Friday, December 27, 2013

Starting a lingustic foray into evolution - cray cray?

This holiday season, I've learned a new word from my nephews, and that word is 'cray-cray'*. According to my nephews, and the Urban Dictionary, cray-cray means 'really crazy'.

Researching this word has led me - yet again - to some parallels between evolution and linguistics. I want to start documenting these parallels more formally, because I think it could be important. My biology research is focused on how new traits originate during evolution, sometimes called 'evolutionary novelty'. How did eyes originate in evolution? How about hair or milk? Although I could be cray-cray, I believe this area of evolution has received less attention than other areas, and the theory and concepts are underdeveloped. Yet in linguistics, it seems novelty is a central area of theory.

Cray-cray is a new word, a novelty. Languages change so fast, with such full documentation, it seems as though linguists have a richer theory for explaining how novelties arise. One aspect of novelty in linguistics is called Word Formation, and there are several ways in which word formation occurs. I believe many of these have parallels in organic evolution, although they may not generally be differentiated or articulated. I want to explore that on future posts.

Craycray seems to be due to a particular type of word formation that is not particularly common in English, called reduplication. Actually, as I read and understand further, it seems reduplication is considered to be a change in grammar, and not as a mechanism of word formation. From this perspective, cray cray is not a new word, but is rather a grammatical change to convey a new meaning. In both evolution and linguistics, it seems challenging to think clearly and consistently about structure (word) and function (meaning) and their relationship to each other.

Reduplication is quite common in many languages, and is used in several different ways. Our cray cray example seems to be reduplication for the purpose of intensifying a noun. I don't think this is common in English. Wikipedia gives an example from Hebrew, where Gever means 'man' and 'Gever Gever' seems to mean something like a man's man or a manly man, or perhaps a macho man. A man, intensified, just as cray cray means crazy, intensified.

According to the same Wikipedia site on reduplication, there are some English examples of reduplication. We mimic baby talk, as in 'bye-bye'; use rhyming reduplication, as in super-duper; or sometimes change the vowel sounds in the reduplication, like zig-zag. An interesting example is the 'schm' reduplication - adding 'schm' to belittle something, or to indicate irony: 'craycray, schmacray - I can just say lunatic'. Schm-reduplication is said to be 'productive', because it can be used with most any word. We also use reduplication to clarify a literal meaning versus a figurative meaning. An example that comes to mind is to clarify hot - 'do you mean spicy-hot or HOT-hot'?  HOT-hot is clarifying the meaning as temperature. By the way, I think we should adopt the Spanish word picante to mean spicy-hot, a word we need in English!

Besides cray cray, I can't think of any other examples in English of intensifying reduplication. From that perspective, it might not actually be reduplication, since reduplication refers to grammar. In English, our grammar doesn't usually intensify using reduplication, so cray cray perhaps really does fit more into Word Formation. But I also cannot fit it into established modes of Word Formation, either, such as those explained on Wikipedia or a Rice site (by the way the Rice site counted zig-zag as compound word formation, not as reduplication). Instead, cray cray is part clipping - taking just part of a longer word, like ad for advertisement, or dis for disrespect - and part compounding - putting two words together, like phone booth. Crazy clipped is cray and compounded is cray cray.

My purpose here is to understand novelty in linguistics to draw parallels to evolution. For example, thinking genetically, I know that protein domains are often 'reduplicated' within the same gene. It will be interesting to think this through and research it. What types of function can protein domain reduplication provide? Are the biological-functional implications similar to linguistic-grammatical implications? I believe intensification of biological function does happen by domain reduplication (I can think of some examples, that I won't go into). But what about other parallels? That will perhaps be the subject of a future post.

I should end now before this post is so long as to be cray cray.

* I believe this is mainly a spoken word, such that the spelling is not yet standard. It could be craycray, cray-cray, or cray cray. 

1 comment:

Dusty said...

Chinese uses reduplication extensively and at several "levels". In a written character, an element may be repeated to make a new character emphasizing that aspect. The common example is 木=wood/tree, 林=woods, 森=forest. In spoken language, two syllable words seem to be preferred, so a single syllable is often repeated (e.g. the family: baba, mama, gege, jiejie, didi, meimei) or two synonymous characters are joined to make a word: 朋友 friend/friend, 看见 see/see. And then words can be reduplicated for a softening or intensifying effect. A simple example: xiexie (thank you), xiexie xiexie (thank you very much).
There is more info here: