How long?

(The echo in the title is of the shapenote hymn traditionally sung to the tune NORTHFIELD, words by Isaac Watts, with the first line,”How long, dear Savior, O how long”.  More on the hymn below; here it’s enough to point out that the hymn is not really relevant to the cartoon in this posting, beyond the fact that its first line begins with an instance of degree how (which figures significantly in the cartoon).

The One Big Happy cartoon for today, featuring Ruthie and her brother Joe:

The subordinate clause is two-ways ambiguous, with two constituent structures and, in synch with these, two different adverbs how. For  (1) how long babies:

(1a)  [ how long ] + [ babies ]  (with degree how)
(1b)  [ how ]  + [ long babies ]  (with manner how)

Structural ambiguity (ambiguity in phrase structure aka constituent structure) without lexical ambiguity, and lexical ambiguity (ambiguity as to the lexical items involved in an example — specifically, different items how) without structural ambiguity are, of course, both well attested, but here they occur together.

Note 1. Yes, it is possible to convey (or at least, attempt to convey) either (1a) or (1b) through prosodic means — placement of accent and/or location of pauses — but in a perfectly ordinary production of (1), the two phrases are homophonous.

Note 2. I believe that there’s a strong tendency to understand (1) as (1a) — Ruthie’s intention —  because of the pragmatic specialness of long babies in (1b) — Joe’s understanding. In English, long and length tend to be used as an Adj referring to a child only for very young babies, who are most often encountered lying down (long / length are used for extension in the horizontal dimension), while tall and height tend to be used once the child sits up, and, certainly, when it stands (tall / height are used for extension in the vertical dimension). Long baby is entirely appropriate for newborns, but quickly gives way to tall baby, so that Joe’s indirect allusion to long babies might take some interpretive work.

Note 3. Structural ambiguity without lexical ambiguity, in the expression old men and women, is a staple of linguistics textbooks. See my 4/8/08 discussion in “Textbook ambiguities”, on Adj Npl and Npl.

The point is amplified in my 10/22/14 posting “Green Eggs and Ham”, on that famous coordination. In fact, the ambiguity here resides generally in Adj N-E Conj N-E, where E (‘extended’, vs. I ‘individuated’) = Sg M (like ham) v Pl C (like eggs) and where Conj is and or or.

Note 4. Lexical ambiguity in how without structural ambiguity has also been noted, as in my 5/8/15 posting “How?”, about another OBH with How did you find NP?, involving either  condition how or manner how.

Note 5. The ambiguity of (1) pops up only because the phrase occurs in a subordinate clause, where there is no SAI (.Subject-Auxiliary Inversion). In main-clause questions with SAI, (1a) corresponds to a question with subject babies, (1b) to a question with subject long babies, and they are clearly distinct:

(1a’) How long do babies burp?

(1b’) How do long babies burp?

Note 6. The ambiguity in (1) arises only when the head N of the subordinate subject is Cpl (and in fact, a bare pl):

(2) Do you know how long a baby [Csg] / Baby Snooks [Proper Sg] / … burps?

are not ambiguous, since long will not form a constituent with what follows.

NORTHFIELD. The usual text:

How long, dear Jesus, oh! how long
Shall that bright hour delay;
Fly swiftly round, ye wheels of time,
And bring the promised day

(Note SAI in the main-clause question.) Information on the tune and text on the Hymnary site, and discussion of the hymn on this site in my 11/219/11 posting “Rudolph in Northfield”.

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