January 31, 2007

"Democrat majority": offensive but not ungrammatical

Roger Shuy ("-ic") is not the only one who's been talking about the president's missing morpheme. At the start of Maura Reynolds' article "The 'Democrat majority' is still the talk of the capital" in the Los Angeles Times, 1/30/2007, she asks:

Will President Bush put the "-ic" back in "Democratic"?

That was the hot topic around Washington on Monday after the president was asked why, during his State of the Union address last week, he referred to Congress' new "Democrat majority."

"That was an oversight," Bush said in an interview Monday with National Public Radio. "I'm not trying to needle…. I didn't even know I did it."

Reynolds quotes various experts to establish that this is a deliberately offensive way to talk:

"It's a long-standing intentional partisan political slight," said Daniel Weiss, chief of staff to Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez). "It's kind of like flashing colors in a gang. It's code. It says, 'I'm one of you, I'm a right-wing conservative.' "

And experts on political locution say it's a deliberate, if ungrammatical, linguistic strategy.

"The word 'democratic' has such positive emotional valence … so they politicize it to use it as a term to describe a group of political rivals," said Roderick P. Hart, a professor of communications and government at the University of Texas in Austin.

"Democrat Party" is not common usage in Texas, Hart said, noting that the only people he had heard use it were "sitting Republican legislators." [emphasis added]

"Intentional partisan political slight", check. "Like flashing colors in a gang", check. As Geoff Nunberg explained a couple of years ago ("Making the world safe for 'democracy'", 10/16/2004), this usage was pioneered in national politics by Herbert Hoover in 1932, and "became a Republican tic" in the 1950s. But what's ungrammatical about it?

A few sentences later, Prof. Hart (who is dean of the College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin) explains:

"It sounds illiterate to me," said the University of Texas' Hart. "It's a noun used to modify a noun, and everyone knows you use an adjective to modify a noun."

As for the "sounds illiterate" part, it's true that forms like Democrat Party have a vernacular vibe. Geoff Nunberg's post cited a poem, published in the New York Times in 1908, that used vernacular forms to accuse William Jennings Bryant of flip-flopping:

Nothin' at all to say, William; nothin' at all to say;
There ain't no Democrat Party, so go on and have your way.
Fix up th' platform to suit you; put in what planks you may choose;
You've been on all sides of everything, so you've got plenty to use.
The New York Times, July 29, 1908

Also, the only other case I can think of where it's offensive to use a noun as a modifier in place of an associated adjective is in forms like "jew doctor" -- and since this particular way of expressing prejudice is out of fashion these days, it's most often used by linguistically unsophisticated people. (Though the situation was very different in the 1920s and 30s.)

But what is this business about nouns not modifying nouns? You don't have to look very far to find nouns that are apparently doing exactly that, including in the names of political parties.

In fact, there are quite a few nouns acting as modifiers right in Reynolds' article, e.g. "right-wing conservative", "election years", "House Speaker Nancy Pelosi", "the U.S. government", and so on.

And if we go to Dean Roderick P. Hart's own web page at the University of Texas, we find plenty of other cases of apparent modification of nouns by nouns. For example, he teaches a course on "Political Language" whose syllabus asks "Is the language of the policy sphere different from the language of the public sphere? How does establishment politics differ from movement politics?" And even though Dean Hart seems to work mostly on American politics, I imagine that he's heard of Britain's Labour Party.

Mere empirical observation aside, you could consult any reasonable work on the grammar of English and learn that nouns are routinely used to modify nouns.

So why did Dean Hart say that "everyone knows you use an adjective to modify a noun"? His individual background and motivations in this case are unknown to me, and also none of my business. But it is part of my business to educate college students in linguistics, including the basic grammar of the English language, and Dean Hart's statement is one more piece of evidence that my profession has been falling down on the job over the past half century.

Karl Hagen, on his blog polysyllabic, attributes Dean Hart's "fairly boneheaded comment" to "the way traditional grammar is usually mis-taught. In that scheme, almost anything that modifies a noun is called an adjective." Perhaps so -- but even the traditional grammar of the 19th century recognized the existence of [noun noun] constructions, under a variety of names such as apposition or juxtaposition. If I pick a mouldy old grammar book off the shelf at random, I find that Samuel Kirkham's English Grammar in Familiar Lectures, published in Baltimore in 1837, explains (p. 70) that

Some consider the adjective, in its present application, exactly equivalent to a noun connected to another noun by means of juxtaposition, of a preposition, or of a corresponding flexion. "A golden cup," they say, "is the same as a gold cup, or a cup of gold."

Kirkham disagrees, observing sensibly that "a beer cask, and a cask of beer, are two different things", and similarly "a virtuous son" vs. "a son of virtue". But he doesn't try to rule out "a gold cup" or "a beer cask" on the grounds that "a noun used to modify a noun" is wrong.

English-language structures of the form [noun noun] are grammatically diverse --the first noun might be a modifier ("cotton shirt", "first-year student"), or just the first part of a lexical compound ("ice cream", "spark plug"), or a complement of the following head ("dog trainer", "cup rack"), or a title or appositive ("President Bush", "the opera Fidelio"); etc. And people can and do disagree about the taxonomy of types and the analysis of specific cases.

What's clear, though, is that such structures are common, and furthermore that it's perfectly OK to use them in forming the name of a political party. Looking around the world, in addition to the Labour Party, we find the Hope Party, the Optimist Party, the Liberty Party, the Unity Party, the Reform Party, the Freedom Party, the Independence Party, and so on.

So when the dean of the College of Communication at one of America's best universities, a specialist in the language of politics, thinks that nominal modifiers are always ungrammatical or at least substandard, perhaps we've reached a historical low-water mark in the ability of intellectuals to analyze language.

Then again, maybe he was just misquoted. It happens all too often in the popular press -- and if that's what happened in this case, I apologize for suggesting that past generations of linguists have failed in their duty to teach Dean Hart how to think and talk about the structure of sentences.

[For those of us who like to hear as well as read things, here's the president's offending SOTU sentence:


[Update -- Karl Hagen argues that Kirkham is not relevant, because more recent school grammars are even worse. That's certainly true in the case that he cites. The main thing that's changed, I think, is that even Kirkham, as bad as he was, presented students with exercises in which they had to do a complete analysis of chunks of real text. And therefore they had to have something to say -- even if it was something stupid -- about most of the commonplace phenomena of the language. In contrast, current instruction seems to teach (false) general principles, and never asks students to apply them systematically to the analysis of any significant amount of actual English text.

Instead, the more modern exercises that I've seen involve classifying or otherwise commenting on very limited portions of a few artificial sentences.


More on this:

Making the world safe for "Democracy" (10/16/2004)
-Ic (1/30/2007)
-Ic -y matters (2/11/2007)
Old habits die hard (2/15/2007)
Hatchet job on Hart? (2/18/2007)
More political morphology: Democrats, Great British, and geese (2/19/2007)
The perils of comic-strip lead time (2/25/2007)
The International Democrat Union (3/26/2007)
Third time's a charm (4/3/2007)

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 31, 2007 12:12 AM