Tuesday, August 30, 2005

utrum malum sit animalum domesticarum electronicer recordare?

Unlocked Wordhoard has the following loaded discussion topic: Pet Blogging: Evil, or Just Misguided? Imagine my surprise when I found the following relevant article from St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae:

"Whether pet blogging is evil?"

OBJ. 1. It would seem that pet blogging is not evil. For blogging is a form of communication. Now communication is neither good nor evil per se, but only insofar as its matter is good or evil. Now any legitimate concern of man may be communicated without sin. But pets are given unto man’s dominion for his comfort by God, so they are a legitimate concern. Therefore pet blogging is not evil.

OBJ. 2. Moreover, in the hierarchy of being, God is above man, and man above animals. Now pet blogging is merely the making of a record of one’s preoccupation with lower beings. But the Bible is the record of God’s association with, and love for, a lower being, viz. man; so that the Sacred Scriptures are, in effect, the Divine Blog. Therefore it is not unfitting for a being to create a log about that being’s love for a lower being, and this includes pet blogging.

OBJ. 3. Moreover, blogging is done for two reasons, for others or for oneself. When done for others, it is an act of charity. When done for oneself, it is at least not a hurt to anyone. Thus, either way, pet blogging is not positively evil.

ON THE OTHER HAND, the Philosopher asserts that while individuals differ according to matter, the form or nature of an animal does not change; thus the natures of horses and cats are stable and fixed [respectively]. But God has no body, or matter; rather he is pure spirit. Thus pets are most like God in their natures, but not in any individual pets. But pet blogging glorifies individual pets. Now we should only do things which lead us to God. Therefore, since pet blogging leads us away from God, it is evil.

I RESPOND it must be said that evil is nothing other than a privation of a due good. This good may be either physical or moral. Now pet blogging is a moral evil, insofar as it is an act of frivolity, comprising a waste of resources and general poor stewardship of God's gifts. Moreover, as will be seen below, it unnecessarily puts animals on equal terms with man, which contradicts God's plan for man, who is destined for eternal life, while animals are only meant to serve man, not to be served by man. Yet pet blogging indicates an inordinate degree of service of animals, which service should be rather given to other things. Thus pet blogging is a lack of a due good, which is evil. Indeed also, pet blogs cause strain on the eyes and sensibilities of those who stumble upon them. These are physical evils; therefore pet blogging is also a physical evil.

Thus we proceed to the objections:

AD 1: It is true that communication is neither good nor evil per se, but only insofar as its matter is good or evil. However, the matter of pet blogging is not good, for while the proper care and keeping of animals is a legitimate concern of man, pet blogs keep both the owner and the reader from such care, by distracting both with endless pictures, which neither teach nor edify. Thus regular reading, and surely regular posting, to pet blogs must be classified as excessive, and this is evil.

AD 2: God associates with man, it is true, out of His infinite love for him. However this love is effective, in that it effects in us the Divine Love, and makes us more like Himself. Now, whereas by God's love man is raised higher than he can attain by himself, pets are not by our love raised higher. Moreover, as has been said above, pets are given to man for man's comfort. Therefore insofar as pet blogging demonstrates the consoling power of God, it is a legitimate activity. However, the means should not be esteemed as much as the end. Therefore, insofar as pet blogging demonstrates inordinate preoccupation with our consolation through a lower being, rather than He Who Consoles, a higher being, it is not legitimate.

AD 3: The principle of double effect requires that we take into account evil consequences of morally good or neutral acts done with good intentions. Thus, e.g., walking is neither good nor evil, and when done to help someone may become good, but that good must be commensurate with the foreseen evil of stepping on people as we walk. Now of the three aspects of human actions that must be accounted for in making moral judgements, act, intention, and circumstance, pet blogging is not evil in act, since communication is morally neutral. Moreover, it is possible for the agent to avoid evil intentions. However in circumstance, pet blogging is most definitely evil, given the foreseen consequences of waste of time, undue glorification of lower beings to the detriment of higher beings (whether man or God), unpleasantness to the ocular sense, offense to man's inborn sense of order, contravention of the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty, and morbid fascination with irrational animals. Therefore the argument of not intending evil is not sufficient to prove that pet blogging is not evil.

