Semantics


My brother this morning uttered a sentence that I think deserves a bit of syntactic analysis. The context, if you can’t recover it from the sentence itself, was essentially my brother swapping a telephone cable, which resulted in the new cable sagging a bit with the slack. There is, however, a hook whose purpose is to take up the slack, except that it wasn’t in quite the right spot. Thus:

That hook could use moving.

This amused me somewhat, and much to their chagrin, I let everyone present know¹. It makes perfect sense to me, even if it’s a little difficult to see how the whole is composed by its parts, so I’m interested in how it came about.

I see the influence, and intersection, of a couple of other idiomatic syntactic constructions here, which I’ll refer to as the could use construction and the needs verbing construction.The could use construction was, I reckon, more originally said of animate subjects and refered to tangible things, such as:

I could use a torch

From here, it’s only a short journey to more abstract arguments, although the subject would still be an animate, as in:

You could use a break

This then would be taken to be euphemistic version of something like ‘I need a break’. Which brings me to the next construction of which this sentence was reminiscent: the needs verbing construction. I believe Language Log addressed this construction a while back, at least once, but I can’t find any record of it. The basic idea is, take a full sentence of the format x needs to be verb-en, and reformulate it such that it becomes x needs verbing. So your dog needs to be washed (unequivocally transparent syntax there) becomes:

Your dog needs washing

If we consider the lexical specifications of the quasi-modal verb need, then I hope we can agree that in its canonical form, it takes a complement, which usually surfaces as an object, as in:

I need a taco

It’s also possible for need to take as its complement an S (sentence) beginning with a to-infinitive verb, whose subject is functionally controlled by the subject of the matrix verb, or, if there is one, the object².

Let me put that another way: take a sentence like:

I need to do the washing

The person who does the washing here is the same person who does the needing: I. Whereas in:

I need you to do the washing

The person who does the washing is you instead (if you accede to my request, that is), so the controller of the subject of wash, in each instance, is the nearest argument. I’m getting slightly off-track, so ignore these little tangents relating to LFG and recall what I said about need in its canonical sense taking an object as its complement (I need a taco). Morphosyntactically speaking, a direct object is a noun, so it could be filled by a gerund; the -ing form of the verb that acts as a noun, as in his doing the dishes impressed me. This might be a red herring, but is it possible that the verb in the need verbing construction is in fact a gerund?

This analysis is probably getting a little bit too big for its boots by now, so I might wrap it up. I believe what my brother intended to say was that hook needs to be moved, which, on account of the entirely common needs verbing construction, becomes that hook needs moving. Finally, taking the rough synonymy in this instance of could use and needs, he came out with a slightly more euphemistic sentence that on one hand, implied that I should in fact move the hook while, on the other, cushioning the imposition on me to actually do something³, and produced:

That hook could use moving

Brilliant. Is this how people do construction grammar?


¹It’s quite normally the case that my occasional bursts of intense amusement in totally minor linguistic curios solicit sighs of impending boredom from everyone within earshot. That is, until I met my nibulin⁴, who is also a linguist and is similarly amused, just as intensely, by such things.
²I might be wrong about one or two points of terminology here, such as anapahoric versus functional control as it’s been quite a while since I’ve done any lexical-functional grammar. If you spot anything, let me know.
³There’s an awful lot of speech act theory and conversational politeness theory bound up in that which I don’t really have the time to go into, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
⁴I’m not going to define this for you – if you really desperately want to know what it is you can find the online Wagiman dictionary and look it up.

Does anyone know how something that literally translates as ‘dislike of hand’ could be paraphrasable as ‘liberal’?

In the data massaging for the Kaurna electronic dictionary that I spoke of back here, I’ve come across a term whose internal parts indeed come from the words for ‘dislike’ and ‘hand’. I’m certain it’s not a typo, but the definition given is:

Dislike of hand, i.e. liberal

Come on, folks. Put your historical lexicography hats on.

In case it helps, it was written in 1857.


<update>

Something else I just noticed. Murta is the Kaurna word for animal faeces, which has a sub-entry murtaannaitya, which is glossed as ‘European hen’.

Could this word translate literally as ‘shitter’?

</update>

In a post this morning, I suggested facetiously that the Coalition might prefer to use the term ‘separated’ as opposed to ‘stolen’, in the wording of a formal apology to the victims of some of the more abhorrent assimilationist policies.

The opposition are most concerned over the term Stolen Generation apparently. Perhaps they’d prefer to use Gerard Henderson’s newest euphemism, Separated Generation?

Well, not long after that, this popped up on the ABC News website:

A Liberal backbencher says he would prefer to see “Separated Generations” rather than “Stolen Generations” used in next week’s formal apology to Indigenous Australians.

“I think separated is probably a better word than stolen personally,” [Liberal backbencher Dr Denis Jensen] said.

