A fine distinction from Philip K. Dick

July 16, 2015

Philip K. Dick’s pleasurably paranoid science-fiction novel Time Out of Joint (1959) has a passage that shows the ingenuity of children in using language to manipulate perceived reality (something Dick himself did with brio in his writing). Sammy, a boy working on a makeshift radio, needs to get its crude antenna somewhere high:

Returning to the house he climbed the stairs to the top floor. One window opened on to the flat part of the roof; he unlatched that window and in a moment he was scrambling out onto the roof.

From downstairs his mother called, ‘Sammy, you’re not going out on the roof, are you?’

‘No,’ he yelled back. I am out, he told himself, making in his mind a fine distinction.

I imagine most kids, once their command of language is sufficiently sophisticated, play similar semantic games for short-term gain or amusement. The same kind of hyper-literalness is the basis for a lot of childhood humour (e.g., ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Yes.’). I like PKD’s understated use of it which puts us in Sammy’s head for a moment.


The semantic scope of ‘Martian’

June 24, 2015

When the horror comedy film Slither came out in 2006, I thought it far too derivative, with major plot points and big reveals rehashed from ideas I’d seen before – in David Cronenberg’s Shivers and Rabid, Brian Yuzna’s Society, and the entire first half of George Romero’s career.

But there were things I liked about it too, so I felt I owed it another look. Second time around I appreciated its queasy charms and lively sense of fun much more, and as an unexpected bonus it contains a brief semantic dispute.

This takes place in a car as our heroes escape from unspeakable weirdness and try to figure out what’s going on. Slight spoilers follow in the subtitled images below. Some dialogue is repeated here to accommodate editing cuts and show who’s speaking. If strong language bothers you, flee now while you can.

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Fears crawling, crash blossoming

June 2, 2015

This headline on the front page of today’s Guardian caught my eye for reasons both ecological and syntactic. See what you make of it before reading on:

guardian headline crash blossom - fears crawling, invasive fish

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Multiple negation and the meaning of ‘grammar’

April 24, 2015

I have two more posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. (Yes, I mentioned a prior couple just a week ago – I wasn’t keeping up!)

First: Grammar at cross purposes highlights a common source of unnecessary strife over language use: the meaning of grammar, by which linguists usually mean syntax, morphology, and so on – the rules we pick up informally when we’re very young. By contrast:

When non-linguists talk about grammar, they are normally referring to more transient things like spelling, style, and conventions of usage. This discrepancy between the technical and popular interpretations of ‘grammar’ fosters uncertainty and disagreement over what a grammatical rule is, and what therefore counts as correct. Disputants may be at cross purposes because advice on ‘grammar’ is often simply instruction on style and usage. . . .

Grammar rules, as I once tweeted, come from how people use language. They emerge from the bottom up; they are not imposed top-down from logic, Latin, or some higher ideal.

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One example of a ‘rule’ imposed by decree from logic, Latin, and higher ideals is the proscription against multiple negation, better known as double negatives.

Ain’t nothin’ (grammatically) wrong with no double negatives addresses this perennial point of controversy, looking over the usage’s long history in different varieties of English and how it came to be ostracised from reputable use:

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage reports Otto Jespersen’s observation that because negation in English has often been marked subtly – ‘by no more than an unstressed particle like old ne or modern -n’t’ – speakers have long tended to reinforce it with additional negation. So the double negative is a feature of many dialects, and indeed was once common even in the literary English of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Defoe. But that was before it gained a bad reputation, the result more of social than of grammatical pressures.

The post then briefly documents double negatives’ fall from grace as a result of unwarranted pejoration from 18thC grammarians and those who’ve carried the torch for them ever since.

Older posts can be read in my archive at Macmillan.


‘Literal meaning’ is an oxymoron

April 6, 2015

David Bellos’s 2011 book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?: The Amazing Adventure of Translation is full of delights and insights not just about the history and phenomenon of translation but about communication, language, and culture more generally.

In a chapter on what Bellos calls the myth of literal translation, he points out that the word literal is sometimes used ‘to say something about the way an expression is supposed to be understood’. This applies to the word literal itself, and thus to the perennial nontroversy over literally which centres on the claim that it should always and only be used ‘literally’. The claim is flawed on several levels.

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Do be doing be’s: habitual aspect in Irish English

March 13, 2015

She be’s out on that bike every Sunday

They do be up late chatting

Everyone knows about grammatical tense – it involves placing a situation in time, using inflections and auxiliaries to mark temporal location in the past, present, future, etc. Aspect, though less familiar, also concerns time: specifically, how a speaker views the temporal structure or properties of an action or situation, such as whether it’s complete, habitual, or still in progress.

So for example, in the progressive aspect an action is, was, or will be in progress: am walking, was writing, will be singing. It pairs auxiliary be with a gerund-participle complement (__ing). The terminology can be forbidding, but the structure is familiar.

Then there’s habitual aspect for habitual or repeated events or states. In the past tense, English can use would (She would make tea when we called) or used to (We used to meet daily). In English present tense, habitual aspect is not marked, and is often indicated with adverbs or adverbials: We go there [regularly / all the time].

Irish English, also called Hiberno-English, can express habitual aspect in present tense by enlisting Irish (Gaelic) grammar. In Irish, tá mé (which can contract to táim) means ‘I am’, literally ‘is me’. But bíonn mé (→ bím) means ‘I (habitually) am’ – a different sense of be. The distinction is so intrinsic to Irish that our ancestors refashioned English to incorporate it.

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Occupying metaphor: the reappropriation of slurs

March 9, 2015

Marina Warner, in her book Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time (essentially her 1994 Reith Lectures in book form), has a note on the practice of reclaiming slurs and insults, often called reappropriation:

Moving in to occupy the metaphorical objects of derision and fear has become a popular strategy. Sometimes this takes the form of ironical co-opting of a jibe, or even an insult – as in the open defiance of the black rock group called Niggers With Attitude, or the ironic names of women’s enterprises, like the famous publishers, Virago. In Zagreb, five writers were recently denounced as dangerous women in the Croatian nationalist press: the targets immediately accepted the label, and their supporters now wear badges proclaiming them ‘Opasna Žena’ – a dangerous woman. This is a form of well proven magic, uttering a curse in order to undo or claim its power, pronouncing a name in order to command its field of meaning.

I like Warner’s description of this act as occupying metaphorical objects, like sleight of semantics: it captures the tangle of abstraction we employ in constructing identity, while also prefiguring the global use of occupy in political uprisings and protests in recent years.

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