February 19, 2007

More political morphology: Democrats, Great British, and geese

In connection with the discussion over whether using a noun as a modifier is "illiterate" ("'Democrat majority': offensive but not ungrammatical", 1/31/2007; "Hatchet job on Hart?", 2/18/2007), Pat Schwieterman wrote to remind us of a class of cases where noun and adjective modifiers often co-exist, with essentially the same meaning, though there's a systematic pattern of preference that correlates with a political feature:

In May of last year, we had an entertaining argument about the phrase "Canadian Goose" over at the Eggcorns Forum. That led me to go do a few Google searches, and it seemed to me that when you're talking about political divisions, the adjective is typically preferred for nations while the attributive noun is preferred for smaller divisions like states and provinces.

Here's a quote from Pat's forum post:

When there’s a choice between an adjectival form of a place on the one hand, and the equivalent attributive noun on the other, the tendency seems to be that the adjective is chosen for nations, while the noun is used for smaller political divisions. For instance, consider the following data from Google searches:

Google hits
Google hits
The Canada Parliament
     The Canadian Parliament
The Alberta Legislature
  The Albertan Legislature
The California Legislature
  The Californian Legislature

The nation demands an adjective rather strongly, while the province and state demand attributive nouns equally strongly.

And the general pattern holds even when you’re not talking about groups of people:

Google hits
Google hits
The Canada wilderness
     The Canadian wilderness
The Alberta wilderness
  The Albertan wilderness
The California wilderness
  The Californian wilderness

For the most part, this applies to bird names, too. We have the California Condor, the Arizona Woodpecker, the Louisiana Waterthrush, the Kentucky Warbler, and the Florida Scrub-Jay. Admittedly, Hawaiian names throw things off a bit – we have the Hawaii Creeper, but also the Hawaiian Goose. These tropical birds remind us we’re talking about language and not mathematics; the “rules” don’t always hold.

Well, let's not abandon the pursuit of regular laws quite so quickly -- Hawaii was an independent country until 1898, after all, and the Hawaiian Goose was given its scientific name, Branta sandvicensis, by Nicholas Aylward Vigors in 1833. And the Hawaii Creeper seems to be a sort of modern nickname for the Hawaiian Honeycreeper.

Pat's note reminds me that W got into morphological hot water almost exactly a year ago, over this same question of whether to use an adjective or a noun as a modifier -- but last time around, his mistake was the illegitimate use of an adjective, in the phrase "a Great British company". For a more extensive discussion of the role of political unit size (including continents and cities as well as countries and states or provinces) see W's conundrum (2/23/2006) and All your base are belong to which lexical category? (5/15/2004).

Pat points out that bird nomenclature also tends to follow the "nation-states as modifiers are adjectives" rule -- thus the Mexican Parrotlet, the American Crow, the Cuban Parakeet, and the Jamaican Lizard-Cuckoo -- so that we might really have expected the Canadian Goose instead of the (correct) Canada Goose. Perhaps this anomaly is the motivation for the urban legend that the Canada Goose is named not for the country, but for the (I believe mythical) ornithologist John Canada.

Pat observes in closing that "It's a bit surprising that a political scientist in particular would make such a sweeping statement about attributive nouns... As always, thanks again for Language Log. I can't believe it doesn't cost anything."

And don't forget the money-back guarantee!

[Update -- Paul Clapham writes:

I'm a regular reader of Language Log and I noticed today's post on adjectives versus attributive nouns. I did the same research on bird names about a year ago for one of the world bird lists and came up with similar conclusions. However "Hawaiian" versus "Hawaii" is perfectly regular too: "Hawaiian" refers to birds found on more than one island of the archipelago, whereas "Hawaii" refers to species endemic to the Big Island of Hawaii.


Update #2 -- Don Blaheta writes:

I confess that when I was reading this bit you quoted in a recent LL post:

...an entertaining argument about the phrase "Canadian Goose"...

I had no idea what the argument would be about, other than perhaps that the singular form (as given) sounds odder than the plural "Canadian geese". When I got to the punchline (that "Canadian Goose" isn't the correct name, rather "Canada Goose") I was pretty floored---growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, we had perennial issues with Canadian geese crapping all over the soccer fields, but I'm pretty sure I never heard the term "Canada geese" (or its singular).

Some quick googling does show a preference of about 5:1 for the "Canada" form, so this appears to be a regional thing. Although, in that form the singular is twice as common as the plural, while the reverse is true for "Canadian" (which may have been the intuitive driving force behind my initial guess on potential objections to "Canadian goose").

Anyway, it sounds like the folks in my neck of the woods have taken the "rule" to heart, and fixed the name of these pests from the Great White North. :)

(Addendum: the wife of a colleague is a biologist who, in no uncertain terms, asserts that "a Canadian goose is a goose that lives in Canada!" So apparently feelings run strong about this sort of thing.)


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 19, 2007 06:49 AM