Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Expletive Infixations from Patterns in the Mind

Now that I've actually started reading Patterns in the Mind, by Ray Jackendoff, which I used for that 5th sentence meme, I came across a funny section I wanted to write about. First, though, you have to know that I love grammar; I mean really, I do. (I might not always use it correctly--so don't hold me to anything.) I love learning the grammar of any foreign language I might be studying, too. I don't know why.

And my children seem to have not inherited that particularly fascinating trait. :) [Funny aside here, though--Emily claims she hates grammar one night at the dinner table, then two sentences later corrects something Thomas said. Ha!] There's just something about knowing the framework for it all, the rules, that I enjoy. Call me strange, I don't care, and it wouldn't be the first time. It would probably have been uttered the first time by my brother about 34 years ago, when he was two.

So in the third chapter of this book, "The argument for innate knowledge," Jackendoff asks how we come to understand certain sentence patterns that certainly haven't been taught to us by the time we're using them. His first example is of these four sentences:

  • Joan appeared to Moira to like herself.
  • Joan appeared to Moira to like her.
  • Joan appealed to Moira to like herself.
  • Joan appealed to Moira to like her.

Each implies something totally different. Nobody taught us as young children what the differences are and why--reflexive pronouns, the difference between "appear" and "appeal," etc. We just understand. We don't work it out on a worksheet in 4th grade before we start using these complexities of grammar and language.

Anyway, he goes on to another example which really tickled me, and for two reasons. One reason is just that his examples are funny, the other is that there's actually a grammatical term for this: "It's not the Allegheny River! I'm talking about the Susque-goddam-hanna!" Inserting an expletive in the middle of a word, which Jackendoff says "many speakers perform on words of English under conditions of extreme exasperation," is called an "expletive infixation," and actually is a defined grammatical term. Made my day!

Some more examples from the book: uni-goddam-versity, manu-fuckin-facturer. I'm sure you have your own favorites. :) But then there are some words that it just doesn't work for, no matter how badly you want to infix an expletive: Jacken-bloody-doff, ele-goddam-phant. Just doesn't sound right, does it? And for the words it does work on, we are rather precise about where those expletives must be infixed (I'm having fun with this new term!). We couldn't say un-goddam-iversity, for example.

His point is that none of use were actually taught what the principles or patterns are that allow us to do this to some words and not to others. (And because I know you want to know what that rule is: "the infix sounds right only when it immediately precedes the syllable of the word with main stress--"Susquehanna," "university," and "manufacturer."" Try it out on a few words yourself, you'll see. He does write that there are further complexities to this lovely principle, but he won't go into them in this book. I'll have to find the book where he does!

And so, even adults aren't aware of the grammatical rules that apply to most of the things we say; all we can do is provide examples of the correct ways to say them. "Now, Emily and Thomas, how many times have I told you, you can't say "bro-goddam-ther" or "televisi-flippin-on," but you could say "com-flippin-puter" or "tele-goddam-vision"?" Tell me, how many times have you wanted to correct your child on that one? Here's a really fun example: god-fuckin-dammit. An expletive infixed into another expletive! I love it! You know you've heard that one before--don't act shocked.

The author goes on to say that we can draw the conclusion that humans can "acquire unconscious patterns unconsciously, with little or no deliberate training." Which so nicely ties into unschooling. I knew I'd get to work it in here somehow. "Perhaps we shouldn't even call such a process "learning," but for lack of a better word, let's leave the terminology alone." Thanks, Ray! I think you can apply this idea of unconscious acquisition to knowledge of many types, not just language. Everyday stuff, mathematical concepts, natural sciences, lots more. Kids will learn without being taught.

Well, there's more to read, so I'll end here! I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Stumble Upon Toolbar


piscesgrrl said...

You are totally cracking me up! I love that it has a name, too. And whenever I see one typed out, I get the giggles.

One of my faves? Halle-freakin'-lujah! Maybe it's the juxtaposition of an expletive in a holy word. The former Catholic grrrl in me is wearing a very naughty grin right now.

Silvia said...

I would like to thank Laura for her contribution, and ask that any readers who have expletive infixations they'd like to tell us about, please do so in the comments. :)