May 16, 2006

Recycling grammatical terminology

Christopher Hitchens' latest fighting words column for Slate ("Don't Talk to the Mullahs", 5/15/2006) directs a few desultory insults towards his recent virtual debating partner Juan Cole, while describing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's letter to President Bush:

It then turns to a pedantic discussion of the wrongness of the whole existence of the state of Israel, which might have been designed to make professor Juan Cole (who thinks that Khomeinist anti-Zionism is a derivation from Persian poetry) look like a fool and an ignoramus.

Though these insults are pedestrian, by Hitchens' standards, the column did feature a notable act of lexicographic creativity.

His innovation occurs in the last sentence of the paragraph quoted below:

The man is as mad as a hatter, therefore, and makes up for his impotence and insanity with many ingratiating assurances about Jesus and his honored place in the Quran and many lachrymose remarks about violations of human rights. He declares that his regime's nuclear program is a matter of "scientific R&D," and he ends with a salutation in Arabic which is given without translation in the news-agency versions that have been made available. The salutation reads, "Vasalam Ala Man Ataba'al hoda." This is a customary signoff by devout clerics, in Iran as well as in Arab lands, and can be approximately translated as "peace unto those who follow the true path." It was a favorite of the late Ayatollah Khomeini's. According to some, it was used as a silkily threatening mode of address by the Prophet Mohammed, who employed it when addressing neighboring states that had not yet converted to Islam. In this declension, it could be interpreted to imply war unto those who did not choose to follow the true path. [emphasis added]

As the AHD explains, Declension can mean things like

2. A descending slope; a descent. 3. A decline or decrease; deterioration: “States and empires have their periods of declension” (Laurence Sterne). 4. A deviation, as from a standard or practice.

but Hitchens has no descents, declines or deviations in mind. Instead, I believe, he's taking off from what the AHD gives as the first meaning of declension:

1. Linguistics a. In certain languages, the inflection of nouns, pronouns, and adjectives in categories such as case, number, and gender. b. A class of words of one language with the same or a similar system of inflections, such as the first declension in Latin.

However, Hitchens is not talking about a word, but rather about a phrase used as a "customary signoff", and he's not talking about its processes or categories of grammatical inflection. Instead, he obviously means something like "in this interpretation" or "in this construal" or perhaps "in this context of use". This is a plausible extended meaning, since the process of declension suits a noun, pronoun or adjective for different functions in different contexts, just the Arabic valediction is said to have different implications when addressed to co-religionists and to others. [Whether this interpretation is linguistically or historically correct is beyond my knowledge.]

It would be unwise to claim that no one has ever used the word declension in this way before, but I'm pretty sure that I've never heard or read it.

It's become standard for people using parse to mean "examine very carefully, especially with respect to possible alternative interpretations". This was originally a metaphorical extension of its basic meaning of "perform grammatical analysis", but now that grammatical analysis has largely vanished from the public curriculum, the metaphor is all that's left in popular discourse. As Hitchens has realized, a long list of other grammatical terms are also now available for re-use.

But there may be a narrow window of opportunity here: this metaphorical recycling can only happen as long as a fair fraction of the population can access, at least as a vague resonance, the literal meaning of grammatical terms like conjugation, inflection, mood, tense, affix, verb, predicate and the like. Unless there's a renaissance of linguistic analysis in primary and secondary education, this won't be true for long.

[Hat tip to Lane Greene]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 16, 2006 05:52 PM