There oughta be a word

Darya Kavitskaya on Facebook yesteday:

This is sour cherry clafoutis. No more food for today.

I commented:

I think French needs a verb clafouter ‘to cook a clafoutis; to devour a clafoutis’.

Come to think of it, I could use an English verb clafoute /kla’fut/ with these senses:

I think I’ll clafoute for tonight’s dessert. Maybe plum.

Terry piggishly clafouted. Seven at a sitting!

To come: a reminder about what clafoutis is; about the forms of the invented French verb clafouter; on “having no word for” some concept; about needing — or at least wanting — a word for it; about the ambiguity of these invented verbs (both ‘to cook’ and ‘to eat’); about the source of such ambiguities in marker-poor combinations of elements (lacking explicit indicators of the semantic relationship between the elements — there’s nothing in French clafouter or English clafoute to indicate the semantic role of the referent of their subjects, as creator or consumer); and about the motivation for marker-poor combinations, in a drive for brevity (vs. clarity). French and English could be clearer, less ambiguous — I’ll illustrate with still more invented French verbs — but only at the cost of greater length and effort.

All this from (delicious) French sour cherry flan.

Clafoutis. In my 4/29 posting “All the dessert world is not either cake or pie”, a section on the French flan clafoutis, classically made with black cherries (though also with: cherry with liqueur, pear, plum, apple, blackberry, blueberry, fig, apricot, cherry or pear with almonds). Fruit cooked in a sweet batter, easy to make, and satisfying to consume.

Conjugating clafouter. In standard spelling, in the simple present indicative:

je clafoute, tu clafoutes, il/elle/on clafoute, nous clafoutons, vous clafoutez, ils/elles clafoutent

The pronunciation builds on a stem clafout– /klafut/:

1sg, 2sp, 3sp, 3pl = stem; 1pl = stem + /ɔ̃/; 2pl = stem + /e/

English clafoute would go:

BSE, PRS¬3sg: clafoute; PRS3sg: clafoutes; PST, PSP: clafouted; PRP: clafouting

Having no word for it. From a posting of mine on LLog on 12/2/06 “Does anyone have a word for this? Probably not.”:

I argue that a useful interpretation of word for X in language L is something like ‘ordinary-language fixed expression of some currency’ (olfesc)

Put into some context in my 7/29/09 posting “A word for it”:

The idea that everything has a name is widespread, but seriously mistaken, even if it’s understood as the claim that somewhere, at some time, someone has had a name specifically for the referent in question. If this were so, then little contests for suggesting words for things would have little point, but in fact they’re very popular, and only rarely do they unearth already existing words (even then, they tend to be nonce creations or expressions used only within a small circle of acquaintances).

When it turns out that there is, in some sense, a name specifically for this referent, that name is not an ordinary language expression, but a technical term in some domain, and of course it’s not widely known (otherwise, why would people be asking about it?). That means that words like aglet [‘a metal or plastic tube fixed tightly around each end of a shoelace’] are interesting in an abstract sort of way, but not of much use in daily life, outside of discussions of shoelaces, shoes, and the like — and even there, unless you’re talking to people who are experienced in this domain, you’re going to have to explain the word.

Actual French and English have no olfescs for creating (cooking) clafoutis or for consuming (devouring) clafoutis, though of course we can use the combinatory resources of the languages to create them as needed: in English syntactic phrases to cook / bake clafoutis, to eat /devour clafoutis (or, using synthetic compounds, to clafoutis-cook, to clafoutis-eat).

Needing (or just wanting) a word. Ok, French and English have this lexical gap in verbs in the baked-dessert domain, but why would anyone care? Neither language has a verb meaning ‘to recite Shakespearean sonnets while standing on one’s head’ — so what? The feeling that a particular lexical gap requires a remedy depends on the needs of particular users. These needs can be widespread — a fair number of people have wanted an easy way to distinguish uncle referring to a parent’s brother (‘uncle by blood’) and to a parent’s sister’s husband (‘uncle by marriage’), but there are no olfescs that will do the trick– or quite local, as in the case of the invented English verb clafoute, which my Columbus ON household could certainly have used, given the frequency with which Ann Daingerfield Zwicky cooked the dessert and others ate it.

The model for these useful but (at the time) non-existent food verbs would have been our creative usage of verbings of N or Adj Chinese:

intransitive Chinese: ‘cook Chinese food’: I think I’ll Chinese for tonight’s dinner. Maybe beef and broccoli.

intransitive Chinese: ‘eat Chinese food’: Hungry as a bear, Terry Chinesed with gusto. A full 8-course banquet.

transitive Chinese: cook a food in Chinese style, for a Chinese dish: Let’s Chinese these greens.

(Separate from these, there are occurrences of nouned Chinese ‘Chinese food’ from beheading of composites: Let’s order / do / have / eat / cook Chinese for dinner tonight.)

The first two would be paralleled by the ‘cook’ and ‘eat’ verbs clafoute above. The transitive would have its own parallel: Let’s clafoute these apricots.

Or you could do it all in French with forms of clafouter.

