EXOCENTRIC INSULTS.

Ljiljana Progovac and John L. Locke have published an intriguing paper, “The Urge to Merge: Ritual Insult and the Evolution of Syntax” (you can download the pdf from that page; the article is, admirably, published under a Creative Commons license). Here’s the abstract:

Throughout recorded history, sexually mature males have issued humorous insults in public. These ‘verbal duels’ are thought to discharge aggressive dispositions, and to provide a way to compete for status and mating opportunities without risking physical altercations. But, is there evidence that such verbal duels, and sexual selection in general, played any role in the evolution of specific principles of language, syntax in particular? In this paper, concrete linguistic data and analysis will be presented which indeed point to that conclusion. The prospect will be examined that an intermediate form of ‘proto-syntax’, involving ‘proto-Merge’, evolved in a context of ritual insult. This form, referred to as exocentric compound, can be seen as a ‘living fossil’ of this stage of proto-syntax — providing evidence not only of ancient structure (syntax/semantics), but also arguably of sexual selection.

Their conclusion begins: “Not only do exocentric VN compounds suggest an ancient syntactic/combinatorial strategy, but their semantics and use also provide potential evidence of ritual insult and sexual selection at work, selecting for this basic/protosyntax.” Now, all of this is pretty hand-wavey and involves unhealthy dollops of Chomskyan syntax (like this Merge business), but it’s still an interesting idea, and of course I particularly enjoyed Section 4.4. “Availability across (Unrelated) Languages”:

Exocentric compounds are found across not only Indo-European languages, but also non-Indo-European languages, with intriguing parallels in their morphological and semantic make-up. In Tashelhit Berber, a language belonging to the Afro-Asiatic language family, which is spoken in Southern Morocco, ssum-sitan ‘suck-cow’ (insect) is closely parallel to Old English burst-cow, which also meant ‘insect’. In addition, the drinking image for a miser drynk-pany is reminiscent of ssum-izi (suck-fly) in Berber (see Progovac 2006, 2007, for discussion and for additional examples and parallels).
It seems that this type of compounding appears in this VN order even in head-final languages, such as German (Tauge-nichts, lit. ‘be.worth-nothing’ = ‘good-for-nothing’, Habe-nichts ‘have-nothing’, comparable to English dreadnought and know-nothing). It is not clear, however, if any correlation is expected between the ordering in exocentric compounds and the current word order in any particular language, for two reasons. First, according to Kayne’s (1994) approach to cross-linguistic variation in word order, all languages are underlyingly verb initial, and any surface deviations from this ordering would be derived by various movement operations. If VN compounds involve no movement, as we assume (see Progovac 2007), then, at least for those that involve an internal argument, it is to be expected that even head final languages would have VN ordering in these compounds.
Second, and regardless of whether or not one subscribes to Kayne’s (not uncontroversial) approach, we argue that the VN compounds found in present-day languages are fossils of some ancient stage of language, whose word order is thus not expected to be identical to that of any present-day languages. Needless to say, in-depth analyses of these exocentric compounds in additional languages, preferably by their native speakers (given that these compounds are hard or impossible to find in official reference books) would shed further important light on the ideas presented in this paper, and we hope that our paper will stimulate such research.

Of course, in my day we called those compounds “bahuvrihi,” not “exocentric.”
Thanks, bulbul!

Comments

  1. Does the host prefer another syntactic formalism to Chomskyan syntax, or is he categorically opposed to any and all formal theories of syntax as a matter of principle?

  2. This is very close to the idea of natural Syntax:
    http://linguistlist.org/pubs/papers/browse-papers-action.cfm?PaperID=31640

  3. Throughout recorded history, sexually mature males have issued humorous insults in public. These ‘verbal duels’ are thought to discharge aggressive dispositions, and to provide a way to compete for status and mating opportunities without risking physical altercations. But, is there evidence that such verbal duels, and sexual selection in general, played any role in the evolution of specific principles of language, syntax in particular?
    Surely linguists themselves provide evidence of the required sort ? Chomskyan linguistics is an insult to the intelligence.

  4. Just to be clear: the deep structures of Chomskyan linguistics are intended to be an “insult to the intelligence”.

  5. Does the host prefer another syntactic formalism to Chomskyan syntax, or is he categorically opposed to any and all formal theories of syntax as a matter of principle?
    I think it’s a pity that promising avenues of study got derailed for decades by Chomsky and his minions, but I have not followed the subject enough to have a favorite formalism.

