September 11, 2004

Ex-words, ex-parrots and nominal tense

Monty Python fans will have recognized the peroration of Geoff Pullum's recent post on "The Coming Death of Whom"

This word is nearly dead. It is close to being no more. It has all but ceased to be. If it wasn't Magic-Markered onto a defaced flag from time to time it would be pushing up the daisies. This is almost an ex-word.

as homage to Monty Python's Dead Parrot Sketch.

A customer enters a pet shop to "register a complaint", because he's just bought a parrot that turns out to be dead. The shop owner insists that the bird is "just resting". After they poke the cage and argue about whether the bird moved, the customer "[t]akes parrot out of the cage and thumps its head on the counter. Throws it up in the air and watches it plummet to the floor."

C: Now that's what I call a dead parrot.
O: No, no.....No, 'e's stunned!
O: Yeah!  You stunned him, just as he was wakin' up!  Norwegian Blues
   stun easily, major.
C: look, mate, I've definitely 'ad enough of this.
   That parrot is definitely deceased, and when I purchased it not 'alf an hour
   ago, you assured me that its total lack of movement was due to it bein'
   tired and shagged out following a prolonged squawk.
O: Well, he's...he's, ah...probably pining for the fjords.
C: PININ' for the FJORDS?!?!?!?  What kind of talk is that?, look, why
   did he fall flat on his back the moment I got 'im home?
O: The Norwegian Blue prefers kippin' on it's back!  Remarkable bird, innit,
   squire?  Lovely plumage!
C: Look, I took the liberty of examining that parrot when I got it home,
   and I discovered the only reason that it had been sitting on its perch in
   the first place was that it had been NAILED there.
O: Well, o'course it was nailed there!  If I hadn't nailed that bird down,
   it would have nuzzled up to those bars, bent 'em apart with its beak, and
   VOOM!  Feeweeweewee!
C: "VOOM"?!?  Mate, this bird wouldn't "voom" if you put four million volts
   through it!  'E's bleedin' demised!
O: No no!  'E's pining!
C: 'E's not pinin'!  'E's passed on!  This parrot is no more!  He has ceased
   to be!  'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker!  'E's a stiff!  Bereft
   of life, 'e rests in peace!  If you hadn't nailed 'im to the perch 'e'd be
   pushing up the daisies!  'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory!  'E's off
   the twig!  'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run
   down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisibile!!

English has plenty of adjectives for modifying the temporal properties of nouns -- former, recent, late, forthcoming, and so on. We also have a few derivational processes with similar functions, like bride-to-be and ex-mayor. But for nouns, Indo-European languages lack anything analogous to their elaborate system for indicating tense, aspect and mood on verbs, some fragments of which English retains.

As the semantics of former and ex- indicate, there's no logical reason for this, and recently there's been increased interest in the many languages of the world where tense-aspect-and-mood (TAM) can or must be marked on nouns. An excellent review can be found in "Nominal Tense in Cross-linguistic Perspective", by Rachel Nordlinger and Louisa Sadler, forthcoming in Language.


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 11, 2004 10:35 AM