Data points: compound semantics 8/9/10

From Gail Collins’s NYT op-ed piece “The Kids Are All Right”, 7/29/10:

Maybe the North Koreans threatened to nuke the American-South Korean war games because they thought our country would be easy to bulldoze while the secretary of state was laboring under the stress of wedding planning [for her daughter’s wedding].

American-South Korean is a “copulative compound”, a compound in which the two elements are interpreted semantically as coordinate; American-South Korean war games are war games involving both American and South Korean troops.

Copulative compounds come in a number of flavors, though they generally have paraphrases in which the coordination is syntactically explicit.

There are things like the N+N compound singer-songwriter ‘both singer and songwriter’ (as in singer-songwriter Judy Collins) and the Adj+Adj compound French-American in a French-American obsession ‘an obsession of both the French and American peoples’. Compare: singer and songwriter Judy Collins, a French and American obsession.

This is in a way the simplest type; the other types have semantics that goes beyond just coordination. In particular, there are several types in which a relation between the two elements is part of the meaning, or at least an implicature. The relation can be, for instance, reciprocal, oppositional (a French-American conflict ‘a conflict between France and America, of France and America against each other’) or joint, cooperative (a French-American initiative ‘an initiative of the French and the Americans together’). Compare: a French and American conflict, a French and American initiative; in general, the multiplicity of understandings for coordinations carries over to the corresponding composites. (Multiplicity of understandings is everywhere in language.)

In principle, a copulative compound like American-South Korean can be understood in any one of the three ways I’ve illustrated. It all depends on the context, our background knowledge, and our expectations. Things go one way in American-Korean assumptions, another in American-North Korean animosity, still another in American-South Korean war games.

Perhaps what we want to say about copulative compounds, like other compounds, is that (a) there’s only one — very non-specific — semantic interpretation for the compounds, but (b) there are a number of common, perhaps conventionalized, patterns for filling in more specific details.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: