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Showing posts with label adjectives. Show all posts
Showing posts with label adjectives. Show all posts

Sunday, 13 December 2020

The Politics of Adjectives

"If corn oil is made from corn, and vegetable oil is made from vegetables, what is baby oil made from? "
 
                                                                anonymous

"The Great Canadian . . . . whatever"

Have you ever noticed how many Canadian businesses and organizations brand themselves as "The Great Canadian . . ." something or other?  Ever wonder why?  In a brief article in the Catholic magazine Commonweal in 1929, Harvard Professor of Literature, Douglas Bush, asked the question "Is There a Canadian Literature?"  His answer was that in order for a Canadian literature to exist it must produce evidence of greatness, a great novel or poem or play--something great enough to be included in the established canon of great literature.  The sardonic response has been that in order for anything to be "Canadian" it must also be "great"; ergo, "The Great Canadian Bagel," "The Great Canadian Restaurant," "The Great Canadian Theatre Company," etc, etc. 

 

Canadian Nationalism:  An oxymoron?

During my enthusiastic Canadian nationalist phase in the mid-to-late seventies, I naively imagined that most Canadians would be eager to embrace Canadian literature, performance and art.  To my shock, Canadians, who would claim admiration for Dutch painting, Italian opera, Swedish cinema, German theatre, and English or American literature, reacted with outrage at the thought of having anything described as "Canadian" "shoved down their throats."  (The violence of this expression always took me aback.)   For the intelligentsia and literati inside Canada, "Canadian" invariably implied "parochial," "tribal," and that famously misunderstood expression "a garrison mentality."

 Does Canada even exist?

I must admit, I have long suspected that the name "Canada" came from Portuguese map-makers who labelled the topography of my homeland "ca nada" meaning "here nothing."  (See Pure Laine Québécois)  Frank Davey,  who is routinely described as “a leading authority on Canadian literature,” is quoted as saying that “Canada does not exist except as a political arrangement for the convenience of individuals accidentally happening to live within its arbitrary area.” Hugh MacLennan, author of what, for some time, was consider the quintessential Canadian novel, Two Solitudes, was also categorical that "there is no Canadian literature." Eventually, we came around to admitting that Canada does exist as a nation, a state, an imagined community of people and diverse peoples, a big piece of real estate with borders and a quirky history, and it was okay to call something Canadian because we had a flag and a beaver and a constitution and a police force mounted on horseback, and Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dionne and hundreds of thousands of other names worth mentioning.

 Is There an Anglo-Québécois Literature?

Always a glutton for punishment, as an English professor in Quebec, I went from defending the adjective "Canadian" to promulgating the modifier "Anglo-Québécois."  Reactions tended to be a rolling of the eyes rather than the visceral "shoved down our throats" response.  However, resistance to "Anglo-Québécois" was similar to what I had earlier witnessed in reaction to "Canadian." 

Josée Legault, in her book, L’invention d’une minorité : Les Anglo-Québécois, is adamant that   "s'il est indéniable qu'un certain nombre d'anglophones résidaient bel et bien au Québec, on ne pouvait toutefois parler de l'existence d'une 'communauté' anglo-québécoise"  ["even if it is undeniable that a certain number of Anglophones do in fact reside in Quebec, one can still not talk of the existence of an Anglo-Québécois 'community'."]  In an essay entitled  “Neil Bissoondath disait . . . .,” professor of literary studies Gilles Marcotte was equally adamant that “Il n’existe évidemment pas telle chose qu’une littérature anglo-québécoise [ . . .]."  ["There obviously exists no such thing as an Anglo-Québécois literature . . . ."] 

What the experts say

Just as professors, critics and authors who would seem to have a vested interest in the recognition of Canadian literature resisted the idea, English professors, critics and authors in Quebec, typically repudiated the notion of an Anglo-Québécois literature.  Jason Camelot is a professor of English at Montreal's Concordia University and the co-editor of a collection of essays entitled Language Acts: Anglo Quebec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century.   In his introduction to a special issue of the journal Canadian Poetry on Anglo Quebec,  Camelot agrees with Marcotte that “there is no such thing as Anglo-Quebec literature in the sense that there is now Can Lit and la littérature québécoise."  More surprising still, Linda Leith, author, editor and impresario, who has done more for and about English literature in Quebec than anyone, has avoided the expression Anglo-Québécois to describe her work and interests.

Thinking inside the box 

 I know we are all supposed to admire people who "think outside the box" but, really, I wish there were more people (like me) who could think inside the box.  I may not agree with Professor Marcotte, but I understand his logic.  For Marcotte, Québécois literature is by definition French.  Québécois literature in English, for Marcotte, would be the equivalent of a married bachelor.

The term "Québécois" only became the politically correct designation of a citizen of the province of Quebec in the late 60s and throughout the 70s.  Earlier, "Québécois" was understood to mean a resident of Quebec City. With "French Canadian" now signalling Francophones outside Quebec, inside my symmetrically-inclined, Canadian box, Anglo Québécois seemed all the more legitimate as a designation for Anglophones living inside Quebec.