From this it should be evident that pet blogging is not an act of charity, but against it, and those with informed consciences refrain from such activities.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

OT - survey meme

[Rare Off Topic Post]

I've decided to reply to a sort of blog-version of one of those chain-email personality tests, mainly I suppose because I was tapped personally (by derek at haligweorc), unlike those ever-so-impersonal send-to-address-book emails. I even put myself at the bottom of the "list", though the fact that it's numbered seems pointless given the outspreading nature of such memes. Still, I suppose people want to know what all these new bloggers are like, so I am perfectly happen to let two imperfect tests do the job that a normal conversation should.

============================

Overview: This post is a community experiment with two broad purposes. The first is to create publicly accessible data about bloggers' personalities, which may have sociological value in addition to being just plain fun. The second is to track the propagation of this meme through blogspace. Full details and explanation can be found on the original posting:

Instructions (to join in the experiment)

1) Take the IPIP-NEO personality test and the Political Compass quiz, if you have not done so already.

2) Copy to the clipboard that section of this post that is between the double lines, and paste it into your blog editor. (Blogger users may wish to use 'compose' mode to preserve formatting and hyperlinks. Otherwise, be sure to add hyperlinks as necessary.)

3) Replace the answers in the "survey" section below with your own.

4) Add your blog information to the "track list", in the form: "Linked title - URL - optional GUID".

5) Any additional comments should go outside of the double lines, including the (optional) nomination of bloggers you wish to pass this experimental meme on to.

6) Post it to your blog!

Survey:

Age: 28
Gender: Male
Location: Sterling, VA, USA
Religion: Christian (Roman Catholic)
Occupation: Church Youth Director
Began blogging: (dd/mm/yy): 07/07/05

Political Compass results:

Left/Right: 0.25
Libertarian/Authoritarian: -0.31

IPIP-NEO results:

EXTRAVERSION: 39
AGREEABLENESS: 70
CONSCIENTIOUSNESS: 37
NEUROTICISM: 54
OPENNESS TO EXPERIENCE: 62

Track List:

1. Philosophy, et cetera - pixnaps.blogspot.com - pixnaps97a2
2. Parableman - parablemania.ektopos.com - p8r8bl9m8n18
3. Rebecca Writes - everydaymusings.blogspot.com
4. Ales Rarus - alesrarus.funkydung.com - ales2112avis
5. Here I Stand - exiledcatholic.blogspot.com - exiled323catholic
6. Bending the Rule - regula.blogspot.com - regulabenedicti
7. lutherpunk - lutherpunk.blogspot.com - lutherpunk
8. haligweorc - haligweorc.blogspot.com - derek
9. The Bitter Scroll - bitterscroll.blogspot.com - king alfred

=====================================

I don't nominate anyone to continue this survey, unless you decide while reading that you'd like to, in which case, consider yourself tapped.

As for the results, of course they're not true--completely. But it never hurts to ask yourself those questions for their own sake, even if the results are off a bit.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Long Lost Evil Twin Contest

One of the comments on the discussion of convergent etymologies at Tenser, said the Tensor (see below) got me thinking. The comment, by Q. Pheevr, ended as follows: "Of course, if you took away the "same spelling" requirement, the possibilities would expand tremendously—we'd let in shirt/skirt and otter/hydro/vodka/undulate/whisk(e)y and all sorts of others...."

So here's the contest: Who can post the most interesting, ironic set of related words? What I'm looking for is a set of words that are ultimately related etymologically, but which have come down through different paths to become quite opposite (or at least seeming unrelated) in meaning. So, the shirt/skirt group wouldn't count--they're the same category of thing--but the idea that otters are related to whiskey and vodka is pretty interesting.

Rules of the contest: Post the most interesting or ironic set of words you know or can find, and we will all enjoy them. I will decide who I think are the winners, tell no one, and award them nothing. (Oh come now, if you're going to post in such a contest, you probably think studying words is its own reward anyway, nicht wahr?)

To get you started: Also related are these two previous posts.

Long Lost Word-Relatives

There’s a totally fascinating and fun little exercise posted over at Tenser, said the Tensor, and I can’t wait to see what people post in reply. This current blog post was originally going to be a reply, but quickly got a little large and unwieldy, so I thought I’d just link.


