Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Kilpatrick is on a Which Hunt

It seems that James Kilpatrick, whom I must confess a near life-time disdain for, has declared that the award for November's (who knew months had this?) award for the ugliest word in English goes to which. He writes:
It grates; it pouts; it scratches. It rubs the wrong way. It rarely accomplishes anything not already well-served by that.
Actually, there are words that are way more offensive by Kilpatrick's standards. One that instantly comes to mind is church. Why? The alleged phonetic problem with which is not the initial, quite inoffensive voiceless fricative, nor the vowel, which is also inoffensive. It must be the palatal voiceless fricative "ch." Church has two of them as well as one of the ugliest vowel sounds of English, a rhoticized (r-colored) vowel I shall not attempt to describe further having years ago been shown the folly of that by an Ohio State phonetician. Why wouldn't Kilpatrick identify church as being phonetically offensive? That would be offensive to church-goers and Kilpatrick wouldn't have the guts for that.

So, Kilpatrick's phontetic objections to which are bullcrap. I think he was probably frightened by a witch when young and is fearful of any word pronounced in a similar way to witch. And, we are told it rarely accomplishes anything not accomplished by that. This too is nonsense. Consider the following hypothetical conversation:
Customer: I want one of those scarves.
Clerk: Which one would you like?
Clearly, this occurrence of which cannot be replaced by that. Nor can the which of
Clerk (alternate reply): You may have whichever one you want for $20.00.
So we have collected two types of occurrences of which that cannot be replaced by that. Much uglier than whichever would be thatever.

There are other uses of which that are not replaceable by that. Consider:
He was wearing a blue or green cap. I don't know which it was.
This counterexample, like the others, involves a choice from among a set of alternatives -- one scarf from a bunch (isn't bunch as ugly as which?) of scarves or a choice between a set of two caps.

What this nitwit should have said is that he objects to the use of
which as a relative pronoun. Consider
The dog which bit me.
The dog that bit me.
I bought the dog which Mary wanted.
I bought the dog that Mary wanted.
In the continuation of my first paragraph following the example I wrote
The problem with which is not the initial quite inoffensive, voiceless fricative nor the vowel, which is also inoffensive.
Here we have a nonrestrictive relative pronoun use of which. This is clearly not replaceable by that.
The problem with which is not the initial quite inoffensive voiceless fricative, nor the vowel, that is also inoffensive.
The reality is that Kilpatrick knows little about English grammar and what he knows he doesn't understand except at a superficial grammar school level. As a linguist, I am offended that his grammatical "knowledge" is respected.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

I mean, "I mean" is driving me crazy

Yeah, I mean.

The phrase "I mean" very often occurs in contemporary English as an assertion preface in replies to questions by interviewers. An example of this sort of use of "mean" is:
Q: How well do you think you played today?
A: (Well) I mean I think I played a little bit better than last week.
After the Ohio State vs Northwestern football game, the very, very (academically) young freshman QB for Ohio State prefaced virtually every response with "I mean." Some others used it frequently. Some not at all. The beginning sentence in this post is from my speech. I was in a friendly argument with an uncle during a telephone call and "Yeah, I mean" prefaced an interruption by me. I heard it later in the day from a political person on CNN or MSNBC with "well" where I said "yeah". So, this is infecting the nation I fear. Sadly there is no protective medical treatment.

The main problem with this use of "mean" is that it is not at all transparent in meaning, which is a bad thing for the word "mean" to do to us. It is not a constituent of the utterance it prefaces and so contributes nothing to the meaning of the utterance. So, it is very different from
1. a."Ich" means `I'. Conventional meaning equivalents.
b. "I" refers to the speaker/writer of an utterance/sentence. Conventional meaning, but in this case dealing with the referent of the expression -- reference is meaning in this case.
Nor it is exactly like
2. a. I did not mean to hurt you.
b. Life without faith has no meaning.
c. Dark clouds mean rain.
d. McCain's choice of Palin is unpatriotic -- I mean, how can putting so unprepared a person one heartbeat from the Presidency when you are quite old.
So, what does "mean" mean in the odd cases we have focused on? I believe the answer is that it is an extension of the use of mean in (2d) where one is explicating the foundation or underlying "gist" of what was said (see my blog The Meaning of Meaning). It is like "what I mean is that." However this analysis does not fully square with the examples that got me interested, namely those of the football players. I think it is possible that the speaker is attempting to communicate "gist"directly and thereby direct attention away from actual wordage and the conventional meaning of what he is saying to the gist of what he is saying. This is not terribly different from (2b) where the "gist" of what was communicated is being supplied.

I could easily be wrong about this. Please advise me as to your views.

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