Ambiguity. But wait! How are we supposed to live with the ‘cook’ – ‘eat’ ambiguity? Well, ambiguity is everywhere, and we just have to work things out by context: assessments of other people’s intentions, background knowledge about the situation, plausibility in this context, clues in the linguistic context, and so on. French clafouter and English clafoute wouldn’t be much different from all the other cases of lexical ambiguity I’ve posted about.

But there is a twist here, because the ambiguity is actually introduced by the process of conversion, via verbings (and sometimes nounings too). The point is that the N or ADJ sources of the derived Vs occur in syntactic contexts that supply considerable information about how the derived Vs are to be understood — (cook) Chinese (food), (cook) clafoutis; (eat) Chinese (food), (eat) clafoutis — and this information is no longer visible in the verbings. The verbings (actual Chinese and fanciful clafoute in English, fanciful clafouter in French) are marker-poor.

Marker-poor morphosyntax. Marker-poor combinations of elements are those lacking explicit indicators of the semantic relationship between the elements — there’s nothing in French clafouter or English Chinese or clafoute to indicate the semantic role of the referent of their subjects, as creator or consumer. Their marker-poverty is a consequence of the particular formal type of conversion: zero-conversion (no change in stem), or even phonological subtraction (as in clafoutis > Fr. clafout-, E. clafoute).

Conversion doesn’t have to work this way; contentful derivational suffixes serve as markers indicating semantic relationships, sometimes rather abstractly, sometimes quite specifically.

Consider N-to-N conversions relating a fruit name X and the name of a tree that bears X fruits. For this purpose, English can use compounds of the form  X tree:

cherry – cherry tree, plum – plum tree, apple – apple tree, fig – fig tree, etc.

Despite first appearances, there’s considerable loss of information here: all of the X tree compounds can be interpreted in many ways — a cherry tree can indeed be a tree that bears cherry fruits, but it can also be a tree made up of cherry fruits, a tree shaped like a cherry fruit, a tree that uses cherry fruits in maturation, a tree located next to a pile of cherry fruits, and much more. (And this is just the beginning of a list of subsective interpretations for X tree; there’s another whole world of resembloid, merely tree-like, interpretations.) In fact, X tree compounds have no marker of the semantic relationship between tree and X.

English can also can go all the way in marker-poverty with what is essentially the zero-conversion route, in a systematic metonymy:

cherry ‘cherry fruit’ (a bowl of sweet cherries) OR ‘cherry tree’ (The cherries behind the house bloomed early this year)

(Similarly for the other fruit names; the relationship is quite regular.)

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is. That’s life. As it happens, French has  a better way here: it has a devoted ‘bearing X’ marker in its derivational morphology — the suffix -ier, used in X-ier Ns denoting trees that bear the referent of X as their fruit (an interpretation I will now indicate as ‘X tree’):

cerise ‘cherry fruit’ – cerisier ‘cherry tree’, prune ‘plum fruit’ – prunier ‘plum tree’, pomme ‘apple fruit’ – pommier ‘apple tree’, figue ‘fig fruit’ – figuier ‘fig tree’, etc.

French and English could have taken this route in its ‘cook’ and ‘eat’ conversions. Travel with me now past clafouter into even more fanciful French morphology. Let’s invent two derivational suffixes for attachment to N stems denoting a food X, one to derive a verb ‘create, cook X’, one to derive a verb ‘consume, eat X’.

For definiteness, I propose –iss– (vaguely suggestive of pâtisserie ‘pastry’) for the first, –roqu– (vaguely suggestive of croquer ‘to eat, munch, devour’). And so in Fanciful French:

from chinois ‘Chinese’: chinoisisser ‘to cook Chinese (food), chinoisoquer ‘to eat Chinese (food)’

from clafoute ‘clafoutis’: clafoutisser ‘to cook claufoutis’, clafoutoquer ‘to eat clafoutis’ (both = my fanciful clafouter)

Like, I said, French might have gone that way. But it didn’t, and ambiguous clafouter is the best even Fanciful French can do.

Brevity vs. clarity. Why should French and English (and so many other languages) opt so often for marker-poor conversions?

Well, they’re short and they’re easy on the production apparatus; brevity is a wonderful thing for speakers and writers.

But a drive towards brevity favors marker-poor morphosyntax, and consequently promotes ambiguity. Hearers and readers are then forced to rely very heavily on contextual factors in understanding; so much is implicit. What they want is clarity, explicit marking, minimal ambiguity, and all that good stuff.

Every linguistic system is a balancing out of the two drives, towards brevity and clarity — a precarious balancing achieved locally, one way in one bit of the system, another in another bit (and, not infrequently, in co-existing resolutions on specific points).

The idea of these two opposed drives is an old one. It’s related to an opposition between what’s come to be known as Well-Formedness vs. Faithfulness (see the Page on this blog on Faith vs. WF) and has connections in generative grammar to generalizations governing “rule interactions” (or “rule ordering”), especially in phonology. Finally, the general framework of Optimality Theory provides a formalism for specifying how opposed generalizations can be resolved differently in different contexts.

Meanwhile, zero and subtractive conversions happen, with considerable frequency, and they result in ambiguity, while elsewhere in the same language some conversions are managed via explicit derivational affixes. Marker-poor morphology here, marker-rich morphology there. Life goes on.

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