The long and short of it is this: Tensor is looking for words that have two different pronunciations, which mean two different things, and are not simply morphologically-meaningful variations on essentially the same word (like record: REH-cord vs. re-CORD) ... and yet come ultimately from the same etymological source. In other words, he wants two long-lost relatives that still look related after all these years. Below are some possibilities, although I don’t know how recently he’s looking for. (At least one of the words below has to go back to an Indo-European root to explain its divergent meanings.) I used the online American Heritage dictionary for etymologies I didn’t know.


process

1. PRO-cess (A series of actions, changes, or functions bringing about a result): Middle English proces, from Old French for development, from Latin processus, from past participle of procedere, to advance.
2. pro-CESS (To move along in or as if in a procession): Back formation from procession, from Middle English, from Old French, from Late Latin processi.

desert

1. DE-zert (like the Sahara): Middle English, from Old French, from Late Latin desertum, from neuter past participle of deserere, to desert.
2. de-ZERT (to abandon, leave empty): French déserter, from Late Latin desertare, frequentative of Latin deserere, to abandon.

bow

1. BOH (for shooting arrows): Middle English bowe, from Old English boga, from Indo-European bheug-.
2. BOW (rhymes with OW!): Middle English bowen, from Old English bugan. These are the Old English noun and verb forms of essentially the same word. But there’s a third, possibly from a different Germanic source:
2A. BOW (front of a ship): Middle English boue, probably of Low German origin, from Indo-European root bheug-.

minute

1. mi-NUTE (tiny): Middle English, from Latin minutus, past participle of minuere, to lessen.
2. MIN-ute (60 seconds): Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin (pars) minuta (prima), (first) minute (part), from Latin minuta, fem. of minutus, small.

attaches
1. at-TACH-ez (verb): Middle English from Old French attachier.
2. æt-tæ-SHAYZ (unaccented plural of attaché): from Modern French, from Old French attachier.
Attachier is itself an alteration of estachier, from estache, stake, of Germanic origin.

bases
1. BAY-seez (plural of basis): Middle English basis, from Latin, from Greek.
2. BAY-siz (are belong to us): Middle English base, from Old French, from Latin basis, from Greek.

fine
1. FEE-nay (end of a piece of music, e.g.): from Italian, from Latin finis, end, supreme degree.
2. (rhymes with wine): Middle English fin, from Old French, from Latin finis, end, supreme degree.

taxis
(This one goes way back!)
1. TAX-eez (plural of taxi): short for taxicab, short for taximeter cab. Taximeter: French taximètre, alteration of taxamètre, from German Taxameter: Medieval Latin taxa, tax, from taxare, to tax, from Latin, to touch, reproach, reckon, frequentative of tangere, to touch, from Indo-European root tag-.
2. TAX-iss: Greek, arrangement, from tassein, tag-, to arrange, from Indo-European root tag-.

putting

Either from verb put (place) or from verb putt (as in golf), which was originally a variant of put.

Should I count refuse? The noun and the verb both come from French refuser, to refuse, where the relationship is the same as the two pronunciations of reject, but both forms were subsequently imported into English, where the relationship is not exactly the same.

Also, if proper names count, then we have the adjective august and the month of August, named after the man, named after the adjective.

If you have any others, go over and post them here.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

NYT's Law of Non-Metavulgarization

This post over at Language Log is a good follow-up to gaetanus' Law of Vulgarization below. Apparently, avoiding using certain words isn't enough; we must now avoid using words that remind us of said vulgarities. This reminds me of the last dog I had, and oddly, I think it happens to people, too. It used to be that after a while of saying, "Do you want a bone?" our dog learned what that meant. But if my mom wanted to ask me if we had any more bones, he would hear the word bone and get excited. So we started to spell it: b-o-n-e. Then he picked up on that, so we would spell it backwards: e-n-o-b. He learned that too. In fact, he got so good at knowing what sounds were usually associated with either getting a bone or going outside that we literally couldn't ask each other questions starting with "Do you want..." without him getting excited.

