Black historian

In my piece on the late John Hope Franklin, I didn’t use the descriptor black historian, though it would have been appropriate — in both senses, ‘historian who is black’ and ‘scholar of black history’, that is of the history of black people. (Here I’m putting aside the further question of how we interpret black in in these expressions and the question of choosing between black and African American — while noting that African American historian presents the same ambiguity as black historian.)

The ambiguity is between a straightforward predicating (and intersective) reading for a composite Adj + N (‘a Y that is X’, ‘something that is both X and Y’) and a more complex “pseudo-adjective” reading (a species of non-predicating modification), in which the Adj is understood as evoking a noun-like denotatum.

In addition, on the second reading, this particular example seems to involve a “bracketing paradox”, in which a suffix within N is understood as applying to Adj plus the stem of N. That is, in its second sense, black historian is understood as

[ black + history ] + –ian

rather than in accordance with its syntactic constituency:

black + [ history + –ian ]

(Not all non-predicating modification also involves a bracketing paradox; there are many cases, like electrical engineer, that don’t.)

A lot of the time, the difference between intersective and pseudo-adjective understandings is not of practical significance; who’s going to misunderstand typical occurrences of electrical engineer, after all? But for black historian, you might be unsure, because there are scholars of black history who are white, and there are historians who are black but don’t study black history.

Even on intersective readings, for some composites there’s a further issue for some people. There’s a certain amount of fuss, for example, about whether X writer (where X = woman, black, gay, …) is to be understood as merely ‘writer who is X’ or more specifically as (roughly) ‘writer who is invested in a presentation as X’.

2 Responses to “Black historian”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    Indeed: English teacher is another example. It happens with nouns, too: sports photographer, magazine photographer, woman photographer…

  2. Neal Goldfarb Says:

    This brings to mind a wonderful ambiguity in the title of Mark Tushnet’s history of Thurgood Marshall’s career as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund: Making Civil Rights Law: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court, 1936-1961.

    On one reading, civil rights is understood as modifying law, so that making civil rights law is understood as meaning making the law of civil rights, which describes what Marshall did.

    On the other reading, making civil rights law is understood as meaning something making civil rights the law, which is another way of describing what Marshall did. I’d like to think the ambiguity was deliberate.

    I’m not sure how to describe the structure that underlies the latter reading. Ditransitive resultative, maybe?

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