Saturday, January 20, 2007

-n't infixation in English

Consider the following word:
Finally one said "It's astonishing. Frankly astonishing. The man has actually got charisn'tma."
"Your meaning?"
"I mean he's so dreadful he fascinates people. Like those stories he was telling... Did you notice how people kept encouraging him because they couldn't actually believe anyone would tell jokes like that in mixed company?" - Terry Pratchett, Feet of Clay, 1996, p. 289
This word may not be original to Terry Pratchett, incidentally - this document suggests it appeared in a show called My Word! back in 1976. It gets 90 ghits, (including one in Polish), concentrated disproportionately in reviews:
* "...cardboardy Paul Walker, whose lack of presence ('charisn'tma'?) sucked much of the life out of..."
* "Collectively, they exude charisn'tma, and one or two even possess what Ken Campbell once described as "the legendary Minus Quality" whereby when they exit, the stage somehow seems fuller."
* "Hard-edged r&b from the band with a front man who exudes charisma. Me? I exude charisn'tma."

In this structure, a common word's meaning is "inverted" for comic effect by adding -n't to a portion of it which resembles a common auxiliary verb. I can think of at least one other such case:
"I even attempted a beehive do, but I ran out of hairspray. So it kind of turned into a don't." - Douglas Coupland, Generation X, p. 82
Believe it or not, this one gets some ghits as well, though it's obviously hard to determine how many:
* "Scarlett's Hair-Don't"
* "Hair-Bow is a Hair-Don't"
* "Is it a hair DO or hair DON'T???"
and an entry in the Urban Dictionary.

And at the even less lexicalised end of the spectrum, we find stuff like this:
* "Another Republican’t paragon of virtue"
* "As it happens, my friend Tom Schaller noticed that many of you liked “Republican’ts” — and he suggests that we all start using it, at least as often as the GOP throws around “Democrat Party.”"
* "You’ve seen me in action. You know I’ll get you out. I’m a Mexican, not a Mexican’t!”"
* "did you hear about the lazy, unambitious bird? It was a whippoorwon't. (Yuck, I hate puns.)"

Your question for 10 points: do portmanteau words like this need to be accounted for by a full theory of morphology, or are they monstrosities that should be swept under the rug into psychologists' labs? These words' two components seem to both contribute to their meaning, but not exhaustively, in much the same way as the meaning of "catty" is partly but not completely predictable from "cat" and "-y"; how should that relation be characterised?


John Cowan said...

They go under the head of "things we do when we play around with our language", which are not language phenomena as such, but something different, akin to lipogrammatic novels or Douglas Hofstadter's various verbal imitations of Bach canons.

bulbul said...

Hey lameen,

re your question earlier:
off the top of my head, I can only think of one potential example:
"isa!"/"isaw!" for "hurry!" (note that isaw is rather rare)

The imperative to "ra" - "ara!"/"araw!" - may partially qualify as a vestige of a lost form (IV?), because of the "a-" prefix. One would normally expect "i-" in a non-emphatic context, i.e. "*ira!" (as opposed to, say, "agħti!"). On the other hand, "r" could very well function as an imāla inhibitor. Borg's grammar implies "ara!" is derived from, not a form of, "ra".

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks Bulbul! That second one is interesting - in Algerian, aṛa is an imperative-only verb meaning "hand (something) over". Perhaps the connecting meaning was something like "show". Do you happen to have an etymology for "isa!"? I can't think of an Arabic one offhand...

John: These are certainly examples of language play, as you note; but I'm not sure that's the whole story. Pig Latin is language play, but it's also a fertile source of information about the mental representation of phonology, motivating the traditional division between syllable onsets and rhymes. Do portmanteau words like these have something similar to say about morphology? Maybe not; but then again, it's certainly possible to imagine a process like this becoming more productive, and coming to be used in serious contexts as well as in jest.

bulbul said...

Incidentally, the Polish link suggests a translation of charisn'tma: charyzniema.

in Polish, charisma = charyzma, where the -ma component can be re-interpred as the verb "has" (3rd person singular). Since someone charismatic can be described in Polish as "having charisma", too ("ma charyzmę"), all one has to do is infix the negative particle "nie" and voila charyz-nie-ma (charis-not-has) for a person without charisma.
That is so cool :o)

bulbul said...


you're most welcome :o)
As for the etymology, I don't have all of my stuff with me right now, but I'll check as soon as I do.

As I'm sure you know, Maltese is one of the few forms of Arabic to keep "ra" as a full verb. Others include Cypriot Arabic and, as I have recently discovered, Moroccan Judeo-Arabic.
BTW, is it an emphatic r in the Algerian "ara"?

Oh and one more thing: according to Schabert, there are two imperative forms of "ħa" ("take") at least in the dialects of St. Julian and Marsaxlokk:
ħu! = the imperative proper, i.e. "take"
ħa!/ħo! = "here!", "see!", "take this!"

Is it possible the latter is derived from another verb?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Hassaniya has full verb ra as well, if I recall rightly from Heath's work on Malian Hassaniya. It shows up occasionally in Algerian chaabi lyrics too (Rabah Driassa: ma ritək ya ġali, wala šuft əbhak), but it may be a deliberate archaism/loanword from Fusha there.

aṛa does indeed have an emphatic r, as does the principal reflex of ra'aa, the copula ṛa- (as in ṛani/ṛak/ṛahu "I am/you are/he is" etc.) As to ħa, I can't think of anything offhand - maybe an irregular reflex of ha?

That Polish case is pretty cool.

bulbul said...

Are we sure this is a case of infixation? It would appear that all examples cited can be (and have been by the originators) interpreted as compounds (whether correctly or not), one of their components (EN:is, EN:do, PL:ma) has been removed and underwent a morphological process and then reattached to the rest of the original compound to form a new compound.
Is this process really that different from fireman > firemen?

Anonymous said...

ROTFL!!! The Polish case is ingenious!