December 30, 2003

Combating lexicalist prejudice

People often write about language as if it were nothing but words, words, words. Language Log is therefore accepting nominations for X-of-the-year awards at other levels of linguistic analysis:

Allophone of the year. New ways of pronouncing (English) phonemes in context. This reaches the popular imagination occasionally through discussions of regional, class or other social-group pronunciations, like Valley Speak.

Affix of the year. New methods for making new (English) words out of old ones. An obvious recent example is -izzle.

Construction of the year. New ways of combining (English) words into phrases. The problem here is to find "new" syntactic usages that don't turn out to go back to the 18th century. The syntactic clock ticks rather slowly.

Word sense of the year. New meanings for old (English) words. For example, the OED's last quarterly update included new meanings for churn "... Change to a customer base; esp. a large and rapid loss (and replacement) of subscribers to a particular service. Also: turnover or reorganization of employees. Cf. CHURN RATE n." and fist (whose new definitions I won't quote in this PG-rated weblog).

Intonation of the year. New melodies for (English) utterances. This one reached the popular imagination in the early 1990s, via uptalk.

Rhetorical trope of the year. New structures or frameworks for arguments. Call the Rockridge Institute!

Logical form of the year. Is this one possible? Hilary Putnam once argued that logic is empirically testable and indeed must be revised based on the discoveries of 20th century physics -- but do the logical structures and interpretative principles of natural languages ever change?

There could be others -- Discourse marker of the year, Disfluency of the year, etc. -- but we'll leave it there for now.

The fact is that most linguistic innovations have a pretty long history by the time they are noticed. The main exception is a new phenomenon (or at least a new conceptualization of an old phenomenon) that is given a new name (like "TSE" or "prion") or assigned a new sense of an old word (like "embed" or "churn"). Even in most of those cases (like "spider hole"), the only real novelty is the new intensity of public interest in the topic.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 30, 2003 10:39 AM