Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Bear cats aren't cats. Or bears.

This tweet appeared in my timeline today:
All of this is useful and important information, and it's cool how things get to be named things that they aren't, but the linguistic point I wanted to make is in relation to the last one.

Each of these has two parts to its name, either an adjective plus a noun (slow+worm, horny+toad) or two nouns (killer+whale, bear+cat). (I've analysed 'killer' as a noun here, but I suppose it might be an adjective too - it doesn't much matter.) In each case, it's the second part that tells you the type of thing that it is (or isn't): a worm, a toad, a whale, a cat. That's because when you put two things together in language, you (nearly) always have one that's the 'head' and the other part modifies the head in some way. Here, it tells you what type of worm/toad/whale it is: a slow one, a horny one, a killer one. This is a general fact of English: the Right-Hand Head Rule.

This means that even when the two parts of a compound are nouns and either could theoretically be the head (a bear cat could be a type of cat or a type of bear), we interpret the right-hand element as the head. This is evident from the wording of the tweet, where we're told they're not a type of cat, and the fact that they're also not bears is added as a humorous parenthetical, just in case we were tempted to think that.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The object of sleep

A while back, I wrote a post about what appeared to be a causative alternation with the verb wait: I said They wait you in the bookshop. In that post, I said 'sleep doesn't have an object', and this is true: it's the prototypical example linguists use of an intransitive verb (i.e. one that doesn't have an object).

Language is a flexible beast, though, and you can get things like I slept the whole night through, where one might argue that the whole night is an object. But this isn't so clear cut, as you might prefer to say that the whole night through is an adverbial phrase modifying the verb slept, the same as if it was I slept all night or I slept for ages.

However, last week I heard an example where sleep definitely did have an object, and it was the same sort of construction as the wait example in my earlier post. I was on holiday at a folk festival with some friends, including an 11-year-old boy. His mum commented on the fact that he'd only had a short nap, and he said I know but it slept me enough. In this sentence, the subject is it (the nap) and the object is me (i.e. the sleeper). I think that's quite cool.