Friday, June 02, 2006

The Shell Game


Q. Over the holidays my family divided into two camps: (1) those who thought that nuts WITHOUT shells were called "shelled nuts" because they 'have been shelled' (like salted nuts 'have been salted'), and (2) those who thought that nuts WITH shells were called "shelled nuts" because they 'have shells' (like salted nuts 'have salt'). What is going on here? Have we all gone completely nuts?! (Or, as I suspect, are we just two tense? -- sorry, I couldn't resist adding that last pun...)

A. You're two tents only if you think you are a tepee and a wigwam at the same time.

Here's what a web site touting California walnuts has to say: "Clean and dried walnuts are stored until ready to be cracked by state of the art equipment to produce what are called 'shelled' walnuts, which also mean shell-removed." The opposite term is "inshell" nuts

What's crazy is the language itself. Is a "criminal law professor" a law professor who has turned to crime, or a specialist in the field of criminal law? And a "small business owner"--is she the very short woman who owns the clothing store down the street?

Once upon a time, when English was a youngster, these ambiguities didn't happen. The reason is that words that belonged together had endings that signified that connection clearly; our language was synthetic in form. Over the centuries, it evolved into an analytic language-- position determines meaning (but not always clearly). If "Darla loves Tommy," it's not the same as saying "Tommy loves Darla." Old Tommy boy may not even know that the girl down the street has a crush on him.

Latin is still a synthetic language. "Canis parva habet dominum magnum" can mean only one thing: "the small dog has a large owner." It doesn't matter where you move the Latin words. Because of its ending, parva (small) must be paired with canis (dog), and magnum (large) must be paired wiith dominum (owner).

But in English, everything depends on position: spelling doesn't change:
  • The small owner has a large dog.
  • The large dog has a small owner.
  • And "has the a owner dog large small" is unthinkable--and indecipherable.

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