Combos

In response to my latest portmanteau posting (with spuricane, Masculinfinity, and Boomchickadee), Loren Billings commented on Facebook:

More blends than portmanteaux as such?

To which I replied:

Well, this is complicated. Many specialists in errors make a distinction between (inadvertent) blends and (advertent) portmanteaus (though they share some formal characteristics), while other writers on language, including Ben Zimmer, use “blend” to cover them both.

(some discussion here).

Billings then added some new phenomena to the mix:

I don’t work on speech errors. I’ve only seen portmanteau used in the sense of, say, am ‘on the’ in German or kita ‘I … you(SG)’ in Tagalog, though I do remember something out of Humpty Dumpty about a nontechnical use of the term.

Well, Lewis Carroll is indeed the source of the term portmanteau for a class of combo words, but it became a technical term fairly quickly (and is used by people who don’t know the history and don’t appreciate its metaphorical origin). It’s true that the term has been extended to take in a class of morphological or morphosyntactic combos that have little to do with the portmanteaus that have been so often discussed on Language Log and this blog (inventories of postings here and here, though quite a few postings have come along since them). A few words on these.

In all of these cases, two elements are realized simultaneously rather than sequentially, or are “jointly realized”, or are “fused”.

Type 1. Inflectional categories jointly realized: two or more inflectional categories, one unanalyzable bit of phonological substance.

Look at the inflectional forms of German finite verbs, whose endings code for two sets of inflectional categories:

Subject-Person: Su-Pers:1, Su-Pers:2, Su-Pers:3
Subject-Number: Su-Nu:Sg, Su-Nu:Pl

(These categories are customarily referred to simply as “Pers(on)” and “Nu(mber)”, because German verb forms don’t carry information about the person and number of their objects. The labels above distinguish “Number” for verbs from “Number” for nouns or adjectives and so are a bit clearer than the customary labels.)

So, for the present indicative of a regular verb, singen ‘sing’, with stem sing-:

Su-Pers:1, Su-Nu:Sg: sing-e / Su-Pers:1, Su-Nu:Pl: sing-en

Su-Pers:2, Su-Nu:Sg: sing-st / Su-Pers:2, Su-Nu:Pl: sing-t

Su-Pers:3, Su-Nu:Sg: sing-t / Su-Pers: 3, Su-Nu:Pl: sing-en

(These inflectional categories need to be distinguished because of the way the verb forms are used in syntax, in particular in subject-verb agreement.)

You can see that there’s no way to extract inflectional suffixes for each of the three persons and each of the two numbers. Instead, the six sets of category pairs correspond to six unanalyzable suffixes. (There are generalizations here, but they don’t fall out of dividing the phonological substance into parts.) So we say that person and number are simultaneously (rather than sequentially) realized, or jointly realized, or fused in their realizations, or have portmanteau realizations — all these locutions conveying, in this context, “two or more inflectional categories, one unanalyzable bit of phonological substance”.

The portmanteau metaphor is understandable here, but I can see nothing of significance that links such morphological cases to portmanteau words like smog or carchitecture or prostidude ‘male prostitute’ or to inadvertent word blends like the one-off errors horrifle (or horriful — the error was in speech, so spelling is not the issue — blending horrible and awful) and originary (blending original and ordinary), both from lectures by distinguished linguists. So I’m wary of the metaphor (though I’ve used it myself); but it’s probably innocuous when used in a technical term portmanteau morph.

Type 1A. Suppletive fusion. In morphology, we sometimes see a suppletive (unanalyzable) variant that corresponds to an expected sequence of affixes, as when Swahili negative verbs with 1sg subjects have si- where we would have expected (from other forms) negative ha- plus 1sg-subject -ni-: si-ta-soma ‘I won’t read’ (with future -ta-) instead of the expected ha-ni-ta-soma.

