Tuesday, April 22, 2014

It's turtles round and round

Part I
I've been trying to understand categories better, and one of the books I've been reading in pursuit of this goal is George Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. In fact, a few nights ago, I fell asleep reading it, and it must have stirred something in my mind because the next morning in the shower, it occurred to me that perhaps categories are just a distraction and it's really properties we should be looking at.
The category of red things is just a human convenience. But red is a property. Almost immediately, though, I realized that red is a category of electromagnetic waves and that electromagnetic waves are themselves a category. And from there, well, it's turtles all the way down. I set the idea aside as I dried myself and got ready to leave home.

Part II
When I got to work, our Blackboard system was down, so I couldn't do the grading I had intended to do. Distractedly I opened the Simple English Wiktionary and saw that somebody had edited the entry for preposition pace. The change was an improvement on, what I thought was a rather odd previous definition. Going through the history, though, I noticed that the older definition was one I had provided. Curious about what I had been thinking, I went to the OED's entry for pace. There I found the following example:
1995   Computers & Humanities 29 404/1,   I do not believe, pace Peirce and Derrida, that it is signs all the way down.
This struck me as a huge coincidence. The expression shows up in the Corpus of Contemporary American English about once per 150 million words. I had encountered it, or a variation thereof, twice in a morning.

Part III
I looked up the expression and found that Wikipedia has an entry (linked above). One of the citations listed there is due to John (Haj) Ross's 1967 linguistics dissertation Constraints on Variables in Syntax. I followed the link and opened up his dissertation, which indeed contains the story with the line "It's turtles all the way down."
On the next page was the Acknowledgements, which list a number of linguists, but on page x, Ross writes,
This thesis is an integral part of a larger theory of grammar which George Lakoff and I have been collaborating on for the past several years.
This is, of course, the same Lakoff whose book I had been reading the night before.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Looking to the futurate

The verb look has been used to talk about the future for a long time. Perhaps the most common use is in the expression look forward to (something). This use may be based on the metaphor that time is a landscape we move through. As such, our future should be visible to us. This is probably the same metaphor that underlies the use of go for the future in expressions like we're going to get to that in a moment.

Despite its venerable history, futurate look began a significant upsurge in about 1980, particularly, in the looking + to infinitive construction.
I noticed that this seems to be particularly common with are. Especially, you are. And even more specifically if you are. By this time we are looking at a small minority of the cases. But I wondered if it might tell us something about the meaning of the looking futurate as opposed to the going futurate. When I started looking at various corpus genres, though things got a little to complex. Maybe you have some thought to add.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The opacity of etymology

The word disseminate is a familiar one. It appears hundreds of times on my hard drive and in well over 20 email messages I've read or written in the last five years. But until today, I had never seen the seeds in the word.

We often use a plant metaphor to talk about words. Morphology is a branch of linguistics just as plant morphology is a branch of biology. Both sciences talk of roots and stems, but in linguistics, seeds aren't part of the metaphor.

The root of disseminate though is semin or semen, from the Latin word meaning seed. Dissemination is the spreading of seeds. Semin is also the root of the word seminary, literally a seed plot, but now metaphorically used to mean a place to train priests. This is also where seminar comes from. I hadn't connected up these words either.

Disseminate appears in a passage that my level-8 class is studying. It's a passage that I've been over many times with other classes, and I have had to explain the word before. But never before have I made this connection.

How could this be?

On the flip side of this are cases of people seeing connections where there are none. Consider the regular flare ups about the word niggardly based on a mistaken perception that it's based on a racial slur. There are so many opportunities for false positives. The string semen, for instance shows up in a variety of words such as basement and horsemen, and nobody would ever think it referred to seeds.

How does this noticing thing work?