September 02, 2006

Bards of Speech

I was in Crawford and I said I was looking for a book to read and Laura said you oughtta try Camus, I also read three Shakespeares.
It was Bush's claim that he'd read Camus that got the most ink, of course, but his reference to "three Shakespeares" also got a lot of people wondering. There was clearly something odd about the construction -- all the newspapers put the phrase in quotes -- but it was hard to pin down. "God, that was FUCKING EMBARRASSING," wrote ginmar. "Who calls reading Shakespeare.....three Shakespeares? Does this guy count on his damned fingers?"

Everybody seemed to sense that the phrase was revealing, but how, and of what? Well, you've come to the right place. Are you sitting comfortably?

Generally speaking, there's nothing wrong with using the name of an artist to refer to his or her works, as in The museum bought two Picassos and a Matisse or She was wearing this fabulous Jill Sander. That's merely a special instance of the process that I described as "systematic polysemy" in a 1995 paper in the Journal of Semantics, a term that covers more or less the same ground as James Pustejovksy's "logical polysemy," Juri Apresjan's "regular polysemy," and Gilles Fauconnier's "connectors", among other terms. Those are the various functions that allow us to use the name of an animal to refer to its meat (the rule called "grinding"), as in We eat rabbit; the name of a place for its inhabitants, as in Utah voted for Bush; the name of a color for a chess player (White to mate in one); and so forth.

But while patterns like those often operate very generally, they can be subject to idiosyncratic language-specific conditions. As Annie Zaenen and I have pointed out, for example, the rule of grinding doesn't usually apply in English when the substance that the derived noun would denote is a liquid -- you can say They sprinkle basil on the meat but not They sprinkle safflower on the meat. Nor do we say I enjoy a glass of orange with breakfast, even though it's perfectly clear what the sentence would have to mean. And the "portioning" rule that allows you say I drank three beers last night doesn't work with wine -- I drank three wines last night can only mean "I drank three types of wine," not "I drank three glasses of wine." (Those hungering to learn more about these restrictions can consult my article on polysemy in the Blackwell Handbook of Pragmatics and a very nice 1991 Siglex paper by Nick Ostler and Sue Atkins.)

As it happens, there are curious conditions on the transfer that takes the names of artists into their individual works (i.e, into count nouns -- it's another rule that takes the names of writers into mass nouns that denote their oeuvres, as in "300 pages of Marx"). We can use the name of a painter or sculptor freely to refer to his or her works -- three Picassos, a new Giacometti -- though we don't ordinarily do this with the names of composers (*We heard four Beethovens). And we can only use the names of directors and authors in this way when they're associated with genre films or genre fiction. It's a lot easier to say There's a Hitchcock playing at the Bijou than There's a Bergman playing at the Bijou. When we speak of "a John Ford" or "a Kurosawa," we're probably thinking of the director's genre movies (Westerns or samurai films as the case may be) rather than his other works. And "a Woody Allen" is much more likely to be, say, Annie Hall than Another Woman.

It's the same with works of fiction. It seems normal to say I love to curl up with an Agatha Christie or a John Grisham, but odd to say the same thing of Doystoyevsky or Italo Calvino (I can imagine saying that of Dickens). And while it's fine to say That's my favorite Neil Simon, you probably wouldn't speak of my favorite O'Neill in that way. With literary or cinematic works, that is, the name-to-count-noun construction presumes that the works by the author are of a generic muchness: one's pretty much the same as the next. (As Marc Cooper noted, Bloomberg's Roger Simon picked up on this point.) Which is what makes W's "three Shakespeares" so revealing. It suggests that the President thinks of Shakespeare's works as undifferentiated stuff like Agatha Christie's: for purposes of edification and personal improvement, what matters is how much, not which. But then a lot of people have suspected that this particular president has trouble telling comedy and tragedy apart.

Added Sept 3: Richard Bell of the Upstart Crow theater company in Boulder writes to remind me that theater people do speak of "three Shakespeares," "several Shaws," and so forth:

From the point of view of a director, all of a a given playwrights work are pretty much the same in terms of how one approaches them and considers them for production. Every Shakespeare... means expensive costumes but a cheap set, the need for a glossary for the actors, a large cast and a role-doubling scheme, but no need to secure performance rights. Every Moliere requires a special acting style drawn from Commedia dell'Arte and a search for a translation. Every Synge requires a dialect coach.

Point taken, though it's doubful whether it was the costuming expenses that were uppermost in Bush's mind when he made the remark.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at September 2, 2006 03:59 PM