Sunday, April 18, 2010

'to scrap', 'a scrap'

I’m only vaguely aware that scrapbook keeping has become a massive hobby, but had noticed that it had been verbed, 'to scrapbook'. This morning, I heard a shorter form, as a noun:
They had an all-day scrap.
Somebody else (who didn’t know the speaker) commented on that and the speaker gave a long explanation, including these points:
Yeah, we use it so much we shorten it, 'to scrap'. Pretty soon, it’s going to be just “scr” [skər] I guess. And when we say it, we don’t mean 'to get into a fight'.
Pretty good on-the-fly analysis from what I'm willing to bet was a non-linguist.

In fact, I had come into earshot just in time to hear only “they had an all-day scrap”, and they only way I could interpret that is as being about a fight. (The noun scrap is ambiguous, but in the sense of ‘remnant’ you wouldn’t normally have an all-day one, of course.

For some reason, as a person who doesn’t have any connection to morphology, I’m hearing constant cases where ‘blocking’ doesn’t seem to be working. Go figure.

Image from here.


James Crippen said...

Although I haven’t read much literature on it, blocking does not seem to me to be an all-or-nothing property. We know that the lexicon is not flat, i.e. not all words have the same frequency or context, and hence aren’t equally salient. There’s no reason why blocking has to be flat in contradiction with the lexicon.

I don’t know if people have really explored this much. An outstanding issue in theoretical morphology is that people focus heavily on European languages, even more so than generative syntax. For some reason the linguists who do morphological research don’t do much with non-European languages. So phenomena which would be obvious in some other language are taken to be deep and mysterious because they’re rare in European languages.

My example case is that Tlingit has a surprising number of homophonic verb roots with very distinct meanings. By rights these should be eliminated or prevented from occurring via historical change if blocking were as strict a property as it’s been claimed. But the semantic domains of these verb roots are such that they’re obviously distinct in context, so there’s really no need to concern oneself with blocking. I’m sure similar situations would be readily apparent in many other languages around the world, but most morphologists are too busy studying English and French.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. Yeah, blocking is clearly not all or nothing. I'm really intrigued by the suggestion that there are big differences across languages / families / areas. Another future project ...

Anonymous said...

Here's $20 that James is right ... even within European languages, I think there's real clear difference in this.