Easily overlooked

Parts of grammar you just don’t think about.

When I get thinking about something, especially something to do with linguistics, it can be bloody impossible for me to switch Mr Brain off. That’s difficult enough at the best of times, but linguistics makes it worse. I’m like a cat with catnip.

My poor little brain was getting overheated by NPs like “an old silver coin” where, if I put the adjective into a predicative sentence, I’d say “The silver coin is old”. In other words, I’d tend to regard “old” as the modifier of “silver coin” rather than just one of two adjectives modifying “coin”. But what would be the NP corresponding to “The old coin is silver”? I suppose I’d say something like “an old coin made of silver”.

But that’s not what was really plaguing me. In English, attributive adjectives precede nouns unless the adjective takes some sort of post-head modification (e.g. “suitable clothes” but “clothes suitable for a unicyclist“). There are a few other exceptions, but they tend to be set expressions such as “court martial“. Although English is generally a left-headed language like the Romance and the Celtic languages, we still place attributive adjectives ahead of nouns. Quirk of our grammar; nothing to worry about.

Mr Brain was getting stir-fried because I started wondering how you’d deal with such NPs in the Romance languages, where a noun and its modifier are qualified together by an attributive adjective. In the Romance languages, most attributive adjectives follow their noun (e.g. Italian la ragazza italiana “the Italian girl”; Sicilian l’omu nglisi “the Englishman”). There are also certain words which can be used as modifiers in English, but which in Italian have to be rendered as preposition + noun. If I want to say “a silver coin” in Italian, I’d have to say una moneta d’argento (literally, “a coin of silver”).

Here’s where I began to suspect that this must constitute another exception to the general rule of post-head attributive adjectives in Italian and other Romance language. If I wanted to say “an old silver coin”, I’d have to say una vecchia moneta d’argento as opposed to una moneta vecchia “an old coin”. If I place the word for “old” after “silver”, I’d be saying the silver was old and have to say una moneta d’argento vecchio. The phrase moneta d’argento vecchia does get six results via Google, but vecchia is modifying the next word in the sentence, not moneta.

Curiously enough, a search for moneta d’argento vecchio yields a single result which contains the phrase vecchia moneta d’argento vecchio, but again, the second adjective appears to be modifying the following word (which is film). Actually, I need to find a better phrase which would allow both the head of the NP and the noun in the PP modifying the head to be qualified by the same adjective without sounding odd.

Later. Drat, drat, and double drat! I picked the wrong adjective. Vecchio is one of the small set of adjectives in Italian which normally precede the noun. Well, I did say that I needed a better phrase than this one. [You might want to mention something about knowing Italian a little better. –ed.]

Spessa fetta di pane “thick slice of bread” gets 71 results via Google, but fetta spessa di pane gets a mere 5. However, fette spesse di pane gets 320. On the other hand, fetta di pane spessa gets 62. What makes the last result interesting is that pane “bread” is masculine, which means that spessa must be agreeing with fetta “slice”. The plural form, fette di pane spesse gets 35, but spesse fette di pane 104.

I get a few hits for lucente medaglia d’oro/argento “a shiny gold/silver medal”, but nothing for medaglia d’oro/argento lucente. There’s one instance of lucida madaglia d’argento.

Moving on to another phrase, there are 41 results for scatola di fiammiferi vuota “empty box of matches”, but only one for vuota scatola di fiammiferi. Similarly, bottiglia di vino rotta gets 18 results and the plural form, bottiglie di vino rotte, gets 31, but neither rotta bottiglia di vino nor the plural, rotte bottiglie di vino, get any. On the other hand, bottiglia rotta di vino and bottiglie rotte di vino both get a few results each.

I think under the circumstances that I’ll go and have a shower and then set out the results properly in a new post.

National (American) Grammar Day.

Over on Language Log, Arnold Zwicky notes with a sigh that it’s National (omigod) Grammar Day in the States. He notes that Paul Kiparsky has observed that unlike some European countries, the English language has never had an official regulatory body.

Such an arrangement resonates with American free-enterprise ideals and also with the widespread American disdain for “experts” and “intellectuals”.

I assume he’s forgotten that there was talk about setting up an English Academy or some such at the end of the 17th century, long before the USA even existed. In the end, it all came to nothing, and obviously had nothing to do with the philosophy of American society.

An English Academy regulating the whole of the English-speaking world would be impossible today. Such a body could be set up in individual English-speaking countries, but it couldn’t (attempt to) regulate English in all of them because each country has its own variety which differs from the others to a greater or lesser extent. (And that’s not to mention other axes along which languages vary – age, gender, social status etc.) Besides, what’s the point? Languages aren’t exactly well-behaved. Tell them to do something and they’ll blow a raspberry at you.


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