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Friday, June 2, 2017

Why There is No Bad Big Wolf

and clocks never go tock-tick.

The language rules we were never taught, but we somehow know them anyway, by Mark Forsyth.
“Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.”
 Go ahead, try to write the sentence in a different sequence. It will sound wrong.  You cannot have an old little French lovely silver whittling rectangular green knife.Why this is TOF does not know. But we will say "a steel cutting die" (material-purpose Noun) and not "a cutting steel die" (purpose-material Noun).

There are also sound patterns.
"The Big Bad Wolf is just obeying another great linguistic law that every native English speaker knows, but doesn’t know that they know. And it’s the same reason that you’ve never listened to hop-hip music. If somebody said ‘zag-zig’ or ‘cross-criss’ you would know they were breaking a rule
You are utterly familiar with the rule of ablaut reduplication. You’ve been using it all your life. It’s just that you’ve never heard of it. But if somebody said the words zag-zig, or ‘cross-criss you would know, deep down in your loins, that they were breaking a sacred rule of language. You just wouldn’t know which one."
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If there are three words then the vowel order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

19 comments:

  1. Gee-wiz, I never knew that.

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  2. Shouldn't that be reduplication ablaut, not ablaut reduplication? You're performing ablaut (shifting its vowel) on a reduplicated syllable, you're not performing the ablaut twice.

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    1. ‘Ablaut’ in this instance is being used attributively in the instrumental case. It is the kind of reduplication that works by ablaut, as opposed to some other kind of reduplication.

      Incidentally, there is a great deal of tried and true practical philosophy in the order of English adjectives. They are placed in order of essentiality, so that those specifying the kind of an object are nearest the noun, and those supplying incidental information are furthest away. The Schoolmen would have heartily approved (and probably did have an influence in establishing the rule).

      However, I should like to know where Mr. Forsyth found green silver.

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    2. Most of the order holds for most languages, I think, although in Japanese and Korean you say "dear my child" not "my dear child". (That's why the manhwa adaptation of Little Women is called Dear My Girls.)

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    3. Presumably modified by which direction adjectives "branch"—does the order reverse itself, in languages where adjectives follow their "head", so that the same categories are closest to the head?

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    4. Don't know about green silver, but Psalm 67(68) knows about green gold (v. 13).

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    5. Yarok In pre-exilic Hebrew meant both green and yellow, it seems:

      http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/.premium-1.578126

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    6. It might be like how ancient Indo-Europeans (at least the Irish and both the Norse and Anglo-Saxons, IIRC) often talk about "red gold", which does not exist. Presumably they used one word for the whole red-orange-yellow end of the spectrum, the way many cultures actually consider green and blue to be two shades of azure, rather than separate colors.

      Our idea that color terminology refers to specific wavelengths (rather than being vague descriptive terms that incorporate many things we regard as separate aspects of color) is pretty new. See, e.g., this article about the very odd color-language in Homer.

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    7. (That link is not to be taken as an endorsement of the highly suspect claims RE: linguistic relativity and "neuroscience" contained in that article. It does reveal some interesting things about how loosely ancient conceptions of color map onto our modern ones, though.)

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  3. I'm reminded of an anecdote by Tolkein, about how as a child he read some fairy story about a "great green dragon," only he got the order wrong and called it a "green great dragon." He was corrected, but maintained that a green Great Dragon is much better than a great green dragon.

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  4. But doesn't 'Big Bad Wolf' break the earlier rule ('opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun') by placing size ('Big') before opinion ('Bad')? Or does that rule only apply to longer phrases?

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    1. Yes, but that rule is subordinate to the I-A-O rule.

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    2. There is also the matter that in this specific case, ‘bad’ is in effect an adjective of purpose. The villain is a wolf; the wolf is there to be bad; the bad wolf is also big, and there you are.

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  5. Where do the E and U adjectives go?

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. I don't know. I think you could have a lovely old little green rectangular French silver whittling knife.

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