Friday, December 22, 2006

Herb & Jamaal are talking to me (crosspost from Lang Log)

I swear Herb and Jamaal are trying to send a message to linguists. But what?

Maybe they're just trying to catch the attention of linguists, and then the message is coming later. If that's the plan, they're succeeding with me. Here's today's cartoon:

Do you see what I mean? Isn't that bolding in the ultimate panel on the wrong word? I take it to indicate contrastive stress. But for the joke to work the way I think it's supposed to work, the bolding ought to be on the verb know. See, there's a whole lecture in this cartoon about how contrastive stress is introduced by a speaker to distinguish two parallel propositions with a single distinct element, in this case, the different predicates taking 'how much she spent' as a complement, trying to figure out versus know. This cartoon seems odd because the stress is indicated on a non-contrasting element, she, instead. (I don't think there's any other character who she could be referring to that would contrast with my wife). Depending on the direction of the lecture, you could talk about the phonetic properties associated with contrastive stress, or the semantics of the contrasting propositions, or their syntax (island effects appear, I believe). All blogworthy stuff, really, but seemingly based on nothing more than just an accident of inking.

But this is far from the first time H&J have produced this kind of 'accident'.

Just a few days ago, pretty much at the three-week point after the Brizendine kerfuffle, H&J published this:

I nearly posted under the title, 'Noooooooo!' but then thought really, the less said the better. But then this thing today...and see, I've been saving up H&J's for a post on 'whom' someday, because as far as I can tell they are the last bastion of whom in modern-day America, certainly on the funny pages. Check it out:

It's not just one character who says 'whom', so it's not supposed to just be a personality quirk, but rather a whole community of speakers for whom (!) straight-up, prepositionless accusative whom is still au courant. I was going to post about how it really leaps out as a marked/odd usage to me in the context of a cartoon, where the norm is for the dialogue to be represented in fairly colloquial style, lots of contractions and informal speech, even some &*$%&!!# now and then.

And then, also not long ago, this was the Sunday strip:

This one illustrates the nonce formation of a denominal location/locatum verb meaning 'to put/get into a sink' (like to corral, to box, etc.), a process that I've been professionally interested in. Moreover, this particular denominal verb is homophonous with an irregular English verb, sink, meaning 'to descend', past tense sank, participle sunk. The difference between the nonce denominal verb sink and the established irreguar verb sink has been experimentally investigated by Steven Pinker, inter alia. Subjects reliably form the past tense of denominal sink as sinked, not as sank, illustrating the psychological reality of the invisible layer of nominal structure which verbalizes the noun in the denominal verb.

[sink]V + past = sank
[[sink]N]V + past = sinked

So this cartoon is basically another whole lecture (or a whole nother lecture). And of course there was the cartoon from a few weeks ago presenting an opinion about the use of nigger. And a few months ago, there was this cartoon, which has so far occupied several precious hours of my conscious existence:

This one incorporates a version of a semi-famous example sentence as the punchline, illustrating the peculiar problem of parsing a negation inside a too/enough-construction. (For some technical discussion of the properties of these constructions, you could see this paper). I blogged about this cartoon here before; see the comments for a dramatic debate between readers who blinked at the cartoon (like me) and readers who didn't.

So anyway, I'm starting to think that H&J are trying to tell us something. Or maybe their creator is reading some linguistics on the side and he's just messing with me. Or maybe I'm developing a worrisome degree of paranoia. I'll let you know if I ever figure it out.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

art, arts, arted, arting

Meta-blog news: Over the weekend, I was inducted into the Language Log cabal. I now know the secret handshake, and the retinal scanner at the secure building at Language Log Plaza now recognizes my left eye. I'm not sure how things work over there yet, but I'm going to be finding out. If you have any questions for the CEOs, I could... well, probaby if you just write to them yourself it'll be faster. Anyway, the point is, some of my Heideas posts will now show up as LL posts too, though I'll probably also post some of the more linguisticy technical thingies for the more select Heideas audience. But this post will be the first to appear in both places -- apologies for duplication in any of your feeds!

Here's another example of the 'X is a verb' snowtrope that I saw on a display panel at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art a week or two ago:

They mean to convey something like, 'Art is an activity we, the curators, and you, the museum goers, and they, the artists, all actively engage in,' as in the other uses of the 'X is a verb' formula discussed on the Language Log. Just another misguided linguistic metaphor. However, it reminded me of something else about 'art' as a verb that I'd been thinking of posting about.

