Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Generally a sentence can be negative or positive depending on what one actually wants to express. Thus if I’m asked whether I think that John’s new hobby – say climbing – is a good idea, I can say It’s not a good idea; conversely, if I do think it is a good idea, I can remove the negation not to make the sentence positive and say It’s a good idea. Both sentences are perfectly acceptable in this context.

From such an example, we might therefore conclude that any sentence can be made positive by removing the relevant negative word – most often not – from the sentence. But if that is the case, why is the non-negative response I like it one bit not acceptable, odd when its negative counterpart I don’t like it one bit is perfectly acceptable and natural?

This contrast has to do with the expression one bit: notice that if it is removed, then both negative and positive responses are perfectly fine: I could respond I don’t like it or, if I do like it, I (do) like it.

It seems that there is something special about the phrase one bit: it wants to be in a negative sentence. But why? It turns out that this question is a very big puzzle, not only for English grammar but for the grammar of most (all?) languages. For instance in French, the expression bouger/lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’ must appear in a negative sentence. Thus if I know that John wanted to help with your house move and I ask you how it went, you could say Il n’a pas levé le petit doigt `lit. He didn’t lift the small finger’ if he didn’t help at all, but I could not say Il a levé le petit doigt lit. ‘He lifted the small finger’ even if he did help to some extent.

Expressions like lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’, one bit, care/give a damn, own a red cent are said to be polarity sensitive: they only really make sense if used in negative sentences. But this in itself is not the most interesting property.

What is much more interesting is why they have this property. There is a lot of research on this question in theoretical linguistics. The proposals are quite technical but they all start from the observation that most expressions that need to be in a negative context to be acceptable are expressions of minimal degrees and measures. For instance, a finger or le petit doigt `the small finger’ is the smallest body part one can lift to do something, a drop (in the expression I didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday) is the smallest observable quantity of vodka, etc.

Regine Eckardt, who has worked on this topic, formulates the following intuition: ‘speakers know that in the context of drinking, an event of drinking a drop can never occur on its own – even though a lot of drops usually will be consumed after a drinking of some larger quantity.’ (Eckardt 2006, p. 158). However the intuition goes, the occurrence of this expression in a negative sentence is acceptable because it denies the existence of events that consist of just drinking one drop.

What this means is that if Mary drank a small glass of vodka yesterday, although it is technically true to say She drank a drop of vodka (since the glass contains many drops) it would not be very informative, certainly not as informative as saying the equally true She drank a glass of vodka.

However imagine now that Mary didn’t drink any alcohol at all yesterday. In this context, I would be telling the truth if I said either one of the following sentences: Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka or Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka. But now it is much more informative to say the latter. To see this consider the following: saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka could describe a situation in which Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday but she still drank some vodka, maybe just a spoonful. If however I say Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka then this can only describe a situation where Mary didn’t drink a glass or even a little bit of vodka. In other words, saying Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday is more informative than saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday because the former sentence describes a very precise situation whereas the latter is a lot less specific as to what it describes (i.e. it could be uttered in a situation in which Mary drank a spoonful of vodka or maybe a cocktail that contains 2ml of vodka, etc)

By using expressions of minimal degrees/measures in negative environments, the sentences become a lot more informative. This, it seems, is part of the reason why languages like English have changed such that these words are now only usable in negative sentences.

On prodigal loanwords

On prodigal loanwords

Most people at some point in their life will have heard someone remark on how their language X (where X is any language) is getting corrupted by other languages and generally “losing its X-ness”. Today I would like to focus on one aspect of the so-called corruption of languages by other languages — lexical borrowings – and show that it’s perhaps not that bad.

European French (at least the French advertised by the Académie Française) is certainly a language about which its speakers worry, so much so that there is even an institution in charge of deciding what is French and what is not (see Helen’s earlier post). A number of English-looking/sounding words now commonly used in spoken French have indeed been taken from English, but English first took them from French!

For instance, the word flirter ‘to court someone’ is obviously adapted from English to flirt and it has the same meaning in both languages. But the English word is the adaptation of the French word fleurette in the expression conter fleurette! The expression conter fleurette is no longer used (casually) in spoken French.

“How could the universe live without your beauty?” “I wonder how sincere he is…”

Other examples of English words borrowed from (parts of) French expressions which then get adapted into French are in (2).

Thus un rosbif is an adaptation into French of roast beef which is itself an adaptation into English of the passive participle of the verb rostir “roast” which later became rôtir in Modern French, and buef “ox/beef” which later became boeuf in the Modern French.

The word un toast comes from English toast with the meaning “piece of toasted bread”. The English word itself was borrowed from tostée, an Old French noun derived from the verb toster which is not used in Modern French. The word pédigré comes from English pedigree but this word is itself adapted from French pied de grue “crane foot”, describing the shape of junctions in genealogical trees.

