Bad words

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jul 8 21:09:01 UTC 2002

At 3:38 PM -0400 7/8/02, Joanne M. Despres wrote:
>While the inaccuracies in Duane Campbell's editorial might be
>serious to a college linguistics student, he does, of course, make a
>valid point about the prestige value of one family of English words
>vis-a-vis another (whether you identify those families as "French"
>or, more broadly, "Latin and Latin-derived," "German" or
>"Germanic").  Actually, I'd probably describe the inaccuracies as
>oversimplifications, which I assume were deliberate and intended to
>make his explanation intelligible to very unsophisticated readers
>who might not have the patience to wade through unfamiliar
>terminology.  This is the way most adults talk to kids, which was
>probably why he sent it, right?
Well, yes, but without trying to be overly picky, I would argue (as
presumably Ron would) that even kids (at least older ones) might be
able to appreciate the difference between saying cats are a kind of
dog and saying cats are (like dogs) a kind of mammal.  Even though
"Germanic" is a superordinate rather than basic level language label,
children of a certain age can be expected to recognize the usefulness
of such superordinates ("vegetable", "furniture", "jewelry"), and to
deal even with cases in which the superordinate label sounds
troublingly like one of its basic level co-hyponyms.  I think that's
probably wiser than assuming kids can handle such unfamiliar
terminology in some fields (relatives vs. parents, mammals vs. dogs)
but not in others (Germanic vs. German), although I acknowledge that
a one-sentence definition, probably involving the family tree
metaphor, would be advisable.


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