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John McWhorter - Abstract

The Clinality of Noncompositionality in Language Genesis

John McWhorter

Columbia University

No human language, immersed in the contingencies of culture and history as well as mere semantic drift, could maintain strict compositionality in all tokens of compounding and derivation. The referent of goal kick is more specific than the independent meanings of goal and kick; the meaning of overlook (as in to neglect) is a metaphorical extension of the meanings of over and look. However, noncompositionality expresses itself in languages in degrees, in a fashion indicative of a grammar’s age. Pidgin and creole languages suggest that at emergence, a language’s noncompositionality is at a markedly less opaque stage than in languages that have been in existence and use for millennia. In Mandarin, for example, noncompositionality in compounds occurs in degrees, ranging from the relatively transparent diàn-yĭng film-shadow “movie” to dōng-xi east-west “thing.” In a new language such as Saramaccan creole, born in the late seventeenth century from a pidgin-level English, noncompositionality is largely, and perhaps totally, restricted to the former point on the Mandarin cline – truly opaque compounds have yet to emerge. Baákama black-person refers to someone who has lost a spouse and is thus feeling “black,” boókó hédi break-head means “worry,” but these are clearly less opaque than “east-west” referring to “thing.” While it may seem that noncompositionality, driven by the cognitive fundamenatal of metaphorical extension, is a design component of human language, its manifestation in degree suggests that it is ultimately an accidental feature, useful in charting languages’ age analogously to the use of alterations in mitochondrial DNA in genetic analysis.