June 28, 2006

Chinese takeout and Watergate: Discuss

If you see a bird that's black, then you say you saw a "black BIRD." But if you see the particular kind of bird called a blackbird, then you pronounce it "BLACK bird." To a linguist, "black BIRD" is an adjective followed by a noun, while BLACKBIRD is called a compound. And to this linguist, it took, of all things, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW to make compounds seem fun.

In English, compounds are different from an adjective modifying a noun in terms of where the stress goes. Compounds place the stress on the first word instead of the second one. And compounds are different in terms of meaning: an adjective and a noun is a noun described, like a bird that is, look at that, black! A compound is "one thing," like that particular bird called a BLACKBIRD, as opposed to crows, ravens, etc. That one thing is often more specific than what the words technically mean.

So ICED CREAM, pronounced "iced CREAM," would refer to cream that had been iced, and it's no surprise that this is what Mr. Burns on THE SIMPSONS calls it in one episode, mired as always somewhere around 1903 and thus encountering it for the first time. But we say "ICE cream," because to us it's really one thing, represented in kids' minds, for example, as "eyescreem."

And then, I imagine one could render cream in an iced fashion in any number of ways, but ICE CREAM means that one particular way that Mr. Burns found so special.

We always hear about language changing, and one fun thing to watch for is new compounds. For example, in my down time, I spend way too much time watching TV shows on DVD, and in one episode of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW from 1973, the characters order Chinese food. However, even as late as the Watergate era, they call it "Chinese FOOD," with the melody of, say, "two plus four," instead of the way we say it now, "ChiNESE food," with the melody of "my OWN car."

This was because CHINESE FOOD wasn't yet a compound for all American English speakers back then. It was still a little exotic; people didn't usually have woks at home, and we were still a more steak-and-potatoes country (the MARY TYLER MOORE characters still casually order steaks and martinis for LUNCH!). For us, it's so familiar that of course, it has become a compound: "ChiNESE food," like "BLACKbird." And just like BLACKBIRD and ICE CREAM, CHINESE FOOD has a more specific meaning than it would literally. It doesn't really mean "food the way they make it in China," but brings to mind Chinese food as prepared in and for Americans and often ordered as takeout. The word summons a vision of a little white box with a metal handle, not what people are eating in Beijing.

I thought about that the other night when I saw even earlier TV characters talking about another ethnic food. On an episode of THE HONEYMOONERS in 1956, Alice talks about making a "pizza pie," as people still said then (although it was already shortening to PIZZA, as she says it a few minutes later). She pronounces it "PIZZA pie" as we would, but almost surely, fifty years before, it was pronounced "pizza PIE," like we would say "nectarine PIE." (Notice, though, that with a more common pie, APPLE PIE, we often say "APPLE pie" -- it's a compound, and refers to a particular type of apple pie involving nutmeg and cross-hatched crust and carrying associations of Americana and such.) I'll bet one could hear some vaudevillean on a scratchy old record or cylinder say "a pizza PIE."

A couple weeks ago I caught a compound a-borning. Someone was telling me that they had been away from work for a while because of ... and they said something that I didn't quite catch because I had never heard it said this way before. It went "..then I was out for two months with peetstreh so I had to..." For the next ten seconds I internally replayed the sentence again and again, trying to use context to recover what he could have meant. Finally I got it -- REPEAT STRESS!

In the nineties we became familiar with the term REPEATED STRESS SYNDROME, pronounced "repeated STRESS syndrome." But now, it's such an established term that it is no longer the adjective REPEATED and the noun STRESS, but a compound. And that means that the stress has to go on the REPEATED, and so with a little trimming, "rePEAT stress." And so English marches on.

And by the way, I feel moved to note that I do not restrict my televiewing to the likes of THE HONEYMOONERS and MARY TYLER MOORE. I've also been enjoying THE WIRE, which people tell me is a serious show. And I've been listening for new compounds all the while.

Posted by John McWhorter at June 28, 2006 01:52 AM