Another accident

Thanks guys for all the great comments about accidentally taking another guy’s loaf of bread. I share all your intuitions, and I definitely should have realized the parallels to accidentally kicking someone you didn’t mean to kick, or accidentally eating something you didn’t mean to (being a vegetarian myself). So let me ask a follow-up, which will lead to why I asked the first question.

Question 2: could you describe the situation as Sal accidentally took a loaf of bread?

I think not. Without anything in the sentence to contrast the real state-of-affairs with Sal’s mistaken view of the world, “accidentally” doesn’t work. Everything in the sentence is consistent with what Sal meant to do.

The first thing this means is that accidentally is one of those adverbs that creates a non-monotonic context. That is, normally Sal took Tom’s loaf of bread entails Sal took a loaf of bread because a loaf includes Tom’s loaf. But when you add accidentally, the entailment stops working (assuming my intuitions about Question 2 are correct).

Now, why did I ask the original question? It seemed that in many “accidentally”-sentences, there are alternatives: Jack’s ass vs Sal’s in Erik’s comment. If there were two loaves of bread, then there would be an alternative: Sal took Tom’s loaf instead of his own. But in the situation I concocted, there was really only one loaf: just different ways it could relate to different people. Sal didn’t take one loaf rather than another; he took a loaf thinking it had property X when it really had property Y. And that’s enough, I suppose, to license the description “accidentally.”

So then there’s another question. Let’s say Sal walks through Tom’s property, and let’s say that (for some reason irrelevant to us) that is illegal. But Sal doesn’t know that. Did he accidentally walk through Tom’s property? Where Sal thinks Tom’s property has attribute X (legal-to-walk-through) when it has attribute Y (illegal-to-walk-through).

An accident?

Situation: Sal and Tom are office-mates. Sal eats sandwiches for lunch and so often has a loaf of bread in the office. One day, after a period of about a week without any bread in the office, Tom (in uncharacteristic manner) buys a loaf of bread that he intends to use for lunch – but Sal isn’t aware of this. Tom leaves it in the office and goes home. The next day it is gone: Sal took it home. Sal wasn’t able to recall if he had bought any bread recently (in fact he had not), but concluded it must be his because Tom never buys bread.

Question: can anyone (Sal, Tom, or some other individual) characterize what happened as: Sal accidentally took home Tom’s loaf of bread.

Do words say stuff about culture, again

Over at LL, Geoff Pullum started a discussion on what the existence of certain lexical items says, if anything, about the culture (let’s say “linguistic community”) in which that lexical item lives. His line (a reasonable one) is, as always, that it says zilch. Well, go over and read the comments. I have my own contribution, but it was getting long, so I’m dumping it here, with no refinements whatsoever.

Perhaps this has been said and I missed it, but here goes: simply finding a word in a dictionary that doesn’t explain modern usage and variation of usage probably means nothing for sociocultural analysis. But, if speakers of Scotts Gaelic went around talking about whiskey-tingling all the time, or if every mention of a person involved mentioning their hetero/homosexuality, that would no doubt tell you something about (some parts of) the culture. But that’s how a word is used, or even that a word is used, not that a word exists. They’re not unrelated (duh), but quite different things.

Now, might one not make a distinction between the motivations behind the coinage of a word (or compound word; and I dare say that such motivations exist) and the ramifications (if any) of the widespread recognition and use of that word? In any field of study there is a special terminology, but the existence of those words (so long as they remain “terminology”) tells you not much other than that such a field exist(s/ed), and that some phenomena exist(s/ed) to be so named. But it’s not nothing. Some linguists do find it useful to explore the technological vocabulary that can be reconstructed for PIE, after all.

I’d say that the same goes for words with “expressive content” (to use Chris Potts’ term). The fact that words like “(a) homo” or “stingy” (compare “thrifty”) have attached to them some (let’s say) affective meaning says something at least about the sorts of stances taken towards sorts of activities. It says nothing about the culture as a whole (assuming such a thing exists), but the existence (and, potentially, persistence in everyday use) of the word can’t be taken as a mere accident of word coinage. [PS: one can always debate about the linguistic status of such content, I suppose]

In other cases, some coherent subculture may take to using a new word, or an old word with a different meaning, and then this word becomes used widely in the larger linguistic community (or maybe there were several steps in between). At each step, the reasons for adopting the word are no doubt complex and unknowable without a lot of time and mindreading abilities, and once a word like “gay” or whatever becomes widespread it probably doesn’t tell you anything about the culture of the linguistic community as a whole. If lexical-semantic change and spread is anything like phonetic change and spread, then the reasons for the existence of a word probably has little to do with the meaning per se and more to do with how speakers dealt with a new word – what social contexts in which to use it, how often to use it, etc. (NB: IANAS[ociophonetician]). But I’m open to the idea that lexical-semantic change and spread is actually lexical-semantically influenced — but not necessarily consciously. People surely pay attention to the meanings of the words they use, but if lexical semanticists have a job to do, most of the fine distinctions in meaning are inaccessible.

A non-rule I don’t have

The other night someone I was with mentioned a nauseous smell. I thought: huh, interesting! I was of the impression that nauseous was an experiencer-taking predicate (I feel nauseous, nauseous individuals), and that this (and no doubt many other) individuals had done the experiencer/stimulus dance to let that which causes nausea be called nauseous.

I later became rather embarrassed that I hadn’t remembered the old fake usage guideline that, in fact, nauseous is only to be used for the stimulus, and nauseated only for the experiencer. So in effect I not only didn’t have that guideline in my grammar, I felt sure (momentarily) that the standard was the exact opposite!

Now, first off, if you look in any dictionary or usage guide you’ll see that experiencer-nauseous is widely accepted and basically unexceptional. At the same time, nauseated is said to be rather rare (whether the frequencies take into account the sense of nauseous is unclear; the lexeme is overall more frequent on Google, though interestingly not in the BYU TIME corpus).

But further, I asked myself if I even make the distinction between nauseous and nauseated, ever. Certainly I don’t think I use stimulus-nauseous. Do I use nauseated? I have no idea. I don’t think so, but I couldn’t guarantee it. There must be some reason I thought the nauseous smell use was non-standard, and I don’t think it’s because I had done some sort of strange prescriptive rule-reversal.

(Then there’s the unambiguously stimulus-selecting nauseating, and I’m pretty sure I use that.)

So, in conclusion…valence alternations and semantic change: it’s weird! (or am I weird from it?)

(for fun, search Google or whatever for “nauseated smell”)