  6. Trond Engen says:

    I sort of like it, but do they have any evidence at all?
    I’d want transcriptions of exchanges in different cultures. I’d like to see wordlists from a broad range of languages and a thorough examination of its age in each of them. Languages with long written traditions or early recordings of ancient oral traditions would be especially interesting. How did the antagonists of the Homerian, or Vedic, or whatever-can-be-found-in-Chinese greet eachother? Is there any trace in Assyrian or Sumerian? The invoking of an ancient ritual or institution like the ON mannjafnaðr would stand stronger if followed by some actual examples from the oldest written sources. The Icelandic sagas are pretty much all about personal feudes and court procedure, interspersed with memorable poetic insults attributed to the characters; the Edda poems are replete with ancient phrases and forms. Also, their treatment of the fact that a great deal of their examples (e.g. ‘pali-drvce’ and ‘cry-baby’) look like regular “endo-centric” VN compounds (“rowboat” type) smacks of handwaving.
    And how universal is it? Are recent Mediterranean areal loans ruled out? Are there examples from Australia and Native America? Or even from East Asia?

  7. All excellent questions which I doubt they can answer. My reaction is the same: I sort of like it, but…

  8. Kizholog says:

    While this article may *appear* to offer “unhealthy dollops of Chomskyan syntax”, it is actually at best a piece of amusing speculation that makes informal allusions to a few concepts of “Chomskyan syntax”. There is plenty of real grammatical research out there that makes arguments and tests hypotheses on the basis of evidence. Don’t judge a research community by everyone who wraps himself in its flag. That’s no fairer in an academic field than it is anywhere else in life.

  9. Tom Recht says:

    These compounds aren’t bahuvrihis, they’re terpsimbrotos compounds. Both are types of exocentric compound, but a terpsimbrotos has the form ‘verb-noun’ and means ‘one who [verb]s [nouns]‘, e.g. ‘pickpocket’, while a bahuvrihi has the form ‘adjective-noun’ or ‘noun-noun’ and means ‘one whose [noun] is [adjective/noun], e.g. ‘barefoot’.

  10. Terpsimbrotos: now there’s a concept to conjure with. I can think of two mesocentric phrases for which, unfortunately, the actual verbale Rektionskomposita escape me at the moment: “one whose goose is cooked”, and “one whose ass is grass”. The latter may also be an example of rektales Graminoidopositum.

  11. Handwaving?
    Shouldn’t that be “wave-hand(ing)”??

  12. Charles Perry says:

    I guess this argument explains the ubiquitous English insult “fuckmother,” huh?

  13. marie-lucie says:

    I would probably read this paper if I didn’t have to unload it: my first reaction was that it must be a spoof. It could still be, even if it was accepted by a presumably learned journal.
    The order V+N for a compound noun meaning “person performing the verb’s action on the noun” is typical of the Romance languages, not the Germanic languages (eg Italian last names include a large number of such compounds). It seems to me that words like pickpocket, turnkey or cutthroat (which are hardly to be considered “insults” of the kind that young males might enjoy hurling at each other, and which are of a type that is rare and unproductive in English) are following the French pattern and are probably no more relevant to normal English word-order than titles such as attorney-general (rowboat, although consisting of V + N, is not the same type of compound: it means “boat propelled by rowing”, not “person who rows a boat”). The same thing goes for German Tauge-nichts, which is probably a literal translation from French vaurien (from ne vaut rien “is worth nothing”).
    From the short excerpts quoted it looks like the authors are picking words that they consider insulting from various languages and generalizing about such insults without considering the general structure of those languages, let alone their cultural history (eg the French influence on English or German at different times).
    Unless someone gives more convincing arguments, I will remain extremely skeptical that the paper has much to offer except light entertainment.

  14. marie-lucie, Duden says this about the derivation of Taugenichts: [älter: togenicht, mniederd. döge-, dogenicht(s)]. I hadn’t noticed it before as such, but indeed most of the German compounds I can think of follow the N+V pattern. Taugenichts and Habenichts ([mhd. habeniht]) are a bit old-fashioned.
    Also, nichts is not a noun but an indefinite pronoun, according to Duden. nichts is “essentially” a genitive singular left over from an intensifying form “nothing of nothing”, i.e. “absolutely nothing”: [mhd. niht(e)s, eigtl. Gen. Sg. von: niht, entstanden aus der Verstärkung mhd. nihtes niht= nichts von nichts].
    The noun Nichts takes an article, as in Sartre’s Das Sein und das Nichts, or in vor dem Nichts stehen (the position you are in when you have suddenly lost all your worldly goods, through some catastrophe). This is not the nichts in Taugenichts and Habenichts.

  15. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks, Grumbly. It looks like Taugenichts may be older than I thought, and if your source is right, that word and Habenichts are not the type that the paper is about.

