Monday, May 30, 2011

Nineteenth Word: Dissertation

dissertation: 1610s "discussion, debate," from L. dissertationem, from dis- "apart"  + serere "to arrange words"

I suppose it's time to introduce you to my new on-again-off-again friend Dissertation. We met a while back, mid-April I believe. My professor introduced us. She's obsessed with compound words. Not any old compound words, mind you, but the kind you find in newspaper headlines. Things like 'Greek Debt Talks Widen Euro-Zone Divisions'. I think she's collecting them. You know, when I met her I thought we had a lot in common: a shared interest in words, linguistic persuasions of the lexicalist kind - I mean, I had just finished up a course on English Word Formation. Loved it! So I thought, sure, I'll give her a chance. Well, she dropped a bomb on me a few days later. I thought she was a Lexicalist but I come to find out over a nice cup of tea that she is kind of against that. She said she has onomasiological tendencies. Tendencies, ha! That's like the president of the NRA saying he has "conservative tendencies"! I was really mad that she had been lying to me this whole time. In hindsight though, there were signs. She kept hinting at it, giving me new "reading material". 

You should be glad to know she hasn't converted me. But I'm giving her side a chance. Truly, I like wrestling with her assertions and coming up with counter examples. But really, that's not my tendency as a linguist. I tend to hear a new theory and try and work with it (although this one's a toughie). We've been working through our differences for over a month now and while her theory is pretty progressive, it's still relatively new and there are definitely some holes. What's interesting to me though is she still hasn't given me any good reasons to think her collection of newspaper headline compounds actually work within the framework of her theory. So I've decided to take that task on and run a study, with the help of all of you, to see if we can make some headway. 

Let me explain a few terms you came across in the above paragraphs (if you're still reading, that is). Lexicalism is a theory of word formation (you know...forming words...) in which there are distinct processes like compounding (sailboat), attaching suffixes and prefixes (industrialize, restart), and several others. Lexicalism, the name, comes from the idea of the mental lexicon, which is just the dictionary we have in our heads of all the words we know. My word formation class focused on this school of thought. 

Onomasiologists, however, don't believe that compounding and suffixation etc are separate processes. Semantically (semantic has to do with meaning), all these processes have the same relationships. In other words, the words are related in the same way whether or not you compound or attach a suffix. For example, driver is "someone (the -er suffix) who drives" while a chairman is "someone (man) who chairs". both man and -er mean "someone who does something (a verb usually)". driver is formed adding a suffix while chairman is a compound. It seems the processes aren't different semantically. 

It seems that onomasiology makes sense from this standpoint and it would be pretty complicated to explain why I still hold the Lexicalist view. But I am trying to see how far Onomasiology can stretch as a theory to account for data that hasn't been studied - compounds that consist of 3 or more words (one of my favorites comes from The Atlantic: 'Russian Robot Collie Patent Sketches'. yes, Russian patent sketches for a robot dog. or is it patent sketches for a Russian robot dog? or is it sketches for a Russian patent of a robot dog?) See, the semantics -relationship between words- gets a little weird when you have so many parts.... So that's where you come in. I'm going to test your instincts as to what compounds like 'Russian Robot Collie Patent Sketches' mean. And then I'm going to see how well this Onomasiology Theory stands up to my data. 

Bless you for sticking with this til the end. I promise I won't make you read my dissertation ;)

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