Linguistic problem? Call in a violin

Linguistic problem? Call in a violin

Like brain surgeons, breakfast cooks and other professionals, linguists fall into two groups: believers and sceptics. Take the fact that wheat is singular in English and oats is plural. Believers are confident that there is a thoroughly good reason for differences like this, based on meaning. Sceptics aren’t easily convinced, and they talk shiftily about rules that once obtained but are since lost, partial regularities, conflicting motivations and simple exceptions. And things can get surprisingly heated, as in the linguistic skirmishes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which centred on the discussion precisely of wheat and oats. (The feelings and the porridge have cooled sufficiently for it to be safe to mention these contentious nouns again.)

Many oats = much porridge

We talk about one or more scalpels or spatulas (these are count nouns), but we don’t usually count health, wealth or porridge (these are mass nouns). Mass nouns in English are typically singular, as indeed wheat is. So nouns like oats are unusual in being plural, and having no contrasting singular. They are known in the trade as pluralia tantum ‘plural only’. (In contrast, there are languages like Manam where all mass nouns are plural – they treat them all like oats.)

It’s not just mass nouns. We also find that there are nouns which we would expect to be ordinary count nouns which are actually pluralia tantum nouns in English. Examples include scissors, binoculars, trousers, slacks … The believers, who believe there must be a good reason for these nouns to behave in this way, argue as follows: It’s as we’d expect. These are all nouns whose referents have symmetrical parts (usually two, hence they are often called bipartites). Case proven.

But wait: bicycle has two significant parts, emphasised by its form in bi- (rather like binoculars). Why isn’t it subject to the generalization? Why isn’t it like binoculars? And while we’re on it, how about bigraph, shirt, duo and Bactrian camel? They all have two significant parts but are normal count nouns, just like letter, skirt, quartet and elephant.

Even so (say the believers) it’s not just English. French has les ciseaux (plural) ‘the scissors’, Russian has nožnicy (plural) ‘scissors’. These are pluralia tantum nouns – that can’t be coincidences. And yet, sceptically speaking, French has le pantalon ‘the trousers’ and Russian has binokl ‘binoculars’, and both are regular count nouns with singular and plural.

There are indeed various “usual suspects”, which regularly show up as pluralia tantum nouns in different languages, with sufficient frequency to persuade the believers and yet with more than enough no-shows to leave the sceptics unconvinced.

To resolve the issue once and for all (!), we need:

  1. A new item (not one from the “usual suspects” list)
  2. which can have one significant part or more than one (so that we can evaluate the force of the semantic regularity)
  3. with two different terms, one plurale tantum and one not
  4. and comparable forms in different related languages

And then we shall have a clear prediction: more than one significant part >> plurale tantum noun, one significant part >> ordinary count noun. We could resolve the dispute. But where could we hope to find such a creature, outside the laboratory? Here a drum roll would be particular apposite, for it is time for the entry of the Slavonic violins.

In the Balkans, the Slavs have a traditional instrument called the gusle, pictured below. You can hear someone playing it here. (This isn’t to be confused with the East Slavonic gusli, which is quite different, like a psaltery or small harp).

Serbian Gusle

Now the key (sorry) thing for us, is that the gusle in Serbia typically has one string (see the picture). Or rather have one string, since it’s a plurale tantum noun. Got that – so far, gusle, a plurale tantum noun, a traditional violin with one string. Similarly in Slovenian. But a normal singular in Macedonian and Bulgarian. There are different forms in dialects, but the message so far is one string, may be a plurale tantum noun or not.

But then of course there are all those romantic Slavonic symphonies. With classic violins, with four strings. What do they call those? Well, Slovenian, Macedonian and Serbo-Croat all have violina, and it’s a regular noun with singular and plural. Not looking too good for the believers here.

At this point, to be sure we’re conducting the research properly, it would be good to be certain that we’re talking about a classic violin, and just one (not a whole bank of them in a symphony orchestra). Well here a Nobel prize-winner comes to our aid. Ivo Andrić won the literature prize in 1961. He is famous for The Bridge on the Drina. But for us, we need the scene in the book in which two people are practising a Schubert sonatina. That’s one (classical) violin and one piano. Given the popularity of the novel, it’s been translated into most of the Slavonic languages, sometimes more than once. Moreover, to help thing along here, there’s a handy resource, the Parasol site, which allows us to search the parallel translations (that’s von Waldenfels, Ruprecht and Meyer, Roland (2006-): ParaSol, a Corpus of Slavic and Other Languages. Available at parasol.unibe.ch. Bern, Regensburg). As expected we find violina in Slovenian, Serbo-Croat and in Macedonian. Bulgarian is unique in having cigulka, but again it’s a regular noun with singular and plural. In the East Slavonic languages (Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian) it is skripka (skrypka in Belarusian). A regular noun with singular and plural. But now in Polish we find the same root, skrzypce, but this is a plurale tantum noun. And yes, they all have four strings.

What about the keen concert-goers who speak Czech and Slovak? Well, they use housle and husle respectively. You can see, I think, where those terms come from, now applied to the classic violin, and yes, they are both pluralia tantum.

Didn’t Andrić mention gusle too? He did indeed, and gave it an important part (sorry) in his story. For the languages into which it is translated as an outside rather than local instrument it stays as a plurale tantum noun.

It gets better. The West Slavonic languages Upper and Lower Sorbian aren’t yet in the ParaSol corpus for this text, so we need to refer to dictionary sources. Stone (2002) gives three terms for ‘violin’ in Upper Sorbian: wiolina (a regular noun) and two pluralia tantum nouns husle and fidle. And it gets even better – the traditional Sorbian violin has three strings (see it here).

