January 25, 2004

19th-century asterisks: at last it can be told

At the end of the movie "Play It Again, Sam", Woody Allen's character makes an unusually moving speech, selflessly urging a woman he is in love with to get on a plane and fly away to be with some other man who will be better for her. She comments on how beautiful the speech was, and he replies, "It's from Casablanca; I've been waiting my whole life to say it."

And I have been waiting my whole life (or at least, twenty years of it) for someone to say, "I am unsure who brought the [*] symbol into theoretical linguistics." Now that Chris Potts (God bless him) has finally raised that question, I can give the answer that I have been waiting so long to give.

The late Fred Householder once claimed in an article in the defunct journal Foundations of Language that he introduced the asterisk into modern linguistics in a course he taught on syntax at Indiana University in the 1960s, but he was wrong. The asterisk, I claim, makes its very first appearance in syntax in Henry Sweet's New English Grammar, Logical and Historical: Part II, Syntax (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898), on the top line of page 3, where the ungrammatical order *dogs big black is contrasted with the grammatical big black dogs, the asterisk prefix being used without comment to mark ungrammatical strings. Later, on page 9, it is used again: "we cannot make old sage into *old wise man," Sweet remarks. Notice that this claim has nothing diachronic (historical) about it: he is not talking about a pattern from an earlier stage of the language (indeed, he explicitly introduces a different prefix, a dagger, to mark sentences that are literary or somewhat archaic as of 1898); he is talking about the frozenness of old man as being sufficient to block separation by another intervening adjective like wise. He's identifying the ungrammatical strings that the grammar should not describe; he's doing modern empirical synchronic syntax.

This is not the only way in which Sweet (who was such an appallingly grouchy individual that Oxford University never did give him a professorship) showed a prescient brilliance concerning what modern linguistics would become. As Lisa Selkirk noted in her 1972 dissertation, he also was the first to describe the prosodic behavior of the unstressed grammatical words of English -- for example, the four pronunciations of have (count them: (1) like the first syllable of havoc in I already have; (2) like the first syllable of Havana in I have often thought so; (3) like the first syllable of avoid in I'd've thought so; (4) just a [v] in I've forgotten).

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 25, 2004 08:01 PM