Relevance to language: This same seems to happen with taboo words: Familiarity breeds contempt. If we start using a euphemism long enough, it becomes just as associated with its referent as the word we're avoiding, and then that word becomes taboo, and we must use another one...until that one gets "contaminated" (to use Language Log's term). It seems like society has a built-in need to have words you shouldn't say (in situations the slightest bit formal at least), and if one word is avoided successfully enough--too successfully--by the majority of society, or by the right caste of society--there becomes a need to stigmatize whatever has become the euphemism. Usually it's because we need a way of talking about unpleasant things without "rubbing our noses in it", to use another dog analogy. If a euphemism becomes so familiar that it ceases to remind us of another word, but of the concept itself, it has lost its usefulness, and now itself requires a euphemism.

Now the Aristotelian mean seems to lie between the two extremes of being too willing to offend sensibilities by using taboo words, and forgetting or misunderstanding the reason for euphemisms in the first place, and that language is ultimately an arbitrary human convention, and not being able to tolerate even harmless "winking" by people who have the stomach to acknowledge what euphemisms are in the end: a linguistic work-around for a human weakness.

(I have a friend, definitely of the "winking" type, whose bathroom door is adorned with a pretty little sign labelled, "The Euphemism".)

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Cinewulf

That is, cinematic depictions of Beowulf. Dr. Scott Nokes picked up on the Lambert post below and further made note of this version of Beowulf, and points to dkp's fuller treatment of it. The movie is currently in production for the big screen via the dubious magic of motion capture (à la Polar Express and Peter Jackson's Gollum). It is directed by Roger Zemeckis and includes, inter alia, Anthony Hopkins in its cast.

Not to be confused with Zemeckis' film is the live action Beowulf and Grendel (imdb), also currently in production. It is being filmed in Iceland (as perfect a place as any outside of Denmark itself) under the direction of Sturla Gunnarsson. The writer, a Latvian (woohoo!), has a blog about the movie here on blogspot. I'm not too terribly confident so far in his knowledge of the themes of the poem.

Then, finally, there's this version, which I only just stumbled across on imdb and know nothing about.

I'm not really sure what I think of all this. I guess I'm glad for the exposure for a poem I love so much, but I suspect most moviemakers don't look to it for the same things I do, so who knows how any of these will turn out. The story can so easily become merely a vehicle for FX, but it would be nice if somehow out of all this came a movie that allows a glimpse at the old Germanic world with some human substance to it. Beyond the imaginative world of monsters and myths that Germanic lore has contributed to modern fantasy, I would love to see a movie that looks at what it was like to live in the culture that produced that mythology, for good or ill, what traits, virtues, and vices it tended to promote (or discourage), etc. But in the end, I'll probably have to settle for getting this from my own reading, and eye candy from the theater.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Hwæt! A movie review!

There is a brilliant, er, "translation" of select passages of Beowulf in this review of the Christopher Lambert movie Beowulf. (Note: in the last sentence, the words "Christopher Lambert" convey more information about the movie than the word Beowulf.)

Be sure to keep glancing at the Old English that is being translated; the reviewer plays a little freely in his textual criticism, but given the situation and end result, I think the needs of the interpretive community outweigh the intention of the author--just this once. ;-)

Seriously, read the whole thing, even if you think the poem starts out slow (Dryhten forbid). A dragonhoard of humor shall you find ere the end.

Note how, even in the suspect manuscript used, Beowulf still dies in the end. But not in the movie! After all, there can be only one! (Oh, wrong movie? Eh, it's all the same, really.)

I got pie

Mmmm...agapai! Thanks to how my friends and I in college used to add unspoken "contexts" to words, I now always a) think of pie when I hear the plural of the Greek word agape, and b) laugh to myself when I see or even think about pie. Ah...I love pie. And linguistic inside jokes.

Speaking of PIE (Proto-Indo-European in this case), as a relatively new blogger and blog reader, I've been having all sorts of fun with this recent post by sauvage noble. Now, I've never "studied" Indo-European, only a bunch of its descendants. So I was simultaneously gratified and mildly disturbed (ok, not really) at my ability to understand most of this comic. Admittedly, the man's speech was the hardest part. Also, there seems to be a proto-Germanic cat at the end. Thanks, sauvage.

Monday, August 8, 2005

The Law of Vulgarization

King Alfred pointed me to this post which examines the grammatical status of such phrases as "butt-crack of dawn." He sides with one Prof. Pullum as opposed to one Prof. Liberman in calling the phrase as a whole a "folk metaphor" as opposed to seeing "butt" as an intensifier.

Some time ago I considered phrases such as these and came up what I called the "Law of Vulgarization" in order to explain them. The Law of Vulgarization states that any syntatically correct phrase or statement may be made more emphatic by the substitution of one or more of its words: a vulgar word for a non-vulgar word. The new vulgar word need not make sense in the context, and the resulting phrase or sentence need not make logical sense in its new form: it derives its sense from its previous, implied form and its new degree of intensity from the degree of vulgarity of the substituted word.

The particular phrase which occasioned the creation of this law is a good example: I was asked to explain the derivation of the phrase "half-assed". After some thought, I concluded that the phrase could only be a modification of the phrase "half-hearted". Now, saying that something was done "half-hearted"ly makes sense: the heart is considered the seat of desire, so that to do something with half your heart is to do something with less than full desire to see the deed done. But saying that something is done with half an ass just makes no sense. It was clear to me that the sense was the same, however, but that "half-assed" is a bit more emphatic: more typically used when angry or frustrated at the performance of a job.

Now, I think this phenomenon is similar to "metaphor", in that a certain stylistic flair is often evident in the choice of the substituted word: "butt-crack of dawn" is a good example of that, connecting the unpleasantness of a time with the unpleasantness of a thing, and thus evoking resonances with the phrase "a shitty time of day". But I think, overall, that intensification is really the name of game, given many examples where any real meaning conveyed by the new word is absent. For example (and this was another one of my favorites, spontaneously created by a friend of mine): "everyone and his butt is going to be there." This is obviously redundant, since one would expect everyone coming "there" to also bring their butt. Further, this redundancy actually works against the logic of the original metaphor, "everyone and his brother will be there", in which it is important that one would not expect more people beyond "everyone" to be "there", but that more people (the "brothers") will in fact be there. So, changing "brother" to "butt" and hence, in strict logic, reducing the number of people implied to be "there", one, in simple logic, reduces the effect of the phrase. But in fact, by the Law of Vulgarization, the substitution in fact adds emphasis rather than subtracting it, as the meaning of the word "butt" in the new context is unimportant.

Note that this example also illustrates a corollary of the Law, which is that since the fact that the sense of the transformed phrase comes from an implied previous phrase, the implied previous phrase should still be fairly obvious after the substitution. Hence, you will most often find the Law in operation on fairly common stock phrases.

Now, why does vulgarizing a phrase make it more emphatic? This is easily enough understood. Vulgar words, by definition, have polite societal restrictions on use. The use of such words, therefore, often (if not always) implies a degree of emotion on the part of the speaker: a certain state in which the speaker is not inclined to care about societal niceties. Hence, the natural and spontaneous use of these words as intensifiers is perfectly understandable.

Twisting Words

Several years ago I read in a book on JRR Tolkien by Tom Shippey about a set of words with widely varying definitions but all of whom had or may have had etymological common ground. The words writhe, wraith, wreath, wroth, and wrath all share a the common notion of twisting. Respectively, they might be described as meaning: to twist in pain, a being that is twisted (inside, in his soul), a twisted branch for decoration, twisted with anger, and the state of being twisted with anger.

I was reminded of this little linguistic family the other night when gaetanus told me of a similar family of words in Syriac; so I did some actual looking-into and found much more than I bargained for. I looked through all the wr- words in Old English (J.R. Clark Hall et al., A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary), and found a ton of words I deemed likely candidates for being related, so I grouped them as follow below (in no particular order). Question marks mean I wasn't sure, but was interested in learning more. No question marks mean I was pretty sure I would find a connection. Since I really love finding connections between words and roots, I have to constantly remind myself that just because I can see how words could be related doesn't mean they are (although my instincts generally serve me well).

Group 1: wriðan, to twist; gewriðelian, to bind; wriðels, bandage; gewriðing, binding; wriða, band, collar, ring; wræd, band, wreath; wrasen, band, tie, chain.

