January 25, 2004

#ing out @ language Log

Are English speakers growing more adept at realizing lexical items as individual symbols? Are you familiar enough with the forms in (1) to use them in sentences like those in (2)?

(1) #         @         *
(2)a. Okay, I'm #ing out now.
b. My address is president @ whitehouse . gov.
c. The following example is therefore *ed.

Virtually everyone has a pronunication for @ these days. It might not be common knowledge that it has a fairly literal interpretation (you're at a particular server), but speakers are able to articulate its appropriate conditions of use. This is quite common for lexical items. (How would you define I, as, or but? Probably you would mutter something incoherent or false and then resort to giving some examples of the word in action.)

At my father's office, the voice-mail system permits callers to leave a message or "press the pound (#) sign" to speak to a secretary. In November, my father told me that a broker from Merrill Lynch finished his message by saying that he was "pounding out" to see if he could get the information from a secretary. Or should that be "#ing out"?

In linguistics, an asterisk, *, affixed to the front of an example indicates that the example is ungrammatical. Linguists often speak of "starring examples", or, rather, "*ing examples".

Note: The synchronic theoretical linguist's * is adapted and imported from historical linguistics, where it means "reconstructed but unattested" --- it marks cases that are missing from the historical record but that the theory predicts to be grammatical. Synchronic theoretical linguists retained the "unattested" part, but the sense is quite different in that subfield, where the * marks a form that doesn't exist (according to the author).

Davies (1992:185 nt. 31) attributes the first use of * to mean "reconstructed but unattested" to the linguist Pott, who used * ("ein Sternchen" ('little star')) in 1833. I am unsure who brought the symbol into theoretical linguistics, though.

Davies, Anna Morpurgo. 1992. History of Linguistics. Volume IV: Nineteenth-Century Linguistics. London and New York: Longman.

Posted by Christopher Potts at January 25, 2004 04:58 PM