January 13, 2007

More on how the basil leaves

An amazingly rich crop of email correspondence from my simple little post about how on earth "basil leaves" could have been translated for a grocer's sign into a Spanish phrase meaning "basil departs". A correspondent called Trevor told me he thinks http://www.translationgold.com/ might have been responsible (but hey, we're Language Log, not Blame Log). Mark Reed thinks maybe the grocery store used the same translation service as his local Chinese restaurant, where he has noticed that the Spanish menu offers chow mei divertido ("chow mei fun": geddit?). Tako Schotanus thinks it was a print dictionary, and notes: "a lot of people don't know how to properly use a dictionary ... [and] will not even look at all those strange little abbreviations that will tell you if a word is a verb or a noun." Good point, that. Clarissa Ryan tested out Google and Babelfish, and found that both gave the correct translation for "basil leaves" or even "the basil leaves," but the incorrect translation for "the basil leaves and branches can be used." Cute syntactic discovery! And Nancy Friedman had perhaps the most interesting idea of all: that it might have been a transcription error rather than a translation error. The original might have read albahaca seca (dried basil), which somehow could have migrated via bad handwriting to albahaca seva and thence to albahaca se va. Ingenious!

Meanwhile, Dick Margulis wrote that he regards the mistranslation as serendipitously and poetically true: "Men leave, basil leaves; rosemary is for remembrance." And Barbara Zimmer also noticed that "basil leaves" is like "fruit flies", and had a further question: she asks whether there is a special term for such phrases:

Basil leaves
Fruit flies
Cracker jacks
Banana peels
Cough drops
Apple fritters
Juice boxes
Bean sprouts
Onion rings
Bed springs

The answer is that there's no special name: they're just two-word noun phrases that happen to be homophonous with two-word declarative clauses. You'll get one every time you can find a pair (AB) in which all of the following conditions are met:

  1. A is a noun that can stand alone (with no determiner);
  2. B is a verb that needs no complement;
  3. B ends in the 3rd singular present inflection "-s";
  4. the stem of B also happens to be a noun stem;
  5. as a noun stem, B inflects regularly for plural;
  6. the plural noun B can occur with the noun A as an attributive modifier.

A tricky set of constraints to comply with; yet Barbara Zimmer found ten cases in all. It's quite amazing what we can do with our language even when we're just playing.

Update: Barbara Partee recalls singing a song (at camp when she was a kid) with the words: ""Have you ever seen a house fly, a house fly, a house fly? Have you ever seen a house fly? Now you think of one!". New verses would be made up on the fly, the guiding constraint being that a new verse should be based on a pair (AB) such that A is a noun in its singular inflected form, B is a verb in its plain form, and A B is a compound noun or a noun phrase, so that there would be an ambiguity between a noun phrase sense of A B and another sense in which see A B is an instance of the perception/causation verb phrase construction meaning "see A perform the activity denoted by B". Another game that's easier to play than to describe accurately.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 13, 2007 12:07 AM