Friday, June 29, 2007

More on -t- ~ -ss- alternations

A few months ago, I posted about a joke involving latinate derivational morphology in English, namely -t- ~ -ss-, where a break in the show at Second City was announced this way:
Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for intermission. Please intermiss.
The speaker undid the s > ʃ, but didn't reach back all the way to a t, like we have with transmit ~ transmission, remit ~ remission, and many more. I suggested that "Please intermit" would have been an odd, bookish-sounding joke (though that verb exists in a somewhat different meaning) and that the middle road taken here was a good one. (This differs from politics, where "there's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos", according to the great Texas populist Jim Hightower. See here.)

Well, a somewhat parallel case has come up on the big linguistics blogs, notably on Language Log, here. It starts with this from BoingBoing:
We feed kids gross things, but this reaches new levels of grotitude.
And in email to Mark Liberman of LL, Lynne Murphy of Separated by a Common Language raised, basically, the question of whether this was the latinate pattern. Liberman argues for a role of grody/grotty in prompting the t here. Plausible, for sure, but I don't know if I'm convinced yet. My form of the latter word is grody and I'd automatically spell the -tudiness form groditude. For those who have grotty, wouldn't you go with grottitude?

But he goes on to lay out very nicely how the -tude stuff bubbles around especially in old hacker slang. There's the hook for me: Ordinary humans may seem unlikely to work back from -ss- to -t-, but think about general computer and hacker slang plurals like these:
  • sg. ~ pl.
  • virus ~ virii
  • vax ~ vaxen
This is a specialized kind of play with language, obviously, and vaxen is presumably based on ox/oxen, not Latin. Besides, the kids these days hardly seem to know what vax is/was. Still, these examples suggest to me that -tudinous talk could include the -ss- ~ -t- alternation too.

By no means am I arguing that the above is the story and that the grody/grotty story is wrong — this seems like an area of language where multiple pressures pushing in one direction yield a particular outcome.


Nancy Friedman said...

For more on -tude, see the supergeniusitude entry at Mark Peters's Wordlustitude:

P.S. Love the Leet translator!

lynneguist said...

'Intermit' may sound funny in Second City, but it's an everyday word in British higher education!

(Thanks for re-opening the 't' debate!)

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, Wordlustitude is pretty much defining the frontier on this piece of derivational morphology.

I wouldn't have guessed that intermit was common in the UK. When I did that original post, I asked a couple of educated native speakers if they knew the word, and got something close to blank stairs. Separated by a common latinate vocabulary, maybe.