September 25, 2007

Turn right on Roxburgh

Three footnotes to my very syntactically oriented remarks on Edinburgh street names. The first is that I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that I think Edinburgh is different in kind from all other cities in its profusion of classname distinctions (Street, Place, Road, Lane, Avenue, etc.). It may be a bit more luxuriant and systematic in Edinburgh, but many British cities show a much higher reliance on classname distinctions than is common in California.

The second note is that I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that in devising a well-formed street name you can just randomly toss in two or more classnames picking them at random and combining them anyhow. This is not the case. There is some semantics here. To cite just one example, a lane with a name like Buccleuch Place Lane will be a narrow lane that goes behind the grand 18th-century houses of Buccleuch Place, originally serving to afford access to the backs of the houses so that tradesmen could arrive there for deliveries, repairs, and so on (in those days the plumber never came in by the front door). Thistle Street North West Lane is the lane in the carefully planned New Town (new because it was not started until the 1700s) that goes round the back of the buildings on the north side of the western portion of Thistle Street. There's a logic and a sense to it. Even with the internal structure of proper names, there is both a syntax and a semantics.

I said I had three footnotes. The third is a bit more embarrassing, and concerns my own cognitive shortcomings. The fact is that an analytical understanding of the syntax of a system is not the same as a good common-sense ability to work with it and use it in your daily life. On Friday I had an appointment to attend a briefing about grant applications here at the University of Edinburgh, at the Edinburgh Research and Innovation offices, 1-7 Roxburgh Street. I hurried along Nicolson Street, turned right onto Drummond Street down to where the old school buildings became visible, and saw the Roxburgh sign on the right and started making inquiries of the people in the University buildings at numbers 1-7. No flicker of recognition there. I was beginning to be in danger of being late for the session. Finally a servitor [you may not know that word, but they use it here] told me that this was Roxburgh Place. Despite everything I had said about the information-theoretic aspects of classname significance, I had behaved like a Californian (which is basically what I am, after so many years in Santa Cruz) and turned right on Roxburgh, not even looking at the classname clearly displayed. Roxburgh Street was (Scots, please forgive the Americanism) one block further along Drummond.

(I mean Drummond Street. That's near the university in the EH8 district. There is also a Drummond Place, but it happens in this case to have no connection with Drummond Street; it is in a different part of town, EH3, over near where I live.)

know, intellectually, that the system is a minefield if you concentrate on forenames and neglect classnames, and yet I cannot make myself behave as if I truly knew it at a deep level. The analytical understanding is there, but it hasn't sunk into the habitual behavior layer. As many of you will recognize, it is often like that in the early stages of language learning.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at September 25, 2007 04:19 AM