Thursday, March 5, 2015

Farflung Interdependencies

In certain languages, generally in their more formal style, you may come across a sentence that begins with, or otherwise contains, a stack of words  so inflected as to demand certain complements or governors elsewhere:  We may dub these “Morphosyntactic commitments”.   Classical Latin is emblematic of this.  Other languages, like Chinese and English, are not so structured (though there are nuances to add here, time permitting).

Familiar examples are bipartite constructions like “either … or…”  (German “entweder … oder”,  and (somewhat less structured) French “ou bien … ou bien”):  whenever you meet the word either in a sentence, you know that or cannot be far behind -- or rather, actually, in this case, it can be quite far behind;  but come it must.  Cf. and contrast French celui:   it must be followed by qui, but in this case, followed immediately.
German abounds in such twins, some of which lack counterparts in English (let alone French):  e.g., deshalb … daß /  deshalb …. weil.  As:

Das aber tritt deshalb kaum ins Bewußtsein, weil die Annahme oder Ablehnung ….
-- Hugo Schuchardt (1897), in Leo Spitzer, ed., Hugo Schuchardt-Brevier (1921; 2nd edn. 1928), p. 113

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For those of you who know German, see if you can write a grammatical sentence that contains the following phrase, taken from Freud’s Traumdeutung:
            der Universität der Enthüllung des dem
(Try it, seriously, before you Google an answer.)
If you do Google this, you get only the Freudian passage from which this is taken -- but that, for an uninteresting reason, namely the semantic specificity of the two nouns.  That is nothing to our purpose, which focuses rather on purely grammatical exigencies.  By contrast, the following snippet, from the same book, roughly equivalent in its function-word demands,
            in der die von ihnen
Googled as an exact phrase, yields over … seventy-seven million citations.  (See if you can write one.)  From the same source:  sich von den uns als.

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Was für Krimi liest wohl Dr. Sigmund Freud?
Schauen Sie mal!
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Or, try your hand at this one, from Golo Mann’s Deutsche Geschichte:
            die zu tun haben mochte mit
(No matches in Google.)

From Wittgenstein:

      Die die Philosophie zur
      (Philosophische Untersuchungen, #133)

From the Schuchardt-Brevier (p.125):
            Wie einem Sein oder Geschehen der Satz …

Id., p. 147:
           den der die

It would be interesting to know, how difficult (if at all) native speakers of German find it to complete those sentences.  (A friend of mine who is an American linguist didn’t even try, saying they reminded him of Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German Language”.)
Also:  Can anyone come up with examples of comparable intricacy, from, say, Spanish or French?
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That last example does not depend  for its complexity  upon inflected forms that require certain kinds of completion;  its intricacy stems from the hopping-about of particles amid the word-order, and the semantic non-additivity of small bland words combining into idioms.  Here is an (artificially constructed) example from English:
            to out of up for
Fit that into a comparatively natural and meaningful sentence!   (That example is sufficiently well-known among linguists  that you can easily google the answer.)


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This simple language-challenge (offered initially  simply in the spirit of those Sunday puzzles -- crosswords or acrostichs) turns out to be deeper and more iridescent  than I had imagined.  For one thing, certain non-native Deutschtümelnde  found the challenge baffling.  For another, certain broad dichotomies  come in to play.
(1) Active vs. Passive competence
[2 B continued, D.V. …]

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