  16. Taugenichts is clearly borrowed from the Dutch deugniet (see Liedje 15, which was the context in which I learned it).

  17. Des follows Johannes Goropius Becanus on questions relating to etymology.

  18. Duden backs him up here – the world according to Gorp. Old Beccy was on to something, even though “Leibniz coined the term ‘goropism’ to mean ‘absurd etymology’ “. We are all goroping for the truth, and Des is our Bladet.

  19. Duden, Des, Gorp, and the editors of the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal are obviously part of a vast conspiracy aiming at Dutch supremacy.

  20. “promising avenues of study got derailed for decades by Chomsky and his minions”?????
    Evil Chomsky, gleefully chortling as he rubs his hands together while crouched in the Syntactic Formalism Cave, mutters muted commands to his minions.
    Come on! If you’re gonna make asides like this, at least explain them. As it stands, you and Grumbly Stu lose credibility with the average reader (such as myself) when posting such harsh asides about a famous intellectual figure. Obviously politics plays a role here. How?

  21. And I’m still waiting for someone to answer the question posed by Wimbrel in the first comment on this post.

  22. Obviously politics plays a role here. How?
    Don’t be ridiculous. If you’re the kind of person who seeks out political undercurrents everywhere, this may not be the blog for you. I have written about Chomsky many times; use the search box in the right margin. Furthermore, it is not some personal quirk of mine—many, many linguists who did not drink the Kool-Aid back in the decades when Chomskyites rode roughshod over the world of linguistics feel the same way. If you want to go smugly off thinking I’m some deluded right-winger, be my guest, but I’m not going to do your research for you.

  23. They all loathe Chompsky here, dveej.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    I think what Hat means to say is that we’re all deluded here, but we’ve lost all sense of left and wrong.
    I for one don’t loathe Chomsky, I haven’t even read him. But I do throw away a published aticle if it contains arguments beginning with “In 1998 Chomsky said that …”

  25. Kizholog says:

    Shame about the Chomsky rants and name-calling, because they mar an otherwise really literate and contentful blog. Too bad you’re such jerk-knee hate-Chomskies.

  26. Apparently “tosspot compounds”, as they are sometimes called in English, used to be a common and productive type, but no longer: perhaps the most recent one to come into fairly widespread use is “scofflaw”. Quoth the Online Etymology Dictionary (which is usually quite reliable):
    scofflaw: 1924, from scoff + law. The winning entry in a national contest during Prohibition to coin a word to characterize a person who drinks illegally, chosen from more than 25,000 entries; the $200 winning prize was split between two contestants who sent in the word separately, Henry Irving Dale and Miss Kate L. Butler. Other similar attempts did not stick, cf. pitilacker (1926), winning entry in Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals contest to establish a scolding word for one who is cruel to animals (submitted by Mrs. M. McIlvaine Bready of Mickleton, N.J.).
    Nowadays “scofflaw” is most often applied to traffic violators who ignore their summonses.
    Also, I post here quite often, and I am not a hate-Chomsky.

  27. Kizholog: Shame about the Chomsky rants and name-calling, because they mar an otherwise really literate and contentful blog. Too bad you’re such jerk-knee hate-Chomskies.
    Now, now ! I thought you were trying to get the exchanges here into a form “that makes arguments and tests hypotheses on the basis of evidence”, as you wrote above. But then you throw a hissy fit when at first you don’t succeed.
    Clearly the productions at this site conform to an LC grammar which you seem to know, but demonstrate no competence in. LC stands for “literate and contentful”. But it’s just another grammar, so why get upset ?
    Your search for political implications in what has been said here is soooo sixties – just the kind of Chomsky/ML cadre-thought that was in fashion then. Of course Chomsky is no more to blame for this than the termite queen is for what the workers do.

  28. Cruber Liben says:

    Bravo, Grumbly!

  29. Kizholog says:

    Grumbly Stu, you appear to be mixing up my comments with dveej’s. As far as I know, we are two different people.

