February 16, 2007

Awwa, meh, feh, heh

Ben Yagoda has a terrific article in Slate today entitled "Pardon the Interjection." The lowly interjection, he argues, has historically been given scant attention by grammarians and lexicographers, chiefly because these expressive elements tend to appear only in speech and function outside of traditional sentence grammar. But now electronically mediated communication has exposed us to a plethora of interjections that were seldom written down in pre-Internet days. Yagoda takes a look at the emergence of written interjections like awwa, meh, feh, and heh. (I discussed meh and feh last year in my post "Meh-ness to society," while Tim Warner of Mother Tongue Annoyances recently expressed his distaste for heh.) I particularly like the artwork accompany the Slate article, in which an anthropomorphic OED looks askance at the word meh with a decidedly meh expression.

[John Lawler writes in to disagree with Yagoda's point about interjections working outside of grammar:

Deborah James (at U Toronto's Scarborough College) wrote her dissertation about them, in 1973. I was on her committee (indeed, I may have been chair, but only as a last-minute replacement for Robin Lakoff, who'd just gone to Berkeley). The dissertation was preceded and followed by two lovely and entertaining CLS papers on the subject. Everybody was amazed at how much syntax was in fact involved in interjections; they even follow Ross Constraints.

Here's the biblio:

James, Deborah Marjorie. 1972 "Some aspects of the syntax and semantics of interjections". CLS 8, pp162-72.

James, Deborah Marjorie. 1973a "Another look at, say, some grammatical constraints on, oh, interjections and hesitations". CLS 9, pp242-51.

James, Deborah Marjorie. 1973b "The syntax and semantics of some English interjections." PhD diss, U of Michigan.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 16, 2007 01:23 PM