January 19th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; semantics/pragmatics; "You could at LEAST do everything PERfectly!"

I'm going to try to wind up the current discussion, since I don't have any rewards to offer you for your continuing participation -- there's no way to give you an A, or a day off, or a Certificate Of Achievement, and I don't want to bore you. I do want to thank you; because I am a linguist, it has been enthralling -- that really is the right word for it -- to read your comments and responses and observe your interactions with one another. I'm afraid I've put you to a lot of trouble.

In the interests of full disclosure: Usually when I propose a discussion of this kind I lay down a foundation for it first, as I did for "manage to [X]." It occurred to me that maybe my "introductions" were forcing the discussions to go in particular ways, and I wanted to find out whether the results would be different if I didn't try to structure things in advance. The results have been interesting, and I've learned a good deal. Among other things, I've learned that the only solid consensus achieved in the discussion has been that there's something negative in the meaning of "at least" and that there's a modest amount of dialect variation. And your responses have strengthened my conviction that avoiding "at least" (like avoiding "managed to [X]") is almost always going to be a good idea for anyone who is trying to maintain a nonhostile language environment.

I've been working on the "at leasts" since the early 1970s, and I haven't even begun to figure them out. Every time I think I'm getting somewhere, I come across an example that tells me I'm not getting anywhere after all.

I believe there are at least two "at leasts." There's the one in "We need at least 25 copies of the textbook." That means "We certainly need 25 copies of the textbook, and it's possible that we may need more than that"; it establishes a minimum, and, as you've said, a "floor," but leaves room for later adjustment of the number. This one seems to me to be very straightforward. It's possible to make it hostile -- because it's possible to make any sequence of spoken English hostile nonverbally if the speaker wants to do that -- but it's ordinarily part of a neutral utterance.

And then there's the other "at least," the one which I believe you are correct in saying has something negative as part of its semantic baggage. Native speakers of English tend to treat it as a signal -- "Here comes something negative!" -- and they may stop listening to the rest of the utterance the instant they hear "at least," which means that the potential for misunderstanding is extremely high. It shares that property with "even," which is why native speakers of English find sentences like these so bizarre:

1. "You could at LEAST win the Nobel PRIZE!"
2. "Even YOU could win the Nobel PRIZE!"
3. "You could at LEAST make a million dollars a YEAR!"
4. "Even YOU could make a million dollars a YEAR!"

The most interesting thing to me about this second "at least" is its instability. If I were to ask you to take "the table" or "sitting" or "together" or "we" out of "We were all sitting at the table together," and to tell me what any one of those words means in that sentence, I'm certain that your comments would present a consensus. But the second "at least" (and its variants, "at LEAST" and "AT LEAST") don't seem to be definable in isolation. You need the whole context and all of the rest of the words that were in the utterance with it and a reliable representation of the intonation and tone of voice and other bodyparl that went with it when it was spoken -- and even then, in my opinion, it's almost impossible to define. It's often possible to say what the whole utterance means, but not what "at least (or "at LEAST" or "AT LEAST") means.

I find that fascinating.
ozarque figure

Just heard on NPR....

This won't be a scholarly note -- I can't reference it for you properly. But I wanted to pass it along in rough, all the same.

I always have NPR's "Morning Edition" on in the background while I do my LiveJournal posting-and-responding in the mornings, and sometimes the Cocktail Party Phenomenon kicks in and I hear something as foreground rather than as background. This time it was the words "Maureen McHugh" that got my attention.

Some literary critic -- a woman -- was talking about a book of Maureen McHugh's short stories. That book, she says, is shelved with the science fiction and fantasy volumes, "and that's unfortunate, because...."

It's shelved with the sf and fantasy, and that's unfortunate. Because, she went on, although the stories do have certain elements of the fantastic, they're very good, and she recommends them wholeheartedly. Even if they're with the science fiction and fantasy. Even if McHugh hasn't managed to break into "mainstream" fiction. After all, I would have said to her, hostilely, if I'd had her before me: "Maureen McHugh does at LEAST write magnificent SHORT stories!"

Do you suppose this will ever end?