  30. Kizholog says:

    Oh, and by the way, I was also not “trying to get the exchanges here into a form ‘that makes arguments and tests hypotheses on the basis of evidence’. I wouldn’t presume, and didn’t.
    All I did was ask that we not judge the “Chomskyan program” in linguistics on the basis of the inadequacies of the Progovac-Locke article.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    Chomsky based his “universal grammar” (UG) on the structure of English. As more and more adjustments are needed to adapt the structures of other languages (and of some features of English itself) to this so-called UG, more and more linguists have been disenchanted by the theory. Nevertheless, it is still so influential that apprentice linguists have to learn it, often to the detriment of their learning to analyze the syntax of other languages: features of those languages are not considered to be of interest if they cannot be fitted into this or that aspect of the theory.
    Persons outside of linguistics who are aware of the impact Chomskyan theory had in its early days (it is true that it greatly invigorated the study of syntax) are not necessarily aware of the disenchantment and the linguistic reasons for it, and tend to attribute it to other causes. For instance, an article in Le Monde a few months ago deplored the lack of attention paid to Chomsky “the greatest living linguist” by French linguists on his recent visit to France, a country where Chomsky’s ideas had been enthusiastically received early on. It is true that a few of Chomsky’s political statements have not been so well-received, but that would not greatly affect the impact of his linguistic theories if they were still indeed particularly fruitful.

  32. marie-lucie says:

    It is true that a few of Chomsky’s political statements have not been so well-received, but that would not greatly affect the impact of his linguistic theories if they were still indeed particularly fruitful.
    By “they” here I mean the theories, not the political statements.

  33. Apart from being a Dutch supremaciste[1], in matters of formal linguistics my sympathies are mostly Montagovian. (It’s the lambdas.)
    [1] I wouldn’t worry, they get nosebleeds above sea-level.

  34. Kizholog says:

    In response to Marie-Lucie’s remark:
    “features of those languages are not considered to be of interest if they cannot be fitted into this or that aspect of the theory”
    I think that just the opposite is true. Not only is there an enormous amount of work within “Chomskyan linguistics” on all sorts of languages, but also it’s precisely the features that challenge “this or that aspect of the theory” that interest people the most.
    Here’s a suggestion. The papers on the LingBuzz website provide a realistic, unfiltered view of this corner of linguistics — what people really work on and what approaches they really take. Have a look. Bear in mind, if you go there, that there’s no peer review on LingBuzz. It’s an open archive. As a result, the quality is mixed — and no doubt you can cherry-pick papers that will confirm your worst suspicions about Chomsky and his minions. Have fun with “Do animals have Universal Grammar?” but also have a look at the many serious papers that are precisely about “features of languages” that “cannot be fitted into this or that aspect of the theory” — for example “On distributivity in Karitiana”, “Complementation in Chol (Mayan)” or “Faroese wh-nominals” (picking examples at random). Even taking the bad along with the good, I think you’ll see a very different field from the one represented in comments like Marie-Lucie’s.

  35. I’m OK with Chomsky’s politics and am occasionay accused of Chomskyism, but indifferent to his linguistics. Chomsky-baiting is a regular feature of LH, but it’s purely linguistically based and I’m OK with it.
    However, I wouldn’t trust a linguist / organist /real estate investor who invited people into his home to kill him either.

  36. Kizholog says:

    My URL for LingBuzz had a typo. Try this instead. Sorry!

  37. Kizholog, my own remarks were neither literate nor contentful, of course. My agenda is to highlight with sarcasm, not encumber with arguments. My original comment about an intentional “insult to the intelligence” was serious enough, though – what I was referring to was Chomsky’s anti-mentalism.
    Chomsky certainly made fundamental mathematical contributions to IT in the 50s, but his subsequent work on linguistics has never been plausible to me. I have read very little Chomsky, but what I did read I found hard to understand because of the slippy-slidey arguments. I just found an excerpt from Language and Mind (1968) on the net which confirms what I felt when I originally read it.
    Levaing Chomsky himself aside, I consider computational linguistics to be an arcade game for lonely men. I hardly need stress that these are emotional, non-scientific remarks per agenda.

  38. John: I’m OK with Chomsky’s politics
    Same here, essentially, once the paranoia is eliminated.

  39. mostly Montagovian
    I see that it was Montague who first proved that ZFC cannot be finitely axiomatized. Sigh, yet another book I want to read for all-too-human reasons:

    Montague was an accomplished organist and a successful real estate investor. He died violently in his own home; the crime is unsolved to this day. Feferman and Feferman [Alfred Tarski: A Life] argue that he usually went to bars “cruising” and bringing people home with him. On the day that he was murdered, he brought home several people “for some kind of soirée”, but they instead robbed his house and strangled him.

  40. Comments like Marie-Lucie’s? There are no comments like m-l’s. We love m-l.

  41. Shame about the Chomsky rants and name-calling, because they mar an otherwise really literate and contentful blog.
    I’m sorry you feel that way, but you’ll just have to put up with it. I am not some random nut with an inexplicable prejudice, I have a master’s degree in linguistics and took graduate courses in Chomskyan grammar. I know whereof I speak. I don’t claim to be omniscient or infallible, but I’m not going to hide my beliefs. (I don’t like the New York Yankees either.)

