[xmca] Silly Offshoots and Dropped Subjects

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Thu Jan 03 2008 - 17:01:46 PST

  I think your correspondant Dr. Sawchuck misunderstood the "silly offshoot" on terms of endearment. Actually, it was never attached to the discussion of your paper; it originated in my response to eric's visible discomfort--which I fully understand and even share---at addressing eminent scholars who participate on this list by their given names.
  I'm afraid this too is by way of a silly offshoot. My apologies in advance to Dr. Sawchuck and anyone else who might be offended.
  You remember that the silly offshoot on "thank you" had to do with why people say "Thank you in advance". Nobody ever really answered this question, but I thought about it for a few days and I think I came up with
  a) a plausible answer, and (more interestingly)
  b) two even more intractable questions, namely:
  i) What is the grammatical subject of 'Thank you'?
  ii) Why can't we say "Thank you a lot" in English?
  I shall make my answers to i) and ii) as implausible as possible, or at least as implausible as likely.

  If you ask somebody on the street for directions and they give them to you and you say "Thank you" then they are perfectly likely to say "You're welcome" or "Not at all" (if they are British). But if you go into a store and buy something and you pay with a ten pound(dollar) note(bill) and they give you change and you say "Thank you", then it would be presumptuous, even impudent, for the cashier to say "You're welcome".
  It's tempting to say that the difference in welcoming has to do with whether someone is REALLY doing you a favor or not, and in fact I have read accounts by linguists that take this line. I think the line is untenable: it assumes we all agree on what an important favor is, and that that importance remains constant over time and across widely variant conditions of need, and (worse) it obscures the more relevant factor of whether or not a person performing a service is being paid.
  An even more relevant factor (it seems to me) is TIME. A man walks into a pet shop and buys a parrot. He pays with a ten pound note and receives his change:
  MAN: Thank you.
  CASHIER: Not at all.
  MAN: No, really. Thanks very much.
  CASHIER: It was nothing.
  MAN: It was not nothing. It was nearly twenty-three pence. Twenty-two to be exact. Thank you...a lot.
  CASHIER: Thank you a lot?
  MAN BEHIND THE MAN: Look, mate! We haven't got all day!
  The same problem arises in e-mail, particularly now that the receipt and reading of e-mails is complicated by spam filters and spam and other constraints on time and in-boxes. Normally, we thank people for responses to queries on XMCA. But do we have to acknowledge the thanks?
  In Korea, I often do, because the persons who thank me are highly respected members of the academic community and might feel slighted if I did not acknowledge the thanks. It's for this reason, I think, that Korean academics tend to avoid e-mail, particularly when favors are involved. In fact, they tend to avoid asking favors, because favors always require prompt repayment in kind or in dinners, and when they do ask them, it is almost always in person or at least over the phone, where thanks can be given and acknowledged without further written work.
  Now, does this time explanation explain why we drop the subject in "Thank you"? I think it does. It's tempting to see "thank you" as constructed along the same lines as "Bless you" or "Damn you", where the implied subject is God ("May God...") and the verb is in the subjunctive mood (and therefore takes neither person nor tense).
  But it seems to me more likely that "Thank you" is constructed along the same lines as "See you!" or "Love ya!" in which the verb is in the first person singular declarative mood, and the implied subject, that is, "I", is simply dropped to save time (it's unstressed and appears at the droppable beginning of the sentence anyway).
  This elision of the subject also extends to much of the predicate in the case of "(I give you) thanks". I was thinking that this might even explain why we don't say "thank you a lot" (though of course we DO say "thanks a lot" and "thanks very much" and even "thank you very much").
  Despite the adverbial posmodification ("a lot" and "very much") "thanks" seems to be a NOUN rather than a verb in the third person singular. How to explain the adverbial tails?
  Here's the improbable bit. It seems to me that "thanks a lot" and "thanks very much" are VERTICAL constructions. Like this:
  CASHIER: Sure.
  MAN: A lot!
  CASHIER: No problem.
  MAN: Thanks.
  MAN: Very much!
  CASHIER: Awright, awready! Next!
  (There's actually an aria rather like this scene in Rossini's "Il Barbieri de Seviglia", where Don Bartolo receives "gioia e pace, pace e gioia" for the hand of Rosina at exasperating length from a disguised rival. Don Bartolo discovers that his pro-forma expostulations of "gracia" and "bien obligato" merely prolong the unwanted exchange...)
  This vertical construction would explain the "s" on the end of "thanks" and the close proximity of the adverb--they are different utterances but they have become juxtaposed through time-saving.
  Is this a silly offshoot? Oh, I suppose it is; the hapless ex-parrot has probably long since joined the choir invisible. But vertical constructions and horizontal constructions are really at the heart of how grammar emerges from discourse--and they are just one more example of the power of LSV's genetic law.
  Expressions like "Thank you in advance" emerge first as intertextual exchanges that go on too long, and only later are collapsed into intra-textual phrases. Isn't this the same way that relations between mental functions in different minds are collapsed into relations within minds?
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
  For the non-natives on the list, I hasten to add that I'm only talking about American and British English. According to Google,
  1. Thank you very much. 15,600,000 hits
  2. Thanks a lot. 5,190,000 hits
  3. Thanks very much. 2,670,000 hits
  4. Thank you a lot. 123,000 hits
  A lot of #4s seem to be speakers of English as foreign language. According to Practical English Usage, 2005, #4 is not acceptable in British English.

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Received on Thu Jan 3 17:03 PST 2008

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