flip-flop

Willy Vandeweghe wi.vandeweghe at WORLDONLINE.BE
Mon Apr 24 16:51:57 UTC 2000


David Tuggy draws attention to the phenomenon of (subject-object- flip-flop (nice name, by the way). His questions are: How can such backwards meanings (a) arise, (b) survive, and (c) eventually prevail?

The whole phenomenon seems to have to do with what in lexicology is known as 'metonymy': meanings which are very close to each other might eventually replace one another. But they also can coexist.

(a) Why there is such a thing as metonymy is hard to say, but is most probably has to do with the way in which lexical information is stored in the brain. The 'flip-flop' occurs when a particular form gets attached to the related meaning:
- as a diachronic process: the 'in charge of' example
A nice example is also represented in the evolution from 'me liketh' (Shakespeare) to modern English 'I like' (an evolution very similar to the one in the Dutch predicate given by Stassen)
- two meanings side by side: in Dutch RUIKEN ('smell') and SMAKEN ('taste') may apply to the participant receiving the smell or taste, or the participant emitting it; I think the samen holds true for English as well
    Die bloem ruikt (lekker)
    That flower smells (good)

    Ik ruik die bloem niet
    I don't smell that flower

In the case of relational predicates, the metonymy results in subject-object flip-flop, but in other cases the converse relationship may take another shape: Edith Moravcsik's Lat. ALTUS example. A striking case is again to be found in Dutch: the word WAL is related to the result of digging, in two ways: it can, at least in some Flemish dialects, refer to  the cavity in the ground (the moat around a castle) or to the heap of earth, e.g. used as a defense (the normal meaning in standard Dutch); the same holds true for DIJK, which in some dialects is the equivalent of Eng. 'ditch' , but in standard Dutch is used for something erected, e.g. to keep the water out (Eng. 'dike')

(b) How is survival possible? 
Couldn't it have to do with the saliency of participants? And case hierarchies? Eng. 'like' evolved into a predicate taking a [+ animate] [+ human] participant as a subject. 
In the case of the smell/taste example, the contexts are very similar, but still ambiguity is impossible as the subject participant is [+ animate] and [+human] in one case, [- animate] and [-human] in the other.

(c) How does it prevail?
I have no answer for why in some cases the flip-flop replaces the original, and in other cases continues to exist side by side to the original.

I have the impression that I haven't done much more than rewording the original question rather than answering it. Still I hope this does contribute a little bit to a better understanding of the problem.

Willy Vandeweghe
Ghent
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