to make everything OK. For example, the rules expressly allow all the sayings of the lolcats including the spelling cheezburger, as well as all versions of Japlish, from the extremely disturbing to the merely mildly uncomfortable. And isn't standard globalized English going to incorporate all other languages eventually anyway, at least the good parts and probably just those that can be written in roman characters with a few diacritical marks?

December 13, 2007 at 12:37 AM  
Blogger mistergrow said...

ooh, I can't wait to use polite as a verb!

December 13, 2007 at 3:00 AM  
Blogger zmjezhd said...

Yes, that's the ticket, Erling. Make it seem like English, but in fact it's a whole 'nother language. The method can be found in the Humpty Dumpty Semantics chapter of Alice

And, eta, I await your deadjectival verb trembling.

December 13, 2007 at 9:01 AM  
Blogger Erling Wold said...

Dang, M. CL Dodgson has priored me in all things, sexual perversion included. But rereading the Humpty Dumpty passage, including

They've a temper, some of them -- particularly verbs: they're the proudest -- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs -- however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

reminded me of Carter Scholz's story The Nine Billion Names of God after the the Arthur C Clarke story of the same name, where the author who has submitted the story claims that he isn't plagiarizing but rather recoding each word - a private recoding of course.

December 13, 2007 at 11:55 AM  
Blogger zmjezhd said...

I'm not familiar with Carter Scholz or his works. Sounds interesting. Of course, I am reminded of Borges' Pierre Menard, the eponymous protagonist of which is rewriting Cervantes' Don Quijote. Old Jorge Luis is also intrigued with the whole combinatorial aspect of generating texts, too. (And then there's the Oulipo gang, too.) I also have a vanity-press published book of an obscure American MD who reads all kinds of Talmudic notions and meanings into Alice books.

December 13, 2007 at 12:13 PM  
Blogger Chris said...

Hi, i found you're site via Language Log and your re-direct. The whole idea of a word being able to function as multiple parts-of-speech is somehow mysterious to non-linguists. A recent bunch of silliness related to this is some psycholinguistic study initiated by a Shakespeare professor whose smitten by the idea that Shakespeare somehow invented this and does it better than everyone. I blogged about it recently.

December 15, 2007 at 3:27 PM  

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