Pied de grue ‘Crane foot’

Finally, the verb distancer is transitive in Modern French, which means that it requires a direct object: thus the sentence in (a) is good because the verb distancer “distance” has a direct object, the phrase la voiture blanche  “the white car”. By contrast, the construction in (b) is not acceptable (signified by the * symbol) because it lacks an object.

a. La voiture rouge a distancé la voiture blanche.
‘The red car distanced the white car.’
b. *La voiture rouge a distancé.

The (transitive) Modern French verb distancer comes from English to distance which itself is a borrowing from the no-longer-used Old French verb distancer which was uniquely intransitive with the meaning “be far” (that is, in Old French, distancer could only be used in a construction with no direct object).

Another instance is (3): the word tonnelle ‘bower, arbor’ was borrowed into English and became tunnel under the influence of the local pronunciation. The word tunnel was then borrowed by French to refer exclusively to …. wait for it … tunnels. Both words now subsist in French with different meanings.

Une tonnelle ‘a bower’, Un tunnel ‘a tunnel’

Other examples of words that were borrowed into English and ‘came back’ into French with a different meaning are in (4).

The ancestor of tennis is the jeu de paume during which players would say tenez “there you go” as they were about to serve (at that time the final “z” was pronounced [z], it is not in Modern French). This word was adapted into English and became tennis which was then borrowed back into French to refer to the sport jeu de paume evolved into.

Jeu de paume vs. tennis

The Middle French word magasin used to refer to a warehouse, a collection of things. This word was borrowed into English and came to refer to a collection of things on paper. The word magazine was then borrowed back into French with this new meaning.

The history of the word budget also interesting. The word bouge used to mean “bag” and a small bag was therefore bougette (the -ette suffix is used as a diminutive, e.g. fourche “pitchfork” – fourchette “fork”). The word was borrowed into English where its pronunciation was “nativized” and it came to refer to a small bag of money. It was then borrowed back into French with the new meaning of “allocated sum of money”. Finally, ticket was borrowed from English which borrowed it from French estiquet, which referred to a piece of paper where someone’s name was written.

This happens in other languages of course. For instance, Turkish took the word pistakion ‘pistachio’ from (Ancient) Greek which became fistik. (Modern) Greek then borrowed this word back from Turkish which was then spelled phistiki with the meaning ‘pistachio’.

The main lesson I draw from the existence of ‘prodigal loanwords’ is that one’s impressions of language corruption often lack the perspective to actually ground that impression in reality. A French speaker looking at flirter ‘flirt’ may think that this is another sign of the influence of English — and they would be right — without being aware that this is after all a French word fleurette just coming back home.

Do you know other examples of prodigal loanwords? Please, share by commenting on this post!

L’aventure des langues en Occident, Henriette Walter
Honni soit qui mal y pense, Henriette Walter
Jérôme Serme. 1998. Un exemple de résistance à l’innovation lexicale: les “archaïsmes” du français régional, Thèse Lyon II
Javier Herráez Pindado. 2009. Les emprunts aller-retour entre le français et l’anglais dans le sport. Universidad Politécnica de Madrid.

Tongue twisters

Tongue twisters

Today I offer links to three international recipes: from Germany we have Kabeljau mit gebratener Blutwurst, Rosenkohl und Lakritzsauce (‘cod with pan-fried blood sausage, brussels sprouts and licorice sauce’), from France Cabillaud à la nage de réglisse (‘cod in licorice sauce’), and from Spain we have Lomo de bacalao en salsa de regaliz con juliana de judias verdes (‘filet of cod in licorice sauce with  julienned green beans’).

We will report later on the Morph cook-off challenge, once we scare up some participants and tasters. In the meanwhile, take note of what all these recipes have in common: cod and licorice. While I can’t for the life of me fathom why anyone would think to combine them on a plate, they do share something in common. Not culinarily, but linguistically. Let’s look at the words for these two ingredients as written in the recipes. They’re each vaguely similar across all three languages, but in a way which is hard to put your finger on. The word for ‘cod’ in all three languages has a [k] (or [c] – they’re pronounced the same) and a [b], but the order switches German and French on the one hand, and Spanish on the other. Similarly with ‘licorice’, where the place of [l] and [r] switch between German on the one hand and French and Spanish on the other:

‘cod’ ‘licorice’
German Kabeljau Lakritz
French cabillaud réglisse
Spanish bacalao regaliz

All neatly lined up here for comparison:

‘cod’ ‘licorice’
German k b l r
French c b r l
Spanish b c r l

This looks like an example of metathesis, where two sounds in a word swap places, as in English comfort versus comfortable, where the [t] and [r] switch places in pronunciation if not spelling (for those of us who pronounce the [r] at all, that is).

