January 17th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; semantics/pragmatics; "at least" construction, part 2

The first thing I did when your comments about "at least" started coming in was set up a document that compiles all of them, thinking I'd post it here so that you could look at the whole set conveniently. And then it turned out that that compiled set of comments would be many many pages long, which means I'll have to find a way to summarize it instead. While I'm doing that, I thought I'd just mention a few things.....

Whenever you ask yourself what an item of your native language and/or native dialect means, you can count on your Head Nanny to provide you with an abundance of free-flowing glibbetry. That's convenient, but it's a good idea to view the results with a certain amount of suspicion, just because they're so easy to get. As a basic principle, it probably shouldn't be that easy.

To find out what a chunk of language "really" means, you need to establish a certain amount of distance and detachment from it. You need to poke it with a stick and make faces at it and throw buckets of water over it and generally get it moving around so that you can perceive it more clearly. For example, you want the answers to questions like these:

What happens if you try to use the item in a negative sentence? [This is the usual way to go; "budge" is an exception, since we can say "Don't budge!" but we can't say "Budge!".] What happens if you try to use it in a sentence that expresses past time? Future time? What happens if you try to turn it into a question? What question or questions is it an answer to? What happens if you try to embed the chunk in another sentence? What questions can you ask about parts of the chunk? What happens if you try to make it plural? Are there scenarios where it's appropriate and scenarios where it's not? What happens if you add an idiom to it? What happens if you try to use it as a passive? As a subjunctive? .Does it look like just one item, but in fact it's more than one (like "bank" as a financial institution and "bank" as the land along the edge of a river)? What happens if you stress different parts of it? .... And so on.

If you run the English "at least" construction through its paces that way you'll find some funny things that might throw some light on its meaning. For example...

1. It's okay to ask the question, "Didn't you at LEAST call your GRANDMOTHER?" But it's not okay to say "I didn't at least call my grandmother," no matter where you put the emphatic stresses. It seems a little odd for there to be a grammatical question the answer to which is not grammatical.

[There is one exception here -- it's strained, but I know from long experience in this journal that you'll call me on it if I don't bring it up, so here it is. You could say the otherwise ungrammatical answer if you were snarkily mimicking/echoing the question back at the questioner. That would -- given the poverty of English puncutation for conveying intonation -- look something like this: "No, I didn't 'at least call my grandmother'!" With the nastiest possible tone of voice, and a screwed-up twisty face, accompanying the portion that's quoted. But doesn't it seem odd for the response to a question to be acceptable only if it's done as hostile mimickry?]

2. Funny things happen when you try to ask questions with "at least." For example, in my dialect (at least) none of these are acceptable English questions: "What can you at least do?" "When can you at least do that?" "Why would you at least do that?" "Where could you at least do that?" However, I can imagine saying, "How could you at least do THAT?" (with the meaning "Is there some way you could at least do THAT?", not the Verbal Attack Pattern "How COULD you [X]?!!" meaning).]

3. And there's the fact that the identical "at least" sequence fits both of these very different scenarios:

Scenario A
The speakers are a parent furious with a teenager because that teenager refuses to have anything to do with what the parent considers normal "family-member" duties, like sending people birthday cards and calling people once in a while just to say hello. It especially galls the parent that the teenager won't do these things with regard to his or her elderly grandmother, who is lonely and ailing. So the parent says: "You could at LEAST call your GRANDmother!"

Scenario B
The speakers are three teenagers stranded out on the highway because they've run out of gas. They want the teenager who was driving the car -- and didn't fill the gas tank -- to accept responsibility for this unpleasant event and do something about it. They know that that teenager has a grandmother living nearby, and so they say, "You could at LEAST call your GRANDmother!"


There may be more stuff like that.
ozarque figure

"At least" link....

In October 2000, I posted a question on Linguist List. I said that:

In American English, many "at least" sentences come in pairs that are identical except for intonation; one is hostile and the other nonhostile. For instance:

Q: "What could I do to get started on this project, when I have such limited data?"

A1: "Well, you could at least put everything in alphabetical order." (nonhostile)
A2: "Well, you could at LEAST put everything in alphabetical ORder!" (hostile)

I asked the list for examples of equivalent utterances in other languages. If you're interested in how that went, the summary of responses is at http://listserv.linguistlist.org/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind0010C&L=linguist&P=R4647 .