Friday, May 11, 2007

Family Circus Filology (Crosspost from LL)

Today's language cartoons come via the Comics Curmudgeon, who has featured a coupla linguistically-significant Family Circus cartoons in recent rants.

First, a simple Eggcorn Genesis moment:

Next, something a bit more sophisticated:

To fully appreciate this one, you really need to read part of what Josh (the Curmudgeon) has to say about it in his original rant:

I wasn’t aware that there was some Papally proscribed prayer posture, with more knees denoting more Christian sincerity. I’m also not sure how Dolly can tell Jeffy’s only doing half an Ave Maria if he’s still in the midst of it — is he only doing every other word or something?

Josh's remark illustrates an important point about the temporal properties of events that can be described as "saying half the Hail Mary", namely, that they unfold towards a specific endpoint along a timecourse specified by the extent properties of the element denoted by the object NP in direct object position. That is, such events keep on going until half a Hail Mary is said and then they stop. The size of half a Hail Mary determines the extent of the event. This necessary stopping is a crucial property of such events -- called "telic events" -- and distinguishes them from another kind of event, ones with no predetermined endpoint, like running or singing -- ''atelic'' events..

Now, the English progressive (be + V-ing) has the property of focussing on the midpoint of some event -- the event is ongoing when you use the progressive to describe it. So the normal interpretation of "Jeff is saying half a Hail Mary" is that Jeff is in the middle of saying half a Hail Mary -- he hasn't reached the endpoint of the saying-half-a-Hail-Mary event yet.

Josh's point is that Dolly can't possibly tell whether Jeffy is only saying half a Hail Mary or saying a full Hail Mary. Any midpoint of a saying-half-a-Hail-Mary event is ALSO a midpoint of a saying-a-Hail-Mary event, so if Dolly's in the middle of watching Jeffy executing such an event, she can't know if he's going to stop halfway through or not, so she can have no evidence that he's only saying half.

There are only a couple of ways her report can make sense as a true statement about an ongoing event. One is the way that Josh mentions in his comment -- if he's saying half the Hail Mary by uttering every other word. Then, after hearing just a few words of the Hail Mary, Dolly could extrapolate the pattern to the end of the prayer, conclude that Jeffy isn't going to say the whole thing, and make her report.

The other way is if she's witnessing an iteration of half-a-Hail-Mary-saying events -- Jeffy has been repeatedly saying half-Hail-Marys. This represents a so-called 'coercion' effect of the progressive+telic verb combination -- rather than one event halfway through, the event is reimagined as consisting of multiple iterated events. He knocked at the door could be true with just a single "knock!", but He was knocking at the door has to involve multiple knocks -- coercion to an iteration interpretation, since knocking has no internal event duration that the progressive could focus on. Saying a Hail Mary does, though, so there's both the 'normal' and iterated interpretations available. And only as a description of iterated half-Hail-Mary-saying events does Dolly's report make sense.

I imagine this is why it's the Hail Mary and not some other bedtime prayer that is mentioned in the caption -- in my media-based and sketchy impression of Catholicism, Hail Marys are a prayer that is often said repeatedly, yes? Poor little Jeffy. Now he'll have to go back and say all the other half-a-Hail-Marys. Halfs-a-Hail-Mary? Certainly not halves-a-Hail-Mary. Hmm!



Blogger Chris said...

Perhaps he started in the middle.

1:32 AM  
Anonymous Betsy said...

Or maybe he said the first line, and then the third... or the first line and then skipped several lines.

2:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Or maybe she's interpreting the kneeling as being key to the "power" of the Hail Mary - so kneeling on one knee automatically makes it only half a Hail Mary, as though it only has half its force. The 'and', in this interpretation sort of parallelises the two verb phrases (I'm not a linguist so I don't know the terminology) - a bit like the "Why don't you try and climb that tree" construction.

2:33 AM  
Blogger Andrew Dalke said...

Or Jeffy said before he started that he was only going to do 1/2 of a prayer.

2:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The girl sees the amount of kneeling as the worth of the prayer. Her reasoning is probably 'if the prayer is meaningless when standing upright & worth one prayer when kneeling fully, then a one-knee kneel is half a full kneel & so half a prayer'.

The humour is probably meant to come from people viewing prayer as a quantifiable obligation rather than the comforting spiritual thingo that it is apparently intended as.

The view can have funnier implications, though. What if kissing the ground while hailing mary is worth two prayers?

If you are obligated to do it daily, then you can fill your mary-hailing quota by kissing the ground 3 days a week & doing a regular kneel on thursday. 3 day weekend!

This assumes consecutive hailmarys are forbidden. Otherwise, nothing is stopping the imp from devoting an entire day to mary-hailing & freeing up his year.

5:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On reflection, I am not sure whether kissing the ground could be seen as being worth two kneels. I was assuming the kneeling symbolized submisivness but on reflection i am not sure whether it symbolizes that. & I was equating ground-kissing to feet-kissing or maybe butt-kissing which were approx doubly submisive in my mind?

5:28 AM  
Anonymous D. P. said...

I think the simplest solution is in Dolly's use of the word "again." Jeffy has, in the past, knelt on one knee and said half a Hail Mary. That is an established pattern in Dolly's mind. Now, he is doing the same thing again, or at least Dolly has reason to believe that he is repeating his pattern. He is on one knee, and Dolly expects that he will stop after praying only half of his Hail Mary.

5:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Hail Mary consists of two parts, so perhaps Jeffy has been only reciting the first part and is likely to do so once again.

5:47 AM  
Blogger John Cowan said...

