Scribe, ut possis cum voles dicere: dices cum velle debebis (Pl. Ep. 6.29)

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Applied Syntagmatics - Worth Nothing

Disclaimer: Unlike "People Speaking", "Applied Syntagmatics" entries are not supposed to be funny or enlightening in any way. They are supposed to be a deliberation on linguistics. If you don't care about linguistics, don't expect to find them interesting, but they may show a little of what scientific linguistics is about. It's not rocket science, it's the way we speak. But then, it may be even harder.

By the way - according to current count, this is the five hundredth entry of Aharoni in Unicode, ya mama.

פ': "מכונת הקפה הזו אצלנו בחדר-אוכל עולה ארבעים אלף שקל ולא שווה כלום."

א': "לא, היא שווה, אבל היא לא שווה ארבעים אלף שקל."

P.: "The coffee machine at our dining room costs forty thousand shekels and isn't worth anything."

A.: "No, it is worth(y), but it isn't worth forty thousand shekels."

Oh, the woes of poor Bible translators - they want to translate the holy scripture as closely as possible to the original and it's quite impossible. I really wanted to write about Hebrew without resorting to English translation, but the translation gave me some more ideas.

Now where do i start?

The English isn't worth anything is just not the same as the Hebrew לא שווה כלום. Worth vs. שווה deserves a separate discussion - see below, but the anything and כלום are quite different things. When i studied English as a child my Russian teachers had to explain many times that double negation in English is a no-no, and if there already is a no or a not in the sentence, then nothing is replaced by anything. (This whole last sentence was a big linguistic wordplay; i'm not sure that i would understand it myself had i not written it.) In Russian and Hebrew double negation is the norm. But we'll leave Russian for now.

After all that i wrote until now, it may seem ironic that by itself, the Hebrew word כלום actually means "anything" (according to Even-Shoshan's dictionary), but in practice it is used in this sense only in classical literature. According to the same dictionary, לא כלום and אין כלום mean "nothing". Nevertheless, modern Israelis consider the plain כלום to be the word for "nothing" and use it accordingly, often without לא; for example, כלום can be a one-word answer to the question "What did you do in your last miluim (reserve duty)" - "Nothing". Furthermore, the Hebrew לא שווה כלום is rather more nullifying than the neutral English isn't worth anything, although i say that as a fluent Hebrew speaker and not so much as an aspiring linguist, so i am careful not to claim that it is a consequence of my earlier statements.

Now, שווה. According to dictionaries, שווה is the Hebrew equivalent of the English preposition "worth". In modern usage, however, it is also the stand-alone adjective for "worthy"; a particular case of this last meaning is "sexy", and can be said about both males and females (pronounced shave and shava, spelled the same). But actually this last statement is wrong, because most probably it is not a particular case of the adjectival "worthy", but rather a euphemizing contraction of שווה זיון, "worth a fuck".

I am personally familiar with person P. and i know that he is particularly fond of the "sexy" meaning of שווה and often uses it in the more general and clean sense of "beautiful" about women (is that ... bidirectional euphemization?). And coffee-machine is female in Hebrew. But instead of making the research easier, these pieces of information actually become the point at which it becomes quite hard to decide which sense came first and which is derived, and by which way. But what is possible is to compare the syntactic structure of the utterances and to sort the usages. With such a small corpus it's rough and not too scientific, but it's an easy demonstration of the linguist's work.

Person P. said: "... costs (עולה‎) 40 kNIS and isn't worth (שווה) anything".

Person A. (alright, i) said: "... it is worth(y), but it isn't worth 40 kNIS".

"40 kNIS" is the complement of costs in P.'s sentence, and of worth in mine. P. used isn't worth anything in opposition to costs 40 kNIS; 40 kNIS parallels anything (actually nothing!). Furthermore: Is A.'s It is worth(y) not complemented by anything - or is "complemented" by a so-called zero element?

More stuff to think about - this list is not formulated very precisely and scientifically, but it is supposed to be thought-provoking:

  1. Try to describe the role of the repetition of "forty thousand shekels" as an element that creates opposition.
  2. Notice that the first sentence uses "and" to divide the opposing parts, and the second one uses "but".
  3. Notice the chiasmus - "forty thousand shekels" comes in the first part of P.'s sentence and in the second part of A.'s.
  4. Is worth really a preposition or a verb - in English and in Hebrew?
  5. שווה is used three times in the dialog - would it be proper to say that these are different usages of the same word, or are those different words altogether?

Actually none of these question has a decisive answer which is accepted by all linguists, especially the last one. In theory the science of Linguistics is supposed to be as precise as Mathematics, but in fact it is much harder. Furthermore, mathematics exists for thousands of years and it's really very hard to argue about the precision of 2 + 2 = 4, while modern linguistics exists in its present form for about hundred years, and the history of language study is so full of misconceptions, presuppositions and elitist bias (and violence, too) that even today the best scientists get tangled up in words that describe other words.

Well, that's enough. I hope that everyone understood at least something.

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