Saturday, April 07, 2007

Morphophonology in verbing: How much do you want?

On a quick visit to Chicago, the missus and I went to see Second City. Pretty small club, but when you look at the names of the alums, it's stunning. The first name on the list, literally, was Alan Alda. You have all the Saturday Night Live folks, of course. And they have a few pix around of "Steve" Colbert. The show was "Between Barack and a Hard Place" and it didn't disappoint. What six people can do on a basically empty stage for almost two hours is impressive. (Including a nice Chicago dialect piece ... an audio tour of the Art Institute.)

But of course two hours on stage is hard, and they do take a little break in the middle. At the end of a segment, the voice of one of the players comes over the PA from backstage:
Ladies and gentlemen, it is time for intermission. Please intermiss.
Hurrah! More verbing humor. I live for it. This plays on a really nice piece of English phonology and morphology. The 'sh' sound in words like mission, [ʃ], varies systematically, as linguist readers already know: we have transmission but transmissible (with [s]), but the verb is transmit. (Same basic patterns holds for permit, remit, and so on.) So, they are playing in rich territory.

This guy chose neither a simple cropping, to intermi[ʃ], nor the back-formation, to intermi[t]. None of these is a common English word (I assume few in the audience knew to intermit,'to discontinue'), so any is a potential candidate for playful invention, I figure. Intermish would sound odd, even to me, and you'd avoid that. But intermit would probably be to far removed for most people — a bookish joke at best, and you might have the vague sense that it's a word even if you don't know that word. Undoing the pretty directly phonological piece here ([s] becomes [ʃ]) felt natural, but going all the way to [t] (which seems pretty divorced from sound patterns to me — it feels more like something about word forms) apparently didn't.

Maybe that middle option is like Goldilocks' third bear said: "just right".


Anonymous said...

I remember a history and philosophy of science class that I was in a few years ago. We were discussing tension and, for some reason, the adjective that describes the state of being under tension completely eluded me. I was left mid-sentence to back-form it and probably by analogy with some irregular past-participle verb paradigm, I came up with tent. This only elicited looks of bewilderment and befuddlement from the rest of the class, then someone yelled "It's tense, dude!"

Mr. Verb said...

That's wild ... but a lot of us know firsthand what courses on the history and philosophy of science will do to a person's mind. I wonder if we could get that form to catch on?