Monday, 29 April 2013

Simpsons and more linguistic innovation

Yet again, I find myself noticing cute linguistic constructions in the Simpsons. Take this:
Marge: What did I say about joining La Cosa Nostra?
Bart: You said to not to.
And this:
Louie: Won't it be easier if we just take care of this Simpson lady?
Fat Tony: Louie, Louie, Louie, women are for taking care of, not 'taking care' of. 
The second one involves the use of the same string of words ('take care of someone') with two very different meanings (to look after vs to kill). We obviously do this all the time, using 'pick up' to mean 'elevate using the hands', 'pay' (as in 'pick up the bill'), 'seduce' and so on. It's not a problem. Context disambiguates. (Unless it doesn't, as in the memorable 'Comic Strip Presents...' when Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson mistakenly believe they're supposed to murder Nicholas Parsons when they are asked to 'take him out'.)

In this example, Fat Tony uses the two in the same sentence, in a kind of metalinguistic use. It's not quite true metalinguisticity, because that's when you refer to a word rather than use it, like 'How do you spell harlequin?'. Here, Fat Tony is using the phrase both times, but he is contrasting the different meanings. To do this, he will need to show contrast somehow. I saw this written down rather than heard it said, so I don't know for sure, but I'd put money on a contrastive intonation. If you imagine that someone says to you, 'You greedy pig, you've already had pizza once today', and then you correct them by saying, 'No, I had pizza yesterday, not today', then the stress on 'yesterday' and 'today' is your contrastive intonation. That'll be what Fat Tony uses on the two instances of 'take care of'. (He may also do bunny ears: in the written form, it's with inverted commas (or 'scare quotes').)

Now let's turn to the first example. This could just be a typo, of course, for 'You said not to', which would be the standard form. But that would be boring so let's assume it's not a typo. Given the frequency of language play in the Simpsons, I don't think that it's implausible. So Bart has an extra 'to' in there. What's it doing?

Imagine that Marge had told him not to go, rather than telling him not to [join La Cosa Nostra]. Then Bart could have said either of the following:
You said to not go.
You said not to go. 
'Not' can appear either before or after the infinitive marker 'to' (though the 'rules' would have you put it before so as to not split an infinitive). That's with an infinitive form of the verb, 'to go'. You can also omit the verb itself if it's repeated from before, leaving just the infinitive marker:
You said not to.
You said to not.
(The second one here isn't as good, but it's still acceptable, I think.) This is called ellipsis.

There are two explanations that spring to mind for Bart's utterance, 'You said to not to'. One is that he is using 'to' the second time as a stand-in for the elided material, in the same way that we might use 'do':
She said she'd get even, and she did. 
'Did' isn't in the first part of the sentence but we use it to replace the 'get even' which is omitted. Is that the reason for Bart using an extra 'to'? 'You said to not [join La Cosa Nostra]'? This isn't something which I've heard before, but it's not impossible. If Bart has a tendency to place the negation after the infinitive, then he either has to say 'You said to not', which (as noted) is a bit less natural than 'You said not to', or he has to say 'You said to not join them' or similar, which is more cumbersome. For maximum ellipsis without saying the less natural sentence, you need a stand in. 'Do' doesn't work in this case, because 'do' as a verb replacement is an auxiliary verb: not a main verb, but a 'helping' verb. In 'He did do all his homework', the first 'did' is an auxiliary and the second 'do' is a main (lexical) verb. 'Do' as an auxiliary can't occur with an infinitive 'to'; only the lexical one can. So we need a different verb replacement and what more appropriate than a word that's already associated with verbs, the infinitive marker 'to'?

The other explanation is that it's a speech error, like when people who wouldn't normally say 'might could' produce it because they 'forget' that they already said 'might' and then say 'could' as well. I'm hoping for the former, but if it is, there'll be other examples to find and testing to do, so let's get cracking.

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