The Universe of Discourse
           
Wed, 20 May 2009

No flimping
Advance disclaimer: I am not a linguist, have never studied linguistics, and am sure to get some of the details wrong in this article. Caveat lector.

There is a standard example in linguistics that is attached to the word "flimp". The idea it labels is that certain grammatical operations are restricted in the way they behave, and cannot reach deeply into grammatical structures and rearrange them.

For instance, you can ask "What did you use to see the girl on the hill in the blue dress?" and I can reply "I used a telescope to see the girl on the hill in the blue dress". Here "the girl on the hill in the blue dress" is operating as a single component, which could, in principle, be arbitrarily long. ("The girl on the hill that was fought over in the war between the two countries that have been at war since the time your mother saw that monkey climb the steeple of the church...") This component can be extracted whole from one sentence and made the object of a new sentence, or the subject of some other sentence.

But certain other structures are not transportable. For example, in "Bill left all his money to Fred and someone", one can reach down as far as "Fred and someone" and ask "What did Bill leave to Fred and someone?" but one cannot reach all the way down to "someone" and ask "Who did Bill leave all his money to Fred and"?

Under certain linguistic theories of syntax, analogous constraints rule out the existence of certain words. "Flimped" is the hypothetical nonexistent word which, under these theories, cannot exist. To flimp is to kiss a girl who is allergic to. For example, to flimp coconuts is to kiss a girl who is allergic to coconuts. (The grammatical failure in the last sentence but one illustrates the syntactic problem that supposedly rules out the word "flimped".

I am not making this up; for more details (from someone who, unlike me, may know what he is talking about) See Word meaning and Montague grammar by David Dowty, p. 236. Dowty cites the earlier sources, from 1969–1973 who proposed this theory in the first place. The "flimped" example above is exactly the same as Dowty's, and I believe it is the standard one.

Dowty provides a similar, but different example: there is not, and under this theory there cannot be, a verb "to thork" which means "to lend your uncle and", so that "John thorked Harry ten dollars" would mean "John lent his uncle and Harry ten dollars".

I had these examples knocking around in my head for many years. I used to work for the University of Pennsylvania Computer and Information Sciences department, and from my frequent contacts with various cognitive-science types I acquired a lot of odds and ends of linguistic and computational folklore. Michael Niv told me this one sometime around 1992.

The "flimp" thing rattled around my head, surfacing every few months or so, until last week, when I thought of a counterexample: Wank.

The verb "to wank to" means "to rub one's genitals while considering", and so seems to provide a countexample to the theory that says that verbs of this type are illegal in English.

When I went to investigate, I found that the theory had pretty much been refuted anyway. The Dowty book (published 1979) produced another example: "to cuckold" is "to have sexual intercourse with the woman who is married to".

Some Reddit person recently complained that one of my blog posts had no point. Eat this, Reddit person.


[Other articles in category /lang] permanent link