Re: [xmca] Silly Offshoots and Dropped Subjects

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Fri Jan 04 2008 - 11:20:12 PST

To tell you the truth, Tony, my relentlessly GRAMMATICAL analysis of "thank you" is a response to Mike's interest in etymology, in which I recognize the ingrained habits of a life-long language learner.
  Anyone who has really mastered a foreign language to the point where they can actually work in it knows that one reason why it takes so long is that you just have to learn a lot of vocabulary. Unfortunately, vocabulary is learnt in a piecemeal fashion (I am deliberately avoiding the word "arbitrary", because I think saying that the relationship of words to meanings is aribtrary is essentially the same as saying it is entirely decontextual).
  One way of overcoming the extended and piecemeal nature of vocabulary learning is by taking a lively interest in how word meanings derive from other word meanings. When we learn, for example, that "immediate", "remedial" and even "mediation" are sisters under the skin, we find it easier to remember all three. Sometimes more (meaning) really is less (effort).
  I agree with Mike (and disagree with Pinker) that the cultural-historical link between words represented by etymology never entirely goes away; it is always there, even when the words are stored as purely psychological entities in Steven Pinker's "mental lexicon" and it is a part (but only a SMALL part) of the "technical means" by which word meanings are used to carry out speech acts.
  Wittgenstein says that meaning something really is going up to someone, but it is not JUST going up to someone. It is also saying something and that something that we say is connected "qian si wan lu" (I mean, by a thousand cultural strands and ten thousand historical threads) to other things.
  I think this is what Andy means when he says that the diction of his article is a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings. When you read Ruskin or Carlyle, you can see that they are very conscious of this, and their deliberate selection of Anglo-Saxon words is a matter of Francophobia.
  So why do Carlyle and Ruskin insist on Latinate grammar? Well, I think people are less conscious of the cultural-historical tails of sentence patterns, and that is also why you consider my grammatical discussion of "thank you" to be "overanalysis". But if culture and history are part of the way in which word meanings carry out speech acts, then they are an even bigger part of the way in which whole utterances do so. What is true of the more internalized lexical end of lexicogrammar is even more true for the more externalized grammatical end.
  I think that, lying at a layer closer to inter-mental interaction, the GRAMMAR of speech acts gives us an even more undigested form of their cultural and historical roots than the etymology of words. The phrase "Congratulations" is not at all grammarless (not even to the extent that lexicalizations such as "Hello" or "Goodbye" are grammarless).
  "Congratulate" is a performative verb; like "promise" or "bet" or "apologize". It does the very thing it describes, and to say "I offer you my congratulations" is to congratulate someone as surely as to say "I plight you my troth" is to marry them.
  You know that in China (in which I include Taiwan) it's pretty easy to find signs using "Congratulations" that are agrammatical (e.g. "Warmly Congratulate the Successful Conclusion of the Third International Conference on English Language Teaching in a Chinese Context"). I think that the grammatical reduction of "congratulations" is probably very similar to that of "thanks" and therefore this use of "congratulate" is no more grammatical than "warmly thank our invited speaker for your perspicacious presentation" or "warmly welcome the visiting inspection team from the central control commission". By dropping the subject we suggest an imperative where no imperative is pragmatically possible (because to order someone to congratulate themselves is NOT to congratulate them, any more than telling somebody to thank themselves is thanking them.
  So why is it possible to drop the subject with "thank you" WITHOUT suggesting the imperative but NOT possible to drop the subject in "congratulate"? Why does "thank you" NOT suggest that I am telling you to go thank yourself, but "warmly congratulate" somehow does suggest that the parties named should indulge in an orgy of self-congratulation?
  For the same reason it's possible to drop the subject in "Sorry!" but not in "apologize". On the one hand, we have the weight of the past which assumes that sincerity is represented or at least expressed by explicitness and verbosity, and on the other we have the pressure of the future which demands economy and succinctness. When we go up to somebody to mean something, it is the latter consideration which outweighs the former, while in writing banners for visiting delegations, it is always the former obligation that lies heaviest upon us. E-mail, as usual, is somewhere in between.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

Never miss a thing. Make Yahoo your homepage.
xmca mailing list
Received on Fri Jan 4 11:22 PST 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Wed Feb 13 2008 - 12:33:27 PST