Re: Speaking (or writing) of language...

Wesley Schwein (
Sat, 11 Oct 1997 13:58:25 -0400 (EDT)

On Sat, 11 Oct 1997, Kennita Watson wrote:

> I came across an old message at work in which someone wrote to me:
> "Let's [have a meeting] to touch up on things". After a brief
> pause, I realized that probably "touch base" and "catch up" had
> been combined to make a phrase with much different meaning from either.

Well, "touch up" is used to refer to detail work, editing, etc., of
projects. "Let me touch up your paint job." "We touched up the
document." I don't think it comes from blending the idioms you mention,
although I'd say it's certainly analogous in structure to "catch up."
The meanings of verbs in English and other languages are often modified or
unpredictably changed by particles or prefixes. For example: compare the
sentences "I ran out of the house" and "I ran out of cheese." The first
has a simple verb, ran, followed by a prepositional phrase. The second
has a verb with a particle (structurallly one word).

Here are the phrase structure trees for the two sentences.

I ran out of the house I ran out of cheese

/\ /\
/\ /\
/ /\ / /\
I /\ I /\
V PP V \
ran /\ ran out NP
P NP \
out \ ^N*
^N* /\
/\ / N*
/ N* / \
/ /\ / N
/ / N* of cheese
/ / \
of the house

[where NP and N* are noun phrases, VP is a verb phrase, and PP is a
prepositional phrase; Det is determiner (article, quantifier, etc). "of"
Case-marks cheese; it is inserted via a transformation and is not found
in the deep structure of the sentence.]

> Do other writing systems (Cyrillic, Kanji, etc.) design out this sort
> of problem? Do other languages in our writing system have it (as
> often)? It seems to me that English would be particularly prone
> since we have so many words and so many idiomatic phrases.

I don't think an algorithm for creating new words to convey new meanings
is really a problem. All languages have some algorithm for recombining
old elements to cover new concepts; creativity in production of discrete
units is one of the fundamental properties of language. It doesn't really
have much to do with what script you use to write your language out.

English has a large vocabulary due to the number and diversity of its
speakers; as for idiomatic phrases, which every language has, I doubt
English has more than any other language shared by a vast speech