In a word, then, there are terms based on different roots, and they can be used of different instruments. But an instrument with four symmetrical parts is likely to be designated by a normal count noun, and one with a single string is likely to be designated by a plurale tantum noun. This is hardly in harmony with the world-view of the believers. But data are no bar to belief.

Brave new words

Brave new words

Words are all around us. And there are a lot of them out there! The Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for over 170,000 words in current use and over 47,000 obsolete words. Yet, surprisingly, the Economist newspaper reports that most adult native speakers only have a vocabulary of between 20,000–35,000 words. Defining precisely what we mean by a ‘word’ is no mean feat, of course, but even so there is a huge chasm between these two figures.

So, if speakers of English typically know between 12 and 20% of the words recorded in the OED, one might understandably assume that there really wouldn’t be any need to go about creating new ones. Yet barely a day goes by when we don’t encounter a new word in some form or another, whether that be a word that is eventually fully adopted into the language, an ‘incorrect’ word, or even a one-time use word created on the spur of the moment, perhaps for comic effect.

But when we hear a new word for the first time, how are we supposed to know what it means?

Well, this partly depends on how the new word was formed. If the new word is a ‘blend’, then the meaning of the new word might be easily recoverable from its component parts, particularly if aided by context. For instance, the meaning of hangry (angry or frustrated due to hunger) would be quite transparent in ‘We ordered our food over an hour ago. What’s going on? I’m beginning to feel really hangry’, even if you’d never come across the word before. (NB. Given the findings in a hot-off-the-press article from less than a month ago, however, it would appear that the concept of hangriness is a little more involved that the component words might suggest!)

A hangry cat

In a similar vein, when a work colleague, who often takes the same train to work as me, suggested that we should trainstorm ideas during our commute, both the activity and the location were neatly conveyed in a single word that I immediately understood, despite the fact that I’d never heard it before and may never hear it again.

Likewise, if the word you’re hearing for the first time follows the general rules of the language, then it is usually a straightforward task to understand what is really meant. This scenario certainly applies when interpreting child language, which often follows language-internal rules even where they should be overridden by irregular forms, e.g. I goed to the shop and buyed a toy). This was illustrated fairly recently by my three-year-old daughter who, after lining up all her soft toy animals on the edge of her bed, proudly announced that she was the petshopper and asked if I would like to buy a pet.

But new words may also ‘break the rules’ as it were, and still be easy for us to interpret, perhaps by analogy with another similar word. At some point in time, in the not too distant past, what I presume must have been a well-paid marketing team came up with the notion of sun-blushed tomatoes. It’s a wonderful word which conveys a sense of sweetness from having been sat in the sun for a while, but a juiciness from not having been dried out in the same way as sun-dried tomatoes (compare the two images below – I know which ones I would prefer!). However, the verb to blush is intransitive, which means it shouldn’t be allowed to take an object. We can say ‘the sun dried the tomatoes’, but we can’t say ‘the sun blushed the tomatoes’ (and perhaps this is why the term ‘sunblush’ is also quite common nowadays). But by analogy to things that have been sun-dried or, more poetically, sun-kissed, it just works.

Shrivelled sun-dried tomatoes vs. juicy sun-blushed tomatoes

And if you’re Nigella, of course, you might take this process one step further and come up with your own recipe for moonblush tomatoes. These are tomatoes that have been cooked overnight (hence the reference to the moon) in the residual heat of a cooling oven (NB. there are no known cases of anyone having successfully used this method of cooking tomatoes prior to sundown). Google the term ‘moonblush’ and you’ll get 174,000 hits, a vast number of which will reference Nigella Lawson in some way, showing just how unique the word is!

Yet another category of new words are those which, on the surface, appear to follow some rule of word formation in the language, but actually leave you scratching your head when you encounter them for the first time, wondering what they mean. This scenario is often symptomatic of the word having been purposefully coined by someone, say for marketing purposes, who didn’t foresee the potential confusion.

Postcrete = fence post concrete

On a recent trip to a DIY store, I spotted big bags of postcrete. Since I wasn’t there to buy said product, I could have just ignored it, but as a linguist I am, unfortunately, subject to the occupational hazard of being unable to go about my daily life without questioning such things. I realised it had something to do with concrete, for obvious reasons – well, I suppose it could have been somehow related to Crete – and so began thinking to myself ‘I wonder what is used before that?’ I’d assumed the post part of the word was being used as a prefix indicating ‘after in time or in order’. Only later did I learn it was a special fast-setting concrete for bedding in fence posts!

Thinking of detoxing? Be prepared!

Similar confusion ensued when a colleague saw an advertisement which said “why detox, when you can pretox?” Presumably by analogy with detox, itself a relatively new word meaning the removal of toxins from one’s body, it did at first glance seem like the advert was recommending the opposite, i.e. to add toxins to one’s body. Using pretox as a verb probably contributed to the confusion, since words beginning with pre in English are almost invariably verbs meaning do x prior to something else (e.g. precook, preboard, prebook).

Finally, there will always be new words that we have never heard before and whose meaning we are unable to deduce from our existing knowledge of the language. I experienced this just two days ago when the word peng was mentioned in a TV commercial. Fortunately, in this digital age, those of us who are more chronologically gifted than secondary school pupils have the Urban Dictionary on hand to help out.

So, while new words may arise for all manner of reasons and in all manner of contexts, perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is our (almost) unfailing capacity to understand them despite never having heard them uttered before.