Sunday, July 08, 2012

Our right to bear arms

Denny's is running an ad which celebrates America's greatness (constitution, American dream, melting pot that proves our differences are our strength (though of course all the patrons are white as white), and - as one old lady says, "our right to bear arms"). At the end, the little girl says "Bear arms?"

girl holding teddy bear's arms out and asking 'bear arms?'

Clearly, she's reinterpreting "bear" as a noun modifying "arms" rather than a verb with "arms" as its direct object (and of course, the meaning of "arms" is different, too). And why can she do that? Because English verbs are indistinguishable from nouns.

Yes. When you're presented with an historically English (Germanic) word such as "bear" you can't tell whether it's a noun or a verb. You need context - syntax- to make that determination. And even then, sometimes, the syntax doesn't help. Like this one, in which either reading (bear as noun or verb) works grammatically, even though one reading is a bit nonsensical.

right to-bear armsright to bear-arms
our right "to bear" arms
= "carry arms"
our right to "bear arms"
= "arms of a bear"

Worrying about "verbing nouns" as if it's somehow destroying English ignores a fundamental fact about our language. Unlike some - Russian comes to mind - there is no obligatory bit of grammar, no suffix or ending, that marks a word's category. Sure, particularly in words borrowed from Romance languages there are some (-tion, -ate, -ity, -ify, even a few Germanic ones like -ness) but there are many, many words with no clues at all. And we don't waste our time complaining about this with "bear arms" or "race cars", do we?

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At 11:18 AM, July 09, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

Might you be overthinking this a tad? In spoken English it seems that the word receiving greater emphasis (volume) is the clue. At least to me, "The right to bear ARMS" refers to carrying various types of guns, while "The right to BEAR arms" refers to possessing ursine appendages.

Did you watch Robbie last night? Sigh, pitter-patter...

At 1:15 PM, July 09, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

Sure, in speech. Speech resolves many of English's structural ambiguities. But not in writing - unless you write in italics.

In this particular commercial, the old woman declaims " our right - to bear - arms!" with an almost equal stress, by the way.

At 1:16 PM, July 09, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

ps = I LOVE Robbie Lewis. Love him.

At 2:33 PM, July 09, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

plus, other languages don't have to use vocal stress to label parts of speech :-)


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