July 28, 2004

(That's) how that

Trevor at Kaleboel offers a sensible story about where "how that" comes from, in the phrase from a Public Enemy song lyric that Eric Bakovic brought up the other day:

All I want is peace and love on this planet /
Ain't how that God planned it?

Eric observed that Chuck D. is both clear and emphatic in enunciating that paticular sequence of words. It goes without saying that a recording like this is examined carefully many times before it's released, and anything regarded as a mistake, or at least as contrary to the artist's intention, would normally be fixed.

Trevor suggests that the expected "that" after "how" is part of the archaic (and dialectal) pattern in which "that" combines with wh-words ("how that", "why that", "who that", "where that" etc.), while the expected "that" before "how" has been elided. He cites analogous cases in Dutch as well.

I'd come to a similar hypothesis about the extra "that" -- minus the Dutch dimension, where Trevor has the advantage of knowing the language -- and had even come up with a sampling of "that's how that" cases from the web. The first two of these are from poems in the style of traditional song lyrics, and thus represent (or imitate) an archaic state of the language preserved in a local dialect. However, the last two are from spoken transcripts. The first transcript is of an interview with a mainstream American speaker (a retired high school principal) while the second comes from an interview with someone who is not a native speaker, but whose transcribed speech seems otherwise quite fluent and correct.

(link) With a door closed in my face now, and that's how that I was greeted
(link) That's how that she paid all her bills.
(link) And that's how that I really got into the principalship.
(link) That's how that I got started thinking of the Equitable Building.

The thing is, getting the extra "that" after "how" is the easy part [Update: as Eric observes, keeping it fully stressed might be a problem, though]. It's the missing "that" that's hard. I didn't post about this because I couldn't think of any plausible way to get rid of that first "that".

It's true that "that" is often optional, but that's the complementizer "that" (as in "I think (that) I know the answer) rather that the demonstrative "that" (as in "Is that what you want?").

A sentence-initial demonstrative can often be deleted, as an example of the general phenomenon of prosiopesis, in which "the speaker begins to articulate, or thinks he begins to articulate, but produces no audible sound (either for want of expiration, or because he does not put his vocal chords in the right position) till one or two syllables after the beginning of what he intended to say".

This can give you things like

That's what I want   →   's what I want

but as far as I can see, it only works following a pause, or anyhow not in a context like

Ain't that how that God planned it?

So I wouldn't think twice about hearing "Ain't that how that God planned it?" -- in the right context and company I might even say it -- but the phrase that actually occurs in the song seems surprising to me.

But maybe some people allow more general that-deletion? Or maybe some more generic sort of pro-drop is involved?


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 28, 2004 04:24 PM