When I was a kid in Newfoundland, we said the Lord's Prayer every morning at school. (It was a secular public school, but derived from the Protestant half of a historically denominationally organized school system; old habits die hard.) I knew 'art' was a verb—"Our father, who art in heaven"—but I understood it as some verbal counterpart of the noun 'art', as in skill, work, magic, the opposite of the 'dark arts'—you know, arcane, mysterious art. 'To art' in this sense would mean something like, 'to work (magic)'. So I thought we were intended to be addressing "Our Father, who works (magic) in heaven..." It wasn't until much later that it occurred to me that this was in fact just an arcane, mysterious form of the verb 'to be'.

But recalling my childhood confusion as I stood in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, another puzzle about this use of art occurred to me. It is true that art is a former member of the present tense conjugation of the English copula to be, but it's the wrong one! The relevant entry in the OED, for art, says this:

"2nd sing. pres. ind. of BE. One of the remaining parts of the orig. substantive vb.; cf. AM."

That is, as a form of BE, art is unambiguously second person singular. Consequently, its use in "Our father, who art in heaven" is mighty peculiar. Relative pronouns like who or which inherit the person of the NP they modify, and the modified NP, "our father", is third person. Consequently, the verb should be a third-person (singular) form, that is is. (The logic of my childhood misparse was similarly flawed; my verb should have been 'arts' rather than 'art', unless I imagined it was irregular, of course, which I guess I must have).

So then I started wondering where the art came from.1 In fact, in the New Testament Greek 'original' version, there is no copula present; the line in Greek went like this (interlinear gloss taken from the relevant page at the Center for Indo-European Language and Culture at the University of Texas Austin):

Pater hêmôn ho en tois ouranois;
O-father of-us he in the heavens
'Our Father which art in heaven,'

In the 'Standard Latin' translation of this, the second-person form of the copula es, first appears:

Pater noster, qui es in caelis

because, I suppose, the head of the relative clause is vocative, the case form used to address someone (this is kind of interesting in itself! I didn't know that the vocative could do this within a relative clause).

The first Old English translations were made from the Latin translation, rather than from the Greek, and an actual second person pronoun appears (line and gloss taken from Cathy Ball's Old English web pages at the University of Georgetown):

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum
Father our thou that art in heaven

And of course, here the use of the second person form here makes all kinds of sense, since the head being modfied by the relative clause is itself second person.

What's interesting is that the art form of the verb persisted in official English versions of the prayer long after the 'thou' had been dropped and regular rules of English agreement would have predicted a switch to the third-person form is. (NB: English does not have a vocative case form.) You can track the persistence of art at Cathy Ball's online collection of English forms of the prayer, here. Almost no modern English translation of the prayer from the Greek includes any copula at all; for a complete description of the process employed in the creation one modern English translation and side-by-side comparisons of ten different translations, check out this pdf.

With the loss of the thou, the art became an anachronism. its persistence illustrating an interesting point about ritual speech.

Ritual speech is one place where archaic words linger on, long after they have fallen out of common use and indeed over time often become unintelligible to youger generations uttering them (a situation which is conducive to misparses and eggcorns like mine). In ritual speech it's important to get the form of words exactly 'right'—words that are just a paraphrase of the meaning won't do. By the time the thou was dropped from the official version, the use of 'art' must have been completely formulaic, retained because it was the 'right' form to use in this prayer, like the predicate-first subjunctive in the next line, 'Hallowed be thy name'.

The 'thou', although present neither in the Anglican or Catholic official versions, isn't completely gone. There are still 12,900 Google hits out there for "Thou art in heaven" vs. 252,000 for "who art in heaven" and 94,500 for "which art in heaven". A search for "who is in heaven" turns up 247,000 hits, but only two of the first 10 hits have anything directly to do with the prayer, so I assume most of those aren't relevant. "Our Father, who is in heaven" has a measly 21,600. A lot of the modern translations just use 'in heaven', no copula or relative clause at all, and "Our Father in heaven" weighs in at 284,000 hits.

Cautionary Postscript: This discussion is not about the Lord's Prayer itself, but rather about subject-verb agreement in free relative clauses, problems of translation, formulaic speech and the genesis of misparses. The prayer is just an extremely well-documented source of data about these issues.

1Caveat: I am not trained in any classical language, or in Old English; the information that follows is what I can deduce by looking at some paradigms and making a few educated guesses.