Metathesis as a gastronomic selling point may need a bit of refinement, but it does make for some curious word histories. The case of ‘licorice’ is fairly clear. It started out as Greek glykyrrhīza ‘sweet root’ and was borrowed into Latin as liquiritia, where it is believed that the first part got slightly mangled because people thought it had something to do with liquor (an example of folk etymology). The Latin word was borrowed into Old High German as lakerize or lekerize, which is where the Modern German word comes from. Meanwhile, in Old French, Latin’s daughter language, the word ended up as licorece, which then made its way into English. It was after this that French made the switch to ricolece, swapping [l] and [r], whose first part again got mangled to réglisse through another bout of folk etymology, because people thought it had something to do with règle ‘ruler’ (since licorice will have been sold in the form of ruler-like bars).

The word ‘cod’ remains something of a mystery. The German and French word were both borrowed from Dutch, first attested (in Latin sources) as cabellauwus, represented in contemporary Dutch as kabeljauw. Spanish bacalao is not attested before 1500, and it is generally agreed that the spread of this word was due to Basque fishermen. But whether kabeljauw morphed into bacalao or vice versa, nobody knows. Equally, it could all be coincidence, and the resemblance between the two words is just chance, a point of view that gains some mild support from the fact that bacalao and its ilk refer to a salted fish, whereas kabeljauw and its cousins refer to the fresh fish. This is how Dutch ends up with two words, kabeljauw and bakkeljauw: the first being its native word, the second borrowed from Portuguese bacalhau in the former Dutch colony of Suriname and transported to the Netherlands with Surinamese immigrants, used to refer to a salted and dried fish (not necessarily cod). I have yet to see both on a menu, let along combined in a single dish, but the search has only started.

(Sources: Etymologisch Woordenboek van het NederlandsEtymologisches Wörterbuch des Deutschen, Dictionnaire électronique de l’Académie Française.)

Guarantee and warranty: two words for the price of one

Guarantee and warranty: two words for the price of one

By and large, languages avoid having multiple words with the same meaning. This makes sense from the point of view of economy: why learn two words when one will do the job?

But occasionally there are exceptions, such as warranty and guarantee. This is one of several synonymous or near-synonymous pairs of words in English conforming to the same pattern – another example is guard and ward. The variants with gu- represent early borrowings from Germanic languages into the Romance languages descended from Latin. At the time these words were borrowed, the sound w had generally developed into v in Romance languages, but it survived after g, in the descendants of a few Latin words like lingua ‘tongue, language’. So when Romance speakers adapted Germanic words to the sounds of their own language, gu was the closest approximation they could find to Germanic w.

This is why French has some words like guerre ‘war’, where gu- corresponds to w- in English (this word may have been borrowed because the inherited Latin word for war, bellum, had become identical to the word for ‘beautiful’). Later, some of the words with gu- were borrowed back into English, which is why we have both borrowed guard and inherited ward. According to one estimate, 28.3% of the vocabulary of English has been borrowed from French (figures derived from actual texts rather than dictionaries come in even higher at around 40%), a debt that we have recently started repaying in earnest with loans like le shopping and le baby-sitting. This is all to the consternation of the Académie française, which aims to protect the French language from such barbarisms, as evidenced by the dire, ne pas dire (‘say, don’t say’) section of the académie‘s website advising Francophones to use homegrown terms like contre-vérité instead of anglicisms like fake news.

By Murraytheb at English Wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,

In fact, warranty and guarantee reflect not one but two different waves of borrowing: the first from Norman French, which still retained the w- sound, likely through the influence of Scandinavian languages spoken by the original Viking invaders of Normandy. Multiple layers of borrowing can also be seen in words like castle, from Latin castellum via Norman French, and chateau, borrowed from later French, in which Latin c- had developed a different pronunciation.

Incidentally, Norman French is still continued not only in Normandy but also in the Channel islands of Guernsey, Jersey and Sark. The Anglo-Norman dialect of the island of Alderney died out during World War II, when most of the island’s population was evacuated to the British mainland, although efforts are underway to bring it back.



One of the peculiar habits that strikes a foreign visitor to a restaurant in the US (alongside heaps of ice in your drink and the sneaky habit of leaving sales tax off the price) is that menus typically list main course dishes as ‘entrees’. But ‘entrée’  is a French word that means something like ‘entry’ or ‘entrance’, so shouldn’t it be the same thing as appetizer or hors-d’oeuvre or starter? It seems like some fundamental misunderstanding of the term, like the rectangular chocolate ‘croissants’ shamelessly marketed outside of France.

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