Perhaps I’m more widely read than I had fancied, or perhaps more likely, Dr Jensen reads Gerard Henderson.

Maybe it’s my less-than-prime cognitive state right now, but I’m beginning to notice little grammatical quirks and ambiguities that I’d normally have overseen (that was silly of me – thanks for pointing it out, David) overlooked completely.

This web page popped up when I opted out of a frankly unsolicited email advertising list:

You have been opted out.

Pardon? Is that an applicativised use of the phrasal verb opt-out? My understanding of this verb is that you opt out of something, you do not get opted out. Then again, if this use doesn’t strike you as odd; if it’s alright to you, to say that someone has opted you out of something, please feel free to digress.

Incidentally, corpus.google.com¹ shows that the strings have opted out and has opted out together generate about 188,400 results, while been and get opted out only generate about 2,000. Be opted out is surprisingly common though, with about 12,500 hits, so maybe it isn’t as ungrammatical as I thought.

The other thing I noticed today was the packaging on a salami from the supermarket, which read:

Ideal for entertaining.
For entertaining recipes, visit our website.

Honestly. Recipes are matter-of-fact, functional things. How entertaining do they have to be?

Seriously though, I was just having a conversation about a very similar thing in the linguistics room on irc.freenode.net. I was previously under the impression that the term operating system is a paraphrase of something like a system that operates, in which case you’d call operating a verb participle, I guess. But since an operating system is actually a system that pertains to operating, it’s accurate enough to call it a gerund.

~

In other news, I just upgraded my wordpress software from 2.3.1 to 2.3.2, because apparently there was a security fault with 2.3.1, and readers were occasionally able to see drafts, which are usually hidden. In fact I noticed a while back that my stats page showed many of my drafts as having been visited, which concerned me slightly. But it should be fixed now, so I can feel free to draft on.

~

¹I’ve mentioned corpus.google.com before, and I’ve been using it now for well over a year. In fact up until an hour ago I though I had originally coined it. But it has come to my attention that there was a blog post that antedates my first use by over 18 months. Still, I certainly came up with it independently, so it’s much like arguing over whether it was Newton or Leibniz who invented calculus.

Here’s the relevant bit:

I wonder if Google will eventually offer such a service themselves? “corpus.google.com”? (Apologies to those who thought this post was actually announcing such a service.)

Predictably, I’ve also variously had to offer up similar apologies to some of my readers who were misled by my reference, such as David.

There’s far too little linguistics on this blog, so in an attempt to rectify this:

Late last week on the bus I was having a conversation with a friend that, after a while, broke off on a tangent about the Roman Empire’s acronym SPQR.

It’s the sort of thing that young Roman men have tattooed on their arms, as if they were imperial Roman Gladiators, or Russell Crowe or something. Mussolini was similarly patriotic about it, as is my understanding, and put it on government buildings and manhole covers across the city.

My friend and I ended up discussing exactly what it meant, and as my friend is of that generation of people who were taught Latin all through high school, I was quite happy to accept that I was utterly wrong.

I had always heard the English gloss as The Senate and the People of Rome, and I thought the original Latin was Senatus Populusque Roma. Apart from that, I knew in the back of my mind that there was something funky going on with that clitic -que.

From these facts I more or less subconsciously concluded that it would parse as:

    [Senatus Populus]-que Roma
    [The Senate and the People] of Rome

which would very easily lend itself to the analysis (from someone who never did any Latin, if I might defend myself here) that the clitic -que was a genitive/possessive morpheme and was bound on the possessed entity, which in this case would have been the entire conjunctive noun phrase the Senate and the People.

However, I was wrong in my basic knowledge of the phrase. I learned that it was actually Senatus Populusque Romanus, and not merely Roma. So clearly then, the three noun roots, senat-, popul- and Roman- all take the same declension -us, meaning that they would be in the same noun phrase, or at least have the same semantic role, in which case a genitive construction would be unlikely.

My friend also told me that the clitic -que was not a possessive morpheme, but a conjunction ‘and’. It could then easily parse as a flat structure, a list of entities, The Senate, the People, and Rome, but this wouldn’t be congruous with the common translation into English, The Senate and the People of Rome.

Defeated, I looked up Wikipedia in the hope that it would have a morpheme-by-morpheme gloss and, while there was no such gloss to be found, there was another piece of the puzzle, an alternative translation. This time it was glossed as The Senate and the Roman People.

If this gloss is more accurate, then Roman People is one half of a conjunction, and The Senate is the other half. If that‘s the case, then why on Earth would the conjunctive -que (which I don’t even know whether to call a clitic anymore) be embedded inside the phrase Populus Romanus, since presumably it conjoins it with Senatus, rather than conjoining Populus with Romanus.

So at the end of the day, I’m not yet entirely sure how SPQR should be analysed, or even how it is best translated, but I’m sure some of my erudite and knowledgeable readers have studied Latin in their time and could shed some light on this…