AFAIK there are no Christian prayers that are said on one knee only; the kneeling position connotes humility, not submissiveness as such. Certainly "kissing the ground" is a matter for other religions.

Hmm. I wonder if the custom of proposing marriage on one knee is meant to indicate a lesser worship -- in the sense of the Anglican marriage service, "with my body I thee worship" -- than that due to the saints (dulia) or to God alone (latria)?

6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought the whole thing was some sort of football reference, but I don't know much about Catholicism or football.

6:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with the first commenter: he's only saying the second half.

6:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It actually is possible to to say "was knocking" and refer to only one knock, b/c from the point-of-view of the knocker, even a single knock is an action that unravels over time (the movement of the arm), not the singularity of knuckles rapping the door. Take this sentence as an example: "John was knocking on the door when he heard a gunshot inside the house." If John is in mid-swing, he's already "knocking," and momentum forces his hand to the door even while he hears a gunshot. But since John is at least minimally aware for his own safety, he's not likely to knock a second time, hence only one knock, but something else could be said to have happened while "he was knocking."

6:59 AM  
Blogger Andyman said...

He could also be skipping out on the middle of the prayer -- maybe because he doesn't know exactly what the words are -- in the way that a man can do a quarter of a hundred pushups if a pretty girl walks in.
(Man counting off each pushup as he does them) "One...two...three...four... (woman walks in) hundred.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Ran said...

Anon #1: I believe the term for that is "hendiadys", though I'd say it's less a scientific-linguistic term than an artistic-rhetorical one.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous gnome de blog said...

On another level, the grown-up Jeffy now co-authors the strip. Parsing the language aside, his purpose here may be to ridicule his sister as an intrusive, sanctimonious tattle-tale, obsessed with the form of the ritual and completely oblivious to the sincerity of the content.

9:30 AM  
Blogger Amasa said...

Halves of Hail Marys?

11:25 AM  
Anonymous True Fable said...

Actually, the Hail Mary is made up of two sentences. The proper way to say a "Hail Mary" with more than one person around, is for one person to act as lector and say the first part.
Then everyone chimes in with the second part.

So Jeffy's doing what he's supposed to, Dolly; you bitch! Now get over there and quit trying to weasel out of it, ya heathen.

11:54 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

This may be completely missing the point, but is there a reason you've written "Filology" as opposed to the usual "Philology"? I ask not out of perscriptivism, but just out of curiousity. :-D

2:29 PM  
Anonymous Faldage said...

It's hard enough trying to find funny in Family Circus without trying to find sense in it, too.

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe she is just inferring and predicting from his posture that he's going to stop at the halfway point, say after 'Holy Mary mother of God'.

6:04 AM  
Blogger hh said...

You are all too clever! good thinking. He could certainly have started in the middle, or said half of any word, or every other line or... Actually, it's all connected to Bary Schein's work on the interpretation of quantificational expressions. The sentence "Two boys ate 10 pizzas" could be true (when '10' gets wide scope) if they each every other bite, or every other slice, or every other cheese molecule, or anything similar; no mapping from discrete pizzas to boys is needed. It's all Zeno's paradox.

And as for "filology" -- that was meant to be a little jokey; alliterative headline ('family' and 'philology') underscored by (childish?) respelling of 'ph' with 'f', appropriate to the Family Circus subject matter....3

4:06 PM  
Anonymous Rick Sprague said...

Did you mean the "eggcorn genesis" within the fictional family, or were you referring to the who knows how many real world kids reading the Sunday funnies, seeing that proverb in print for the first time, and adopting it as written? I can see it both ways.

As a former Catholic kid, it's obvious to me that Jeffy is praying the way I did when I was in a hurry to get the daily ritual over with:
Hail Mary/The Lord is with thee/Blessed art thou amongst women
Holy Mary/Pray for us sinners/Now and at the hour of our death.
It's not exactly half, since only a few phrases are skipped, but Dolly could tell after the second phrase that Jeffy was using the abridged version.

6:36 AM  
Blogger tom said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:59 PM  
Blogger tom said...

"I wasn’t aware that there was some Papally proscribed prayer posture, with more knees denoting more Christian sincerity."

Actually there is. The Catholic Encyclopedia states in several different sections that the proper way to say the Hail Mary is kneeling as "an expression of penitence and sorrow for sins committed" which requires both knees down. It also states that the rubrics of the Council of Nicæa (A. D. 325) forbid public prayer while kneeling... on Sundays.

Because there are some who kneel on the Lord's Day: that all things may be uniformly performed in every parish or diocese, it seems good to the Holy Synod that the prayers be by all made to God, standing.

So perhaps it was Sunday and Jeffy considered praying in front of his sister to be sort of public so he decided to compromise with one knee down.

3:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


12:11 AM  
Blogger The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

Little Catholic kids often get taught to pray the Our Father, a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be sequence (joined with a Morning Offering in the morning, and at bedtime with an examination of conscience and Confiteor, then on to Godblessmommyanddaddyandlittlejeffyand...). So I assumed his sister had heard him launch into the Glory Be after only getting as far as "...fruit of thy womb, Jesus."

There are properly one-kneed prayers: one genuflects at the appropriate place in the Angelus, and during the Et Incarnatus Est at Easter (or, if pious or trad, throughout the year).

What *I* want to know, if the Family Circus is plunging into Catholic linguistic wars, is how little Jeffy feels "pro multis" ought to be translated.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Max said...

'Hail Mary halves' perhaps?

8:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the family Circus.

7:26 PM  
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