Technical terms

A recent One Big Happy, in which Joe faces a test question on the term collective noun:

Joe hopes that he can use what he knows about the verb collect and its derivatives to guess at what the grammatical term collective might mean. Ah, a mail carrier collects the mail (from a mailbox) and delivers it (to a mailbox), so mailbox must be a collective noun. BZZT!

Technical vocabulary is the very devil, since so much of it is adapted from ordinary vocabulary, sometimes ordinary vocabulary from long ago, often with a metaphorical twist that makes it semantically opaque. But in any case, as I keep drilling home, a label is not a definition.

In this case, a collective noun is a count noun that refers to a group, or collection, of things: group, team, family,… An initial discussion of confusions surrounding the grammatical term can be found in my 12/8/06 Language Log posting “Plural, mass, collective”.

A great many grammatical terms are deeply opaque semantically: passive, mood, voice, and so on. And this opacity creates great confusion in the way people talk about matters of grammar; passive is a dramatic case in point (see Geoff Pullum’s many postings on it).

But: you’re taking a test, you haven’t memorized an answer, you use what you can. Some years ago, my man Jacques put, on a test for Introduction to Language students, a technical term that he’d been stressing in class (getting students to mark up maps with names of countries and languages, and the like): geographical linguistics (aka linguistic geography), the study of the geographical distribution of languages and dialects, and, more broadly, the study of language contact as shown in such distributions. (One aim of the exercise was to get the students to learn some things about geography that they seemed to be deeply ignorant of but really should know about to function as educated citizens in the modern world, things like the location of Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Spain.) One student, who clearly hadn’t attended to the homework or class discussions, just winged it, producing (approximately) this answer:

geographical linguistics: the linguistics of geographical features, such as rivers, plains, and mountains

Such a lovely answer, and so wonderfully wrong. (I note that I have actually engaged in research more or less along these lines, in studies of the arthrousness of the names of various geographical features: arthrous the Mississippi (River), anarthrous Lake Washington. For an inventory of my postings on arthrousness, see the Page on this blog.)


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