pejoration of "stuff?"

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Mon May 28 18:31:59 UTC 2007

On May 25, 2007, at 3:13 PM, James Harbeck wrote:

>> We might also take note of the (proverbial?) expression "It's just
>> stuff"
> Sometimes uttered by Arnold Zwicky WRT the stuff of language. Arnold,
> what is the intended tone in your use of it?

i'll get to this in a minute.  but first, some remarks on the way
this thread has developed.  it started with doug kenter noting a
definitely pejorative use of "stuff", a particular use that he took
to be innovative.  most of the following discussion looked at
positive, neutral, or only mildly pejorative uses.  now, maybe what
we're seeing here is mostly just ordinary thread drift: a thead
starts on some facts about a linguistic element, and people post
about all sorts of other facts about this element, facts about
elements that are similar to the original in one way or another, etc.
-- the scholarly equivalent of "that reminds me of a funny story..."
a lot of this, though entertaining and interesting, is not
particularly relevant to the original observation.

but sometimes it looks like the writers think the observations *are*
relevant.  in the case at hand, some of the writers might have
thought that kenter was claiming that "stuff" had (generally)
*become* pejorative, so they countered this idea with non-pejorative

kenter didn't say this, and as a veteran of my seminar on innovations
last quarter, he wouldn't have said such a thing.  one of the lessons
of the first week of class was that innovative uses of existing items
*never* immediately supplant the older uses; instead the older and
newer uses co-exist for some period of time, possibly centuries.
(people sometimes talk about uses of "fun" as an adjective in this
way; they complain that "fun" "has become" an adjective.  but of
course it hasn't; it now, for many speakers, has adjective uses as
well as noun uses, and the noun uses are unlikely to disappear any
time soon: i suspect that things like "we had a lot of fun" are going
to be around for a long time.)

enough on that.  now, as to my "it's just stuff".  i use this
expression in two places:

1.  in talking about inflectional categories and grammatical markers,
where the claim is that these shouldn't be viewed as intrinsically
meaningful.  instead, they're just elements available as ingredients
in constructions, and it's the constructions that that are the
bearers of "grammatical" (as opposed to lexical) meaning.  i'd make
the same claim about other elements of syntactic form: constituent
orders, prosodies, etc.

2.  in talking about the social meanings of linguistic variants
(phonological, lexical, morphological, syntactic), where the claim is
(again) that they shouldn't be viewed as intrinsically meaningful.
instead, they're just elements available as ingredients in marking
social identities, personas, styles, etc.  ("the same" lexical
choices function very differently in different social contexts.
ditto, the choice of -in vs. -ing, creaky voice, rlessness, etc.)

this is all a program, not an empirical observation, of course.


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