In a somewhat more complex case, suppletive fusion affects not ordinary inflectional affixes, but “bound word clitics” (discussion here), which are elements that have some of the syntax of independent words but are organized into word-like larger units (sometimes called “clitic groups”) in which they function analogously to affixes. This is the domain where Billings’s Tagalog example comes from.

Among the bound word clitics of Tagalog are a number of pronominal elements, including 1sg ‘Topic’ ka and 2sg ‘Comment’ ko (the labels are from Paul Schachter’s work; other sources label them ‘Subject’ and ‘Object’, respectively, as in Billings’s gloss). All the other combinations of pronominal clitics are straightfoward, but instead of the expected sequence ka ko, we get the suppletive kita — another sort of portmanteau morph.

Type 2. Single words (on phonological and syntactic grounds) corresponding to a sequence of syntactic words. These are sometimes labeled as involving “contractions” or “fusion” (or, in my work, a set of “shape alternations” for the contributing elements).

Here falls the phenomenon of Auxiliary Reduction in English, resulting in “contracted” or “fused” forms like I’m in “I’m going” and how’s in “How’s your headache?”, which are units in one sense but analyzable in another. And fused combinations of preposition and article in various European languages, as in the German am (corresponding to an dem) cited by Billings.

(Such phenomena aren’t necessarily best analyzed in the same way, and indeed a variety of different proposals are in the literature for particular cases.)

Syntax. In the world of syntax, there are many sorts of phenomena that in one sense or another involve combinations of elements or things that look like such combinations; some writers are inclined to label all of them “blends”, though they arise from many different sorts of mechanisms and shouldn’t be lumped together.

Some are inadvertent errors that arise from competing choices in language production; these are “syntactic blends” in the narrow sense, and there’s a fair amount of literature on them. Sample: “We’ll just have to keep our fingers up”, blending the competing formulations “We’ll just have to keep our fingers crossed” and “We’ll just have to keep our heads up”.

Others are inadvertent errors that arise from either a failure to plan ahead far enough syntactically (though you have at least a rough idea of the semantics you want to convey) or losing track of where you are in language production and abandoning one plan and shifting to another one, in medias res — two types of anacoluthon (and a subject for a separate posting).

Then there are cut’n’paste errors, in which pieces of two different written formulations get combined through a failure to finish editing.

Beyond such examples, there are several types of combos that are intentional and should not be treated as errors at all (though peevers might disparage them) — for instance, “piling on” or “reinforcement”, in which expressions are combined to get the effect of both (small little, return back, etc.) and extensions of constructions or idioms to new items (like using donate in the double-object construction, as in “We donated the church lots of money”).

And then, in uncontroversially standard English, what the Cambridge Grammar of English calls “fused-head constructions”:

where the head is realised jointly with a dependent function. The major case is where the head is fused with a dependent in NP structure — an internal modifier, a determiner, or (occasionally) a predeterminer (p. 332)

with examples like

He ignored [the most important of her criticisms]. [modifier-head]

Four boys played croquet and [two] played tennis. [determiner-head]

Jo earns three times that amount, and I earn [double]. [predeterminer-head]

There’s more, lots more.

5 Responses to “Combos”

  1. Remarks on anacoluthon « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] Arnold Zwicky's Blog A blog mostly about language « Combos […]

  2. More on C/M « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (c) fusion of determiner and head (or head and partitive complement) into a single word, some, that represents the sequence (see the note on CGEL‘s fusion analyses at the end of my “Combos” posting, here). […]

  3. Piling on « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] or “reinforcement” (tad bit, tiny little, and return back, for example; brief mention here), and this is is a triple: initial and plus and and besides are well attested, but and plus besides […]

  4. portmanteaux? « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Longer discussion of various kinds of combos in language here.) […]

  5. A puzzle with whose-relatives « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] from the ones examined in CGEL — fused-head constructions (see discussion at the end of this posting) and fused relatives (traditionally called “free relative clauses”) — but at […]

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