Group 2: wrað, wroth, furious, hostile, evil; wraðmod, angry; gewraðian, to be angry; wraðlic, grievous, severe, bitter; wræððo, wrath, anger, indignation; wræðan, to anger, get angry, be angry, resist violently.

?Group 3: wræne, unbridled, loose, lustful [so, I figured "morally twisted"]; wrænnes, luxury, lust, wantonness; wrænsa/wrænscipa, wantonnes; wrænsian, to be wanton.

?Group 4: wrid, shoot, plant, bush [I figured plants twist and turn--at least they were often portrayed thus ornamentally]; wridan, to grow, thrive; wridian, to grow, spring up; gewrid, thicket?, husk. Perhaps here also belongs wyrt/weort, plant, root (e.g., St. John's Wort).

Group 5: wrætt, ornament, work of art, jewel; wrættlic, artistic, ornamental, rare, wondrous [I included this because of the vague impression that most AS art seemed to be twisting or intertwining forms, along with the recollection of how they distinguished formed, ornamental gold (say, a ring) from raw gold, by calling the former 'twisted gold'. Cf. Group 8.]

Group 6: wrencan, to twist, spin intrigue, devise plots; wrenc, wile, deceit; modulation, melody.

Group 7: wringan, to wring, twist, squeeze, press out; wringe, (oil) press; gewring, liquor, drink; gewrinclian, to wind about.

Group 8: wræstan, to wrest, bend, twist, to be or make elegant; wræstlere, wræstliend, wrestler; wræstlic, pertaining to wrestling, delicate, elegant; wræstlung, wrestling, struggling.

?Group 9: wrixlan, to change, barter, exchange, lend; wrixl, exchange, barter; gewrixlung, change, loan; gewrixlic, alternating.

Group 10 [misc.]: wrigian, to go, turn, twist, struggle, press forward; wrist, wrist; wræðstudu, column, pillar (This works if they were usually adorned with twisting patterns); wreðian, to support, sustain, uphold; wraðu, prop, help, support, maintenance (the last two based on wræðstudu).

Finally, I also wrote down a few words thinking merely "wouldn't that be cool if these were related somehow, too": weorðan, to happen, become; wyrd, fate (>weird); weorð, worth, worthy (together with weorðscipa, worship).

Given these groups, I tried to imagine what common root they might all have come from (remember, I haven’t studied linguistics formally yet, and what follows are my own reconstructions). Based on patterns of sound change I’ve noticed throughout the Germanic languages and elsewhere, here’s what I came up with:

Start with a hypothesized root *wrenð. Subsume the nasal n into a lengthened vowel and you get *wrêð. That long ê could easily either open into wræð (Group 2) or close further into wrið (Group 1). From the former could have come wrætt (Group 5) by losing the aspiration of the final dental, and wræst (Group 8) by a sibilization of the same dental. Nasalizing the dental of Group 5 yields wræne (Group 3). Unaspirating the dental of Group 1 yields wrid (Group 4).

Alternatively, from the original root *wrenð, palatalize the final dental and you have wrenc (Group 6), sounding like ModEng. ‘wrench’. Subsume the nasal n into the vowel and give voice to the medial consonant, and you get something like wrigian (Group 10). Harden the ‘ch’ sound on wrenc to a ‘k’ or ‘g’ sound and you’re on your way to wring- (Group 7). The hardest to connect is wrixl- (Group 9); perhaps it came from a medial form *wrisc from *wrist, or perhaps wring followed the succession *wrig, *wrigs, *wrics (=wrix).

Having done all of this supposition and speculation, I recently found this family tree of words stemming from the IE root *wer-[2]. According to this outline, Indo-European *wer, with assorted final sounds, yielded the Germanic roots wrð/werð/wurð; wrið; *wurgjan; *wreng; *wrig; *wrihst-; *werp-; and *wurm.

In other words, not only are all my original ‘writhe’ words related, but I found whole new branches of the family: Wrong meant crooked or twisted. Worry originally meant to strangle (twist the neck). Weird, from OE wyrd, meant fate, or that which happens to one, from weorthan, to become or ‘turn’ into something. (So a ‘twist of fate’ is ultimately redundant.) And a worm is something that twists and writhes in the ground. And the long lost non-Germanic relatives of this family range from Latin vers-/vert-, to the Celtic root in briar, to Greek rhombus.

