March 24, 2008


Many people think that while new nouns are made up all the time, and new verbs and adjectives are occasionally coined, the prepositions form a small set that is fixed and unvarying over centuries of time and across the English-speaking world. It doesn't seem that way to me. I still remember with pleasure the day I discovered a new one in Australian English, one that other dialects do not have. I might tell the story here some time. (I already told it in a talk on Australia's ABC Radio National, in a program called Lingua Franca, in 1998. Note that the preposition involved in that case was an intransitive one, like away, not taking a noun phrase complement. That means the traditional view would treat it — wrongly, I claim — as an adverb. Someone wrote to Lingua Franca about that point, so I explained the details in a later talk, transcript here.) Anyway, it was not long after my move to Scotland last year that I encountered a preposition that I did not recollect ever having seen or heard before, either in my early decades of living in Britain, or my many years after that living in California, or my long visits to Australia: the preposition outwith. Mark Liberman discussed it in this post in 2006 (which I had forgotten about until Lindsay Marshall reminded me; thanks, Lindsay). It means, as Mark said, "outside of" (exactly what without meant a century or two ago, before its shift to the meaning "not having"). And Mark noted that it is recorded as largely limited to Scotland. But the new part of the story is that it is not entirely thus limited: the other day I saw it used in an English newspaper, which could mean that it is spreading rather than becoming extinct. We shall see.

The prepositions of English are not by any means a small, fixed set. There are hundreds of them, and they vary a bit across dialects (though of course nowhere near as much as nouns). They are even, occasionally, borrowed into English from other languages. If you sit and think for a while you will probably be able to think of a few. I may post on this after a while. Or maybe not. Maybe I will decide it falls outwith my purview.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 24, 2008 04:19 AM