Babylon is fallen

15 Nov 2008 In: Morphology, Semantics, Syntax, Typology
Tower of Babel in Babylon

Tower of Babel

♪♩♫ Joy to the world 
The Lord is come… ♫♩♪

Wait, wait. The Lord is come? Isn’t there something wrong? First, we know that come cannot be in the passive voice here, as come is an intransitive verb, it does not have an object, which basically means it cannot have a passive form. On the other hand, if it was in the present perfect tense, then the auxiliary used should have been “have” (has) instead of “be” (is). What is happening?

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So many nationality suffixes

22 Oct 2008 In: Etymology, Morphology, Typology

After posting my other article So many negative prefixes, I received very positive feedback and many readers apparently found the article interesting and useful. Indeed, these little affixes (prefixes and suffixes) can be puzzling when they are similar in meaning but nevertheless non-interchangeable. That makes people ask why they are what they are: is there a subtle rule beneath all the messy superficial distribution, or things just happen by chance?

Not long ago, a friend asked me whether there are rules governing the usage of those suffixes of nationality, such as -ese, -ian and -ish. I thought about it for a while, then I remembered that years ago I read a post on the Internet, saying that -ese is a derogatory ending used only on those countries that the western world thought to be inferior, so we have adjectives like Chinese, Vietnamese and Burmese. After all, many of the Asian countries do form their adjectives in -ese. But I had doubts, don’t the westerners just love Japanese stuff? And why Korean, Indian, Malaysian and Indonesian then? So I decided to look for the answer myself.

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I very like it

11 Oct 2008 In: Contrastive Analysis, Syntax

I very like it.

It may sound somewhat weird to native ears, but a lot of my Chinese students produce sentences like this one. What is weird here is simple. First, the adverb “very” seems to be misplaced. It should either be moved to the end of the sentence, or be replaced with another adverb like “really”. Second, if it is moved to the end, it cannot simply stand there alone but requires another word “much” to follow, as in:

I like it very much.

As usual, this can easily be discarded as an error in grammar, but what is more interesting is the cause of this error.

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So many negative prefixes

15 Sep 2008 In: Etymology, Morphology, Phonology, Semantics

In English, we can use a number of prefixes on adjectives to form their opposites. The following pairs come to mind as examples:

typical atypical
hydrous anhydrous
social antisocial
honest dishonest
legal illegal
possible impossible
active inactive
regular irregular
existent nonexistent
kind unkind

In most cases, these prefixes are not interchangeable, so we do not have *unlegal or *apossible, for instance. Of course, fluent speakers have no problem in using the right prefix for the right word, as more than often, the negative adjectives are learned word by word. But that should not stop us from pausing and asking, “Are these prefixes randomly matched with the words?” The lesson from Why is probible not possible and possable not probable? tells us that while not everything has a reason, most things indeed do not come from nothing. So the question that we should really ask is “What are the differences between these prefixes?”

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More on the centrifuge

29 Aug 2008 In: Syntax

The last few weeks I was totally absorbed by the Olympic Games, which accounted for the absence of new posts on this blog. Now I would like to go back to a topic we discussed earlier. In A natural centrifuge in English, we took a look at the general tendency in English to delay a heavy element until the end of the sentence. In the article, we looked at examples which apparently merely exchange the positions of two elements,

1. This house has a broken window.
2. This house has a window broken by a fallen tree nearby.

but the tendency is actually more profound than this.

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