07 December 2006

more linguistics fun from Alanis

I notice that piloklok still gets visitors through search-engine queries on the use of the word ironic, especially with respect to the scenarios outlined in the 1996 Alanis Morissette single of the same name. Ms. Morissette, if anything, gave us an opportunity to discuss the intricacies of the semantics of irony. So from a pedagogical point of view, it was a chance to illustrate a few things linguistic, like how the truth of a statement can hinge on the interpretation of a word within it (e.g., the crash of a jetliner carrying a passenger with a fear of flying may be considered ironic, depending on your interpretation of irony, which has a lot to do with the degree of expectation of the outcome).

Morissette has another song from the same record, "Head over Feet", that provides a few more tidbits for those interested in using pop culture to illustrate linguistic points. (Though I'm afraid it's more like pop culture history than pop culture by now).

First, as a tongue-in-cheek teaser, we have the structural ambiguity found in the lyric your my best friend with benefits. Is this guy the best of all the narrator's friends with benefits, or is he the narrator's best friend, who happens to come with benefits?

Second, and worth more text, we have the lyric you held your breath, and the door for me. This at the very least is a talking point for constituency tests and syntactic structure. I can think of two parses here: held [[your breath] and [the door for me]] or held [[your breath] and [the door]] for me; in the latter case me is a beneficiary of both verbs. Probably you would balk at the notion of [the door for me] being a constituent, although the meter of the song (with a half-measure pause before and) suggests just such a structure.

Regardless, both parses look like what's been called a wtf construction, a label I draw from Language Log posts by Mark Liberman and Eric Bakovic. Neal at Literal Minded has devoted special attention to tracking funny coordinations, especially the special case of FLoPs - newest theories available here.

In a wtf construction, a conjunction appears in which the two conjuncts aren't of the same syntactic category. A FLoP conjunction is one in which some element necessarily is structurally parsed as a complemement inside one conjunct, but thematically is a complement of both. The eponymous case is also a song lyric: the whiskey drowns and the beer chases my blues away. Structurally, the element my blues can only parse within the second conjunct, as a complement of chase X away, yet thematically is also interpreted as a complement of drowns.

Here's what's curious about Morissette's wtf lyric: it combines an idiomatic use of hold with a literal one. That is, simply structurally it's not a wtf construction: [your breath] and [the door] are both noun phrases. But held your breath here is idiomatic (I presume), referring to showing patience, and so its meaning is not compositional. As a result, one conjunct, [your breath], contributes no meaning by itself, while the other, [the door], contributes meaning compositionally. It's equivalent to saying "you kicked the bucket and a field goal today".

For fans of symmetry, it could be that this is an inverse of the FLoP: canonical FLoPs restrict a constituent structurally but not thematically, while this one restricts a constituent thematically but not structurally.

I would even go so far as to say this is still a wtf construction even if the fella involved was literally holding his breath - simply because the holding in this case is a different type of action. In this case a parallel would be you held a party and the door for me. Likewise, if holding the door is itself also idiomatic (plausibly it may have been), it's still an odd coordination, since both complements still go with different holdings. For comparison, imagine you wrote your own destiny and a check your ass can't cash, or you let the cat out of the bag, your hair down, the wind out of my sails, and bygones be bygones. Head scratchers all around.

You can argue all day about whether these issues, along with Morissette's broad interpretation of irony, illustrate flexibility and innovativeness of language or haste and sloppiness of lyrical composition. I'm not interested in either praise or criticism of her work, though I would be curious about a theory of what precipitates wtf constructions.