December 23, 2007

Proceed with caution

A long-standing topic on the American Dialect Society mailing list is the use of ancestor to mean 'descendant'.   Recently, our attention has expanded to include successor 'predecessor'.  Which reminded me of precede/proceed as used by some students in intro linguistics courses.  And then of problems with the technical terms progressive and regressive assimilation.

Directionality is hell.

I briefly mentioned ancestor/descendant, along with yesterday/tomorrow and subsequent/prior, back in 2005.  And then, last July, I commented on forward-looking, backward-looking, and double-sided lexical items, taking off from temporal since and before in a case where the former seems to have been used for the latter:

Standard English has forward-looking since and backward-looking before, but no double-sided temporal P, one covering both directions.  In a roughly similar fashion, standard English has forward-looking tomorrow and backward-looking yesterday, but no double-sided temporal adverb, meaning 'one day from today'.  Such lexical items aren't unnatural [and double-sided temporal adverbs, meaning 'a day from today', do occur in some languages, with the actual reference determined from context] ... but we'd expect them to be relatively rare, since they're less informative than the more specific items.  Still, a double-sided temporal P would have its uses, allowing speakers to view things from either end of a time span ...

One way to view apparent switches of directionality is to see them as a reflection of a desire for double-sided lexical items.  One item in a pair (A and B) is chosen (on the basis of frequency or salience) to serve for both, giving the effect of a switch, though in fact the chosen item now serves in both its original use and the reversed use: ancestor 'ancestor, descendant', yesterday 'yesterday, tomorrow'.  Typically, most people "switch" in one direction, using A for B, though some people will go in the other direction, using B for A.  So far as I know, you don't find people with a true reversal, A for B AND B for A.

1. Ancestor.  A couple of examples from ADS-L discussions.  From David Bergdahl on 12 June, citing an article on tracing descendants of the Lost Colony in Virgina:

Fred Willard, director of the Lost Colony center, said some colonists may have migrated inland to what are now East Lake, Chocowinity and Gum Neck. Researchers plan to use cheek swabs taken from possible ancestors to test the paternal and maternal DNA lines.

And from Bonnie Taylor-Blake on 24 June, citing a front-page story in the Atlanta Journal Consitution that day:


An unlikely, close-knit bond develops between ancestors of slaves and the ancestors of their slave masters.

I'm assuming that these writers would also use ancestor for actual ancestors.  That is, for them ancestor means 'lineal kin'.

Finally, from Brians's Common Errors under ancestor:

When Albus Dumbledore said that Lord Voldemort was "the last remaining ancestor of Salazar Slytherin," more than one person noted that he had made a serious verbal bumble; and in later printings of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets author J. K. Rowling corrected that to "last remaining descendant." People surprisingly often confuse these two terms with each other. Your great-grandmother is your ancestor; you are her descendant.

2. Successor
.  On 17 December, Charlie Doyle posted:

It's somewhat like the confusion of "ancestor" with "descendant"--

In yesterday's newspaper an AP story by Hillary Rhodes reported that the name "Emma" for new babies, after three years in first place, has been overtaken by "Sophia" and "Isabella":

Sophia has more of a Latin or continental appeal than its proper English successor, Emma  (Athens [GA] Banner-Herald, E12).

Unlike the "ancestor"/"descendant" pair, however, "successor" and "predecessor" do have the same root ...--a circumstance that might contribute to their confusability.

It's not clear that most speakers appreciate that successor and predecessor have the same root, but no doubt they do appreciate the phonological similarity, and phonological similarity is a strong contributor to word confusions.

3. Proceed.  This one's in Brians and in MWDEU, but in short entries that treat the issue as mostly a matter of spelling.  But the situation is more interesting than that.

My experience in intro linguistics classes is that when we're talking about phenomena that have to do with the context in which some element occurs and with the influences of surrounding elements in such contexts, and I use the terms precede (as in "X has the variant Y when it precedes Z" -- i.e., Y for X in the configuration XZ) or is preceded by (as in "X has the variant Y when it is preceded by Z" -- i.e., Y for X in the configuration ZX), some students press the verb proceed into service as the converse of precede.  So: "word-final vowels are voiceless when proceeding a voiceless consonant; vowels are nasalized when proceeded by a nasal consonant."  (I THINK the passive version is more common than the active, but I haven't collected real data.)  The usage appears especially in phonology, but sometimes in morphology and syntax as well.

Now, the converse of precede that I myself use is follow.  The students aren't getting proceed from me (or any other linguistics instructor, I'd wager).  What they're doing, I think, is "fixing" the non-parallelism of precede (Latinate) and follow (Anglo-Saxon) by extending the 'next' sense of Latinate proceed (We proceeded to the ballroom 'We went next to the ballroom', I'll proceed to the conclusion 'I'll go next to the conclusion').  (In my experience it's hopeless to ask these people where they got their use of proceed -- as, in fact, it's usually pointless to ask people where they got ANY usage.  Both the innovation and spread of variants are largely below the level of consciousness of ordinary speakers.)