  42. I’d be okay with his politics if he ever once said there was something he liked. Does he like swans? Poetry?

  43. He loves goats, AJP. Maybe a little too much, if you know what I mean (and I think you do).

  44. I should add that I’m not enforcing any kind of anti-Chomsky orthodoxy on the site. People can, and have, supported Chomsky and his theories here; I’m always happy to hear opposing views, and sometimes I learn from them. But I don’t expect to have my mind changed.

  45. I hear that Chomsky is annotating Strunk & White from the transformational-grammar point of view in order to make it more scientific and contemporary.

  46. I’d be okay with his politics if he ever once said there was something he liked.
    The Quakers. The intellectual climate at MIT. His friend Howard Zinn. His daughter Aviva.
    All of which have some political angle.
    Are you in now?

  47. MIT is the wrong thing to like.

  48. I’m happy they have a political angle. His political commentary is only censorious and I think that’s made it less valuable than it might have been. I love the guy in some ways. I wish I could talk off the cuff like this (about animals), for example.
    M went to MIT, John. It can’t be all bad.

  49. M went to MIT and T went to MIT, but I didn’t go to MIT.

  50. I love the MIT Press logo, it’s one of the best logos ever. It’s just a bunch of shifted lines, but seen at a distance on the spine of a book it quite clearly spells mitp. Designed by the great, late Muriel Cooper.

  51. His political commentary is only censorious and I think that’s made it less valuable than it might have been.
    Chomsky’s politics only make sense in the context of an academic game where the “truth” is arrived at by each side taking an entrenched and extreme position and arguing it vehemently. Chomsky lent his prestige to this event, which took some courage (although that’s what he does). Chomsky is also popular in some philosophy circles, not because people agree with him, but because they have to engage in a lot of original thought to figure what is wrong with what he is saying–it’s simply a starting point for nuanced analysis.
    As far as Chomsky’s linguistics, I looked at one of the pieces recommended by Kizholog and couldn’t make head or tail out of it. Likewise with the Chomsky I studied briefly for teaching credentials, and likewise in talking to my cousin who has all the Chomsky books and has taken all the Chomsky courses. I’m very suspicious of something that can’t be explained in plain English. On the other hand, the linguistic explanations given by languagehat and marie-lucie make sense right off the bat, and if some time is spent in googling the terminology, the non-linguist can learn even more from their insights.

  52. With all due respect, the idea that [anarcho-]syndicalism is too extreme to be genuine, that is, practical politics was addressed by Sorel, who died a few years before Chomsky was born.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    Nijma, thank you, but it is not quite fair to compare what is being written here about language and linguistics (for intelligent people who are not linguists) with papers written by linguists for other linguists, such as the ones in LingBuzz recommended by Kizholog. Those papers which are aligned with Chomsky’s theories tend to be particularly abstruse, but even those which are not so aligned can be hard going if you don’t have the relevant background. Similarly, I like to read articles about science or archeology written for non-specialists, but not those in professional journals in those disciplines, which are full of arcane details which mean little or nothing to the average educated person, who is unfamiliar with the problems and the technical jargon and has no idea of why the research and results described might be important or not, and in what context.

  54. I don’t know anyone who knows Chomsky personally who dislikes him as a human being (as distinct from strongly criticizing his theories, actions, or statements). I welcome counterexamples.

  55. marie-lucie says:

    I have heard from people who have done graduate work in linguistics at MIT that it is impossible to survive there if you disagree with Chomsky.

  56. the idea that [anarcho-]syndicalism is too extreme to be genuine, that is, practical politics was addressed by Sorel
    I had no idea the Anarchist family was so large–or of Chomsky’s role in it. It seems that these academics are redefining other groups to fit their own world view. I also suspect that the “Israel Lobby” they describe is not so monolithic as they make out.

  57. I mean the U of C academics who invited Chomsky.

  58. “I toyed with anarchy once, but on reading into the subject found that there were as many kinds of anarchy as there are of democracy. There are plain anarchists and syndicalist anarchists and deviationist anarchists and, for all I know, syndicalist deviationist anarchists. There’s as much anarchy in anarchy as in any political philosophy.”
         —Tully Bascomb in Leonard Wibberley, The Mouse That Roared.

  59. It’s unfortunate that Chomsky is demonized. While I dislike his politics, his linguistic insights, especially transformational grammar, are amazing.

  60. His main “insight” was actually that of his teacher, Zellig Harris. His further “insights” are bunk. Amazing bunk, if you will, but bunk.

  61. Poor editing of the Wikipedia makes it less than clear that it was an affinity for Harris’s politics that steered Chomsky in the direction of formal linguistics.

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