The difference between a wine glass and a glass of wine

I must confess that when I began writing this post, a discouragingly long time ago, it was with exactly the opposite intention of what I have written here.  I intended to maintain my obsessive conviction that "grammatical mistake" should be "a mistake in grammar," and "comparative literature" should be "studies of literature in a comparative context." Any composition manual will tell you that placing an adjective in front of a noun is more succinct and elegant than following a noun with an awkward clause or phrase.  Additionally, an adjective in front of a noun has the potential of becoming the next big thing:  "post modernism" versus the more informative "modernism after 1965," "oral literature"  (a contradiction in terms since "literature" means what is written) versus "written representations of orality," and "block chain" versus "a chain of blocks"--this latter phrase at least gives an inkling of how this technology works.  Nothing whets the appetite of an academic more than the possibility of coining the next big thing, the next viral catchphrase.

Clearly, many of the phrases we accept are, to use one of my favourite academic expressions, "sites of debate." The problem I see is when we accept without debate. I still wonder why, when the Americas comprise two continents and 35 countries, the adjective "American" is typically, exclusively applied to the USA.  I spent four years studying the works of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce as "English" literature, barely noticing that these authors were all Irish. Politics matters.

I recognize that the appellation  "Canadian literature" means something more than and different from "literature in Canada," or "literature about Canada," or "literature by Canadians."  But I also see that when all these things have been happening for some time, the political decision to use the adjective this way makes sense, even if we might pause and stumble over exactly what the adjective "Canadian" might mean in this case.

 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Something Rotten in the State of Grammar

Descriptive versus prescriptive grammar

I still haven’t recovered from the revelation that “grammatical mistake” isn’t a mistake.

English grammar is basically pattern recognition.  Once we recognize an established pattern in the language we attempt to maintain it.  Prescriptive grammar (which attempts to dictate how people should speak) eventually derives from descriptive grammar (how people actually speak).  Of course, “ain’t no denyin’,” that what some grammarians might take for egregious, fossilized errors, Everyman accepts as just “speakin’ plain.”



Can a mistake be grammatical?

It may be swimming against the current, spitting into the wind, and [insert your own cliche here] to challenge the evolution of the language and attempt to manipulate prescriptive grammar, but that’s what we pedants do.  Inspired by the expression “grammatical mistake,” I have come to surmise that there is something rotten in the state of English grammar.

Adjectives that end in "al"

I first conjectured that the problem could be located in how we use and misuse adjectives that end in “al.”  Typically a noun is used as an adjective and then we add “al” to give the adjective a new meaning, as shown here:

Noun Adjective “al” adjective

economics economic economical
politics politic political
logic                logic logical
rhetoric            rhetoric rhetorical
mathematics mathematics mathematical
grammar         grammar grammatical

Adding "al" changes the meaning of the adjective

The pattern shows that adding “al” changes the meaning of the adjective:  a “logic lesson” versus a “logical lesson,” a “rhetoric question” versus a “rhetorical question,” a “grammar book” versus a “grammatical book,” an “economic study” versus an “economical study.” 

My number of “al” adjectives (above) is quite small.  Like the proverbial blind monk attempting to describe an elephant by feeling its tail, I was perhaps considering an untypical sample.  Scientifically, I should be considering all “al” adjectives.  Ooops! Have you any idea how many words in the English language end in “al”?  The internet mocks me again by providing various lists of words that end in “al.”

This list offers 3544 “al” words:


Meaning of the suffix "al"

This site offers 1272 words that end with the suffix “al,”  and adds that the suffix “al” means “relating to,” as if to mock me once again for thinking “grammatical mistake” was a mistake.


What can we say about words that end in “al”? Most of them seem to be adjectives.  Nouns like “cereal” and “offal” are among the rare “al” nouns, but they also serve as adjectives.  It would be an exaggeration, if not an outright mistake,  to categorize “al” as a suffix in all the instances listed, if we mean by “suffix” something added to an already existing or independent English word.  

Is "al" a suffix?

For example “leth” is not an word, but “lethal” is.  


I would imagine that there is an etymological explanation that can trace “leth” as a Greek or Latin source and “al” as a suffix, but the issue I am trying to grasp is what happens within the English language when you add “al” to an existing adjective.  There are many “al” adjectives which have no form or root in English when you remove the “al.”

Among those that do, the adjectives seem to consistently show change.  What does the change mean?

humour         humoural
metaphysics metaphysical
physics         physical
abdomine abdominal 
chorus choral
allegoric         allegorical
analytic         analytical
commune communal
terminus         terminal
ecologic         ecological
structure         structural

Return to Baker and 1901

My conclusion is that Baker is still right and we should avoid “grammatical mistake” and, for that matter, “grammar mistake” in favour of “an error in grammar” or simply use the adjective “ungrammatical.”  The conspiracy of errors that we call modern English has created yet another obvious flaw because educated native speakers of English have lost track of how to use adjectives.  Instead we have come to blithely accept that “grammatical mistake,” “grammar mistake,”  “ungrammatical mistake,” and "mistake in grammar" all end up referring to exactly the same thing.  “Logical fallacy,” “illogical fallacy,” “logic fallacy” and "fallacious logic" would also all have to have the same meaning (and thinking about it, I have concluded that the phenomenon should still be called "sophistry").  We have muddled the subtleties and precision which, I assume, changes in spelling were originally intended to convey.

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