Some contribution to the development of proceed 'follow' probably comes from the burden of technical terminology that attends learning linguistics.  Some of it -- reduplication, rhotic, morpheme, clitic, anarthrous -- is obviously special to linguistics, but most of it -- onset, liquid, constituent, definite, subject -- is ordinary English vocabulary used in very special ways, and some of it is not really technical terminology, but "terms of art", conventions within the field that prefer certain usages over other, equally available, ones.  Like precede and follow rather than come before and come after.  (Further complexity: in linguistics, precede and follow by default mean not merely 'come before' and 'come after' but 'come immediately before' and 'come immediately after',  This is so in ordinary language as well, but the convention in linguistics is so strong that linguists ordinarily have to mark the non-default case: "if followed anywhere within the word by a voiceless consonant" and the like.)

Not only do my (mostly American) students spell precede and proceed 'follow' differently, they usually pronounce them differently as well: for them, both verbs usually have a weak accent on their first syllable, so that vowel reduction is blocked, with the result that the verbs have something close to tense [i] and something close to tense [o], respectively, in their first syllables.  So, for the most part, my students are not "confusing" words at all; they're differentiating them scrupulously, but in a way that conforms neither to the conventions of ordinary English nor to the conventions of the guild of linguists.

I wish I could say that this was the end of it, but of course Brians and MWDEU wouldn't have the entries they do if it were: there's a complex pattern of proceed/precede "confusion" (in pronunciation or spelling or both) that linguists can't be held responsible for, and that I don't know the details of.

You can get some appreciation of the complexities from John Wells's blog entry of 23 May 2006, where he reports student misunderstandings going in several directions at once.  Note: the distinguished phonetician Wells is British, and a professor at University College London, so his experiences are bound to be a bit different from mine.

Every now and again my students reveal that they are confused about the words precede and proceed. Accounts of phonetic processes and allophonic rules often refer to a preceding consonant, being preceded by a vowel, and so on. In the sequence ABC, B precedes C and is preceded by A.

But students sometimes write this as a 'proceeding' consonant, or being 'proceeded' by a vowel. Worse, since to proceed from can mean to follow, they sometimes interpret my spoken precede, which they imagine to be proceed, as meaning 'follow', so that they also have the meaning the wrong way round.

In theory, the distinction between the [I] of precede and the [ǝ] (weakened from [ǝU]) of proceed ought to be robust. After all, in my own speech and in that of most of my students valid doesn't rhyme with salad nor rabbit with abbot; the initial syllables of finesse and phonetics differ. But in practice, clearly it may not be: weak pre- and pro- can get confused.

And I have just detected one of my favourite authors, Jared Diamond, committing the reverse mistake. In his marvellous book Collapse (Penguin 2006), on page 501 of the UK paperback edition, we read that "LA smog generally [gets] worse as one precedes inland". Oh dear. What a precedent.

4. AssimilationAssimilation is the phenomenon of (at least partial) agreement in phonological features between two segments.  Given XY, X (as target) can pick up features from Y (as trigger), or Y (as target) can pick up features from X (as trigger).  So, in many languages, vowels pick up the feature of nasality from a following nasal consonant (with different details in different languages).

Once again, there's a directionality.  How do we describe the facts?

The conventional terminology in linguistics takes the point of view of the trigger: if the trigger follows the target, it's exerting its influence BACKWARDS onto the target.  So this is called regressive assimilation.  And if the trigger precedes the target, it's exerting its influence FORWARDS onto the target.  So this is called progressive assimilation.

But suppose we look at things from the point of view of the target.  Then if the target precedes the trigger, the target is picking up its properties from what FOLLOWS -- which could reasonably be called progressive (or forward-looking) assimilation.  And if the target follows the trigger, the target is picking up its properties from what PRECEDES -- which could reasonably be called regressive (or backward-looking) assimilation.

In my experience, students have a shitload of trouble in choosing between the two viewpoints.  A lot of them just don't get the regressive/progressive terminology.

Long ago, I moved to using a clearer directional metaphor, borrowed from the analysis of speech errors: anticipation (something changes to fit what is to come) vs. perseveration (something changes to fit what has gone before).  Real-life examples, involving word choice, from the 2005 NWAV meetings:

anticipation: ... with only a few phrases [for switches] to English for words or short phrases.  [Carol Myers-Scotton]

perseveration: ... distinguishing that variation that is universal from that universal that is not... from that variation that is not.  [Ron Horvath]

This terminology doesn't always work, but it works better than regressive/progressive (with its unclarity about where the point of view is located).  On the other hand, anticipatory and perseveratory are six syllables each, while regressive and progressive clock in at only three syllables each.  So relentless devotees of Brevity should prefer regressive/progressive.  Hey, it's a trade.

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 23, 2007 02:19 PM