May 07, 2013

Guard Dogs and Musical Bagpipes

written by Jeanette Koenig

Have you ever thought about the adjectives you use, and how you can use certain kinds of adjectives one way but not others? For instance, you can say both “big car” and “the car is big,” but you can’t convert “musical instrument” to “the instrument is musical.” You can say “bigger car” but not “more musical instrument.” (Of course, you can say “Mozart was more musical than Salieri,” but that is a different meaning of the word “musical.”)

Scholars tend to class adjectives as either qualitative or relational. Qualitative adjectives describe a quality, such as “red,” “big,” or “good.” Relational adjectives are more complicated. They describe a relationship between two nouns. German beer is beer made in Germany. A musical instrument is a device that produces music. A guard dog is a dog used as a guard.

Qualitative adjectives are versatile and can be placed in either attributive position (before the noun, e.g., “red ball”) or in predicative position, that is, after the verb “to be” (“the ball is red”). Such adjectives also easily form comparatives, such as “redder,” “bigger,” and “better.” Relational adjectives tend to resist these forms: it sounds somewhat odd to say “we drank beer that was German,” odder still to say, “at the party we played chairs that were musical,” and unacceptable to say “I have a dog that is guard.” And although you can say that one beer is “more German” than another, it is considerably stranger to say a flute is more musical than bagpipes (though most people would agree) and completely unacceptable in English to say that a Rottweiler is guarder than a cocker spaniel.

Russian adjectives tend to follow a similar pattern. In addition to the dichotomy between appearing in predicative position or forming comparatives, they also exhibit another feature, in that qualitative adjectives tend to have both a long form and a short form (плохая, плоха ‘bad’), whereas relational adjectives tend to have only the long form (сторожевая, but not *сторожева).

What is interesting is that semantics play only a partial role in determining the behavior of the adjective. The phrase “deader than a doornail” is allowed even though “dead” is an absolute and does not permit degrees. On the other hand, even though Rottweilers are more suited to the purpose of guarding than cocker spaniels, no one accepts the sentence “my Rottweiler is guarder than your cocker spaniel.” Clearly, morphology has a role to play: “guard” is a noun or verb doing duty as an adjective and therefore does not have all the features of an adjective. The adjective “musical,” derived from the noun “music,” still does not normally accept the comparative form or predicative position, but it might be forced into doing so as a form of wordplay.

One other interesting behavior of English adjectives is that when combining a string of them, certain adjectives remain closer to the noun being modified, while others can be separated. In fact, given a string of adjectives, there is very little variation in the order that native speakers will accept them. Take the noun HOME, tell someone to modify it with the adjectives “brick,” “country,” “green,” and “sturdy,” and you will almost always get “the sturdy green brick country home.” There may be some variation in the placement of “sturdy” and “green” relative to each other, but neither adjective will come between “brick,” “country,” or “home.”

Russian, on the other hand, allows considerably more variation if you replace the same words with Russian ones (ДОМ, кирпичный, деревенский, зеленый, прочный). This is to be expected, considering that Russian is a much more morphological language than English—that is, whereas English relies largely on word order to identify a part of speech, Russian relies on suffixes. In Russian, unlike in English, you can’t simply take a noun and put it in the adjective’s position to make it an adjective. Russian is very restrictive in that a noun being used as an adjective must have an adjective suffix. On the other hand, the adjective can go before or after the noun, depending on what you want to emphasize. Consequently, it is very difficult to find a pattern when asