Monday, July 22, 2019

But then I took an aversion to the knee: constructions and collocations

I've been on a Construction Grammar (CxG) kick for a while now. I gave a talk about using it as a creative tool at LCC7. We talked about it on a recent Conlangery episode (Conlangery #140: Word Classes with William Croft). I don't want to go into great detail here, but the fundamental difference between CxG and the usual grammatical theories we're familiar with is that in CxG a construction is any pairing of form and meaning. In CxG, your grammar and your lexicon are not separate things — they're all constructions. Examples:

  • morphemes: pre-, -ing
  • word: and, sleep, peanut
  • complex word: daredevil
  • schematic complex word (partially filled): [N-s] (regular plurals)
  • idiom: give the Devil his due
  • schematic idiom: jog memory
  • ditransitive: Subj V Obj1 Obj2 (e.g., he gave her a book)
For conlanging, the most exciting thing about uniting lexicon and syntax into constructions is that everything that can happen to words can happen to all constructions: polysemy (have several meanings), grammaticalize, undergo semantic shift historically, appear and disappear as a fad (think "I did it because reasons"), etc., etc.

One very important feature of words is that they tend to have friends — words they appear with more often than chance or even semantics would suggest. Often these pairings mean something more than just the combination of the parts. For example, "dry land" is not simply land that is dry. It is used to contrast to bodies of water. Think also of: confirmed bachelor, insist firmly, seriously ill, etc., etc. These collocations (as they are called) are also a kind of construction.

I heard an English turn of phrase recently that go me thinking about collocations. I'm going to work out the associations and collocational restrictions a bit, with some help from Google. But this is not just an analysis of English. Think about using things like this in your own conlangs.

The schema is: Take (a/the) X to Y.  Now, this can be used as simple expression with an obviously compositional (non-idiomatic) meaning: I took the book to work. But things get interesting when we make specific selections for X and Y.

For example, if for X we pick a bladed object, and Y is some normal target for activity with that object: he took a razor to my beard; Thomas Jefferson took a scalpel to his copy of the gospels; [Girl] took a machete to this kid's car and completely just smashed it.

The word razor is in this, and from there it seems that other grooming tools can be brought into this construction: She took a razor to my hair, and it looked good at first; Ellen DeGeneres took a trimmer to Julian Edelman! she did use a diffuser but then also took a comb to my hair.

Another line of development, again seemingly related to cutting implements, is tools: the Fire Department took a Ax to the trunk and windows; on the last week of lab a lab technician took a saw to the top of the cadaver's head and removed his brain as a final organ for study in our lab; the aftermath of a carpenter bee infestation can look like a deranged carpenter took a drill to your property just for the fun of it. And then this use seems even to spread to stapler, and from that to other adhesion methods: it feels like someone took a stapler to my left eyeball; I took glue to my wanton collection, pasted together each part of each story and tried to make the edges fit; we took some pictures of a "DADS INN" (the sign obviously a Days Inn until someone took duct tape to it).

Perhaps yet another development of either the blade sense or the tool sense, weapons can be used: in the early part of the campaign, Baker took a bazooka to an entire ridge of enemy forces assaulting his company. Interestingly, when I looked for take a shovel to, most clear examples of this construction when the shovel was being used offensively, though not always: I took a shovel to the tawny daylilies that doubled in number every year; 7 grammar mistakes that make others want to take a shovel to your face.

From here there's a an interesting development where if X is a ballistic item and Y is a body part, the subject of the expression is on the receiving end of the action, always bad: McCarthy stepped in front of President Reagan, and took a bullet to the chest but made a full recovery; he took a mortar to his chest, and he was cut off behind enemy lines; he took a baseball to the face this weekend, but temporarily stayed in the game; "I used to be an adventurer like you, but then I took an arrow to the knee."

Finally, there is a completely different development, an interpersonal reading where certain nouns of liking and aversion are used to indicate an inchoative sense: He took a liking to his new neighbor; that's why Biggie took a like to them, because they lived what they rapped about; Laura took a shine to her at the interview and offered her the job; she took a dislike to me after a small argument over my political beliefs; I remember a race of lispers, fine persons, who took an aversion to particular letters in our language.

Here's a map of what I think is going on semantically:

There are probably some senses I have missed. This is probably an over-rich example of constructional flexibility. Regardless, it's worth thinking along these lines when developing vocabulary and idiom for your conlang.

Words of Immiseration

You never know what's going to lead your conlang to new grammar. More than a month ago I was reading a bit by and about Hannah Arendt,...