Thursday, October 18, 2007

Smaller than small

The ETJ list is often a source of interesting questions. Recently, Peter Warner observed:

"Listening to a British presenter, I realized that his sense of little and small were different. His general order of descending relative size went roughly in this sequence:

huge, big, small, little, tiny

while my American background views little and small as basically synonymous. Speaking with him after his wonderful talk confirmed his different sense of those two words."

Peter then asks, "is this a British vs. North American English usage difference?"

If you check the British ESL dictionaries, they typically define little as meaning small and the other way round. Similarly, the Concise Oxford defines little as "small in amount, size, or degree..." There is no mention of one being less big than the other.

There are, however, other differences. Least interesting among these is that small is only an adjective (the small of your back excepted), while little exists in two flavours: adjective & determiner. More interesting is that they are both marked, but little seems to be more marked. That is, when I want to know the size of something, it's typical that I would ask you how big something is, not how small it is. In this sense, big is unmarked. Yet, it is even less common to ask how little something is, about 10 times less common in the frame "how ~ is it?'.

Because of the problems parsers have distinguishing between adjectives and determiners, it's hard to get a good corpus view of all aspects of the difference, but here's a neat one: Search for (adj) + little in the spoken section of the BNC and you get the following (the first number is raw hits, the second number is hits per million words):

1 NICE LITTLE 161 15.58
2 TINY LITTLE 36 3.48
3 LOVELY LITTLE 35 3.39
4 POOR LITTLE 33 3.19
5 OTHER LITTLE 14 1.35
6 LITTLE LITTLE 13 1.26
7 SILLY LITTLE 13 1.26
8 CHEEKY LITTLE 11 1.06
9 PRETTY LITTLE 11 1.06

Try it again in the academic section and what do you get? Nothing. There are no such pairs.

Now do the same with small, this time with academic section first:

1 PROXIMAL SMALL 28 1.81
2 OTHER SMALL 20 1.30
3 DISTAL SMALL 6 0.39
4 NORMAL SMALL 6 0.39
5 UPPER SMALL 6 0.39
6 ENTIRE SMALL 4 0.26
7 INDIVIDUAL SMALL 4 0.26
8 NUMEROUS SMALL 4 0.26

And in conversation? Zip.

So it would seems that small is more academic, at least in this kind of pairing.

Now, this is stretching things quite a bit, but if we consider the general prejudice that conversation is trivial while academic language is weighty, long, and substantial, there may be an argument, if only a metaphorical one, for little being smaller than small. I think I'll put it to Lynneguist over at Separated by a Common Language.

3 comments:

lynneguist said...

I think this is an idiosyncratic thing, to do with the presenter or the perceptions of what the presenter was saying, rather than a dialectal difference. Quite a bit has been done to study the differences between little and small in texts, and the findings have generally concluded that the differences aren't to do with size, but with the types of things measured and the connotations one wants to communicate.

Just having a look back at my doctoral dissertation, where I discussed these words a bit myself, here's what I found: Little is more often used to connote insignificance and to connote cuteness or express endearment, while small is often used to describe size without such a value judgement (hence the feeling that it's a more 'academic' word). (Compare "look at that little cat!" with "look at that small cat!") Little is also more often used in figurative speech than small is.

All that goes along with the BNC results you found.

The other thing to say about little/small is that little follows sound-symbolism tendencies, in that it has a high, front vowel--which are often associated with 'small' meanings. Small bucks that trend and has the kind of vowel that is often associated with 'large' meanings. So, that may give some people in some circumstances the feeling that little denotes smaller size than small does.

Derry said...

I'd never hear of the ETJ before, but my mind went to the Japanese 小 and 少, both pronounced しょう (sho o) and glossed as small and little. It never occurred to me that there wouldn't be a difference.

Anonymous said...

小 and 少 actually almost the same thing.