[Lingtyp] coronavirus and Zipf

Frans Plank frans.plank at ling-phil.ox.ac.uk
Sat May 2 17:37:21 UTC 2020

What an entertaining topic!

Talking of (corona) virus and extending the Zipfian theme to syntax, ‘(corona) virus’ in English can occur with and without definite article:

— In addition, any infected person, with or without symptoms, could spread the virus by touching a surface.
— Study suggests microdroplets from talking may spread virus.

The second example is a news headline:  one might argue, plausibly, that the shorter form is headlinese — syntactically as deviant as omitting an indefinite article from the initial noun/determiner phrase in the same sentence.

I’ve not really studied this matter, only happened to discuss it informally with Peter Trudgill last week, occasioning some further reading around, but this doesn’t seem the whole story.  The following example is not a headline (and Peter’s English seemed unhappy about this sort of thing):

— Remember that some people without symptoms may be able to spread virus.

Presumably, in English, ‘(corona) virus’ has a prototypically count sense, designating a microscopically small particle of an infective agent (a nucleic acid acid molecule in a protein coat, able to multiply only within the living cells of a host’ [looked it up]), an individual SARS-CoV-2 virion, in technical jargon.

But presumably there is also the concept of a virus as stuff, as a pathogenic substance, rather than as an individual microorganism.

The stuff sense seems to prefer having no article (in mass-noun style), while the particle sense encourages an article (in count-noun style).  Which, sadly, may fall victim to headlinese, neutralising and perhaps obscuring the contrast:

To complicate matters further, ‘(corona)virus’ also has a family sense, illustrated here:

— What is coronavirus? Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that range from the common cold to MERS coronavirus, which is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.
— Bats spread viruses

Our member or “strain” of the coronavirus family is SARS-CoV-2.  The family sense calls for articles (‘We discovered a new coronavirus’ etc.)  It is probably in this sense that ‘(corona)virus’ is likeliest to pluralise.  Biomedical scientists, able to count virions, will of course also pluralise the noun in the particle-sense.  With no electron microscope at my disposaI, I wouldn’t be in a position to reliably do so myself;  for me an example such as this (headline again, sorry):

— How touching your face can spread viruses

suggests the reading ‘viruses of all kinds’ rather than several individual virions of SARS-CoV-2 or whatever other strain.  In this I feel I'm with the Romans, insofar as no plural of Latin vīrus — usually translated as ’slimy liquid, poison’ or ‘unpleasant harsh taste/smell’, which smells of the stuff sense — seems attested (would have been vīra, vīrus being a strange 2nd declension neuter with NOM.SG in -us and apparently multiply defective).

The final complication is that in English, ‘(corona)virus’ has also acquired the sense of ‘(corona)virus disease’, in technical terms Covid-19, replicating a common theme of overt non-distinction:  ‘flu', ‘cancer', …):

— The majority of people with coronavirus will recover after rest and pain relief (such as paracetamol).

In this sense ‘coronavirus’ goes with the English disease names without a definite article.  Trouble is the disease and the pathogenic particle/stuff senses aren’t kept entirely distinct and article use varies almost randomly.  Or can you tell what exactly they are talking about here?

— How deadly is coronavirus?  What do I need to know about the coronavirus?
[in the same BBC document, https://www.bbc.com/news/health-51048366]

— How many people could you infect with coronavirus without social distancing?
[subtitle of newspaper article, https://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/18362178.coronavirus-social-distancing---oxford-academic-explains-maths/;  in the article itself:
This is based on the reasoning that one person with Covid-19 will pass it onto three other people over the course of their infection.  "Even if we are carrying the virus, we may have no or very few symptoms. We could therefore be spreading the virus without even knowing it.”]

Idle musings of a social isolate.  What I was wondering is whether these complexities of senses shading into one another, reflected in determiner syntax (regular and headline) and number inflection, are peculiar to English.  The German picture is largely the same, though I feel I wouldn’t drop quite as many definite articles.  Are languages without articles missing out on exciting challenges here?  Virus is really a hard nut to cope with for languages, and their speakers.

Keep on coping!

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