To wrap up, it may seem weird or even perverse that a conversation on the roots of so many words in prose and verse should be worth studying, but don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with a little subversive wordplay among bookworms, as along as you divert the wrath of those who writhe at your introversion.

Friday, August 5, 2005

Taking apart words, or taking words apart?

So my friend gaetanus and I were in a bar the other night, drinking beer, discussing Germanic and Semitic linguistic patterns, and studying German. We're reading through parts of a German translation of The Lord of the Rings to help us brush up since we both know the English text almost by heart. And I got to thinking about those separable-prefixed verbs German has. My thoughts are far from being fully worked out or refined; I'm just posting where they are at the moment.

Here's the situation: German has verbs with separable prefixes, like ausgehen, 'to go out'. 'I go out' is, simply enough, ich gehe aus. In the presence of other modifiers, the prefix is sent to the end of the sentence, hence Ich gehe morgen abend mit Elsa aus, 'I'm going out with Elsa tomorrow evening.'

I've always been fascinated by these verbs in German, and by what I think is a related issue of the distinction between adverbs and prepositions. In a way, prepositions are like adverbs that have a particularly strong association with a noun (its object). Hinter [behind] is a preposition when it has an object, and an adverb when it lacks one. I mean, why make new words for basically the same thing? 'You've fallen behind' (adverb) vs. 'You've fallen behind me' (preposition).

In the English sentence, I'm going out, 'out' is clearly an adverb. In the German sentence, Ich gehe aus, the word aus is part of the verb, but when separate it plays what boils down to the same role: it modifies the verb.

Ok, now watch what happens when I translate this sentence into German: 'The landlord delivers to Frodo the letter.'--Der Wirt stellt dem Frodo den Brief zu. You want to say that zustellen means 'to deliver [something] to [someone]', but be careful. The zu in zustellen does not correspond to the to in deliver to. In English the to is a preposition, and is grouped grammatically with its object; only as a whole does the prepositional phrase 'to most hobbits' modify 'applies' adverbially. Zu, on the other hand, modifies the verb directly, and the Hobbits are left to be an indirect object of the verb, rather than an object of a preposition.

So musing that the separable prefix is essentially an adverb that is now permanently associated with the verb, I went further and thought: Could the prefixes of some of these verbs have originally (i.e., in a pre-modern stage of the language) begun their lives as prepositions?

In Old English, there are two ways to construct prepositional phrases. Sometimes you find the preposition before its object as in English ("I walk along the beach"), but other times you will find the preposition after its object (as if to say "I walk the beach along"). What's that? Oh, yes, good catch: it is, of course, more properly a postposition. Either way, pre or post, works once you know what's going on. In fact, as gaetanus pointed out, the postposition construction has the convenient added feature of boxing in the modified text, so it is clear that it doesn't modify anything outside the box. What's more, the box is framed by verb + postposition, two elements working together from afar to do the same job: like parents at church sitting at opposite ends of a pew, with all their kids between them so they can keep them in line.

See if this works with our letter-delivery example. (Hopefully we'll have that letter fully delivered by the end of this post, so Frodo can get on with his story, and we with our own.) If we were to use a postposition instead of a preposition, the sentence would look like this (the German sentence follows again, to show the similarity):

The landlord delivers Frodo the letter to.
Der Wirt stellt dem Frodo den Brief zu.

So the successive stages of how words like to/zu were conceived may have gone thus: 1) 'To' is an adverb (thus modifying the verb) indicating direction of delivery, and is essential to the meaning of the verb (it cannot be omitted). 2) When the sentence contains more information determining the verb (like objects), the essential adverb may go before or after it (probably convention will settle on one of these options). 3a) The essential adverb begins to be associated, in the minds of speakers, less with the verb and more with its object. They form one unit, a 'prepositional phrase' which as a whole, modifies the verb. OR: 3b) The essential adverb is associated with the verb so closely it is now considered 'part' of it: a multiple word predicate, just like 'will be going'.

So, if any of this is plausible, it seems English followed the path to 3a, while German took the road to 3b, but really they both started out doing the same thing. I'm not an expert, of course, and this could all be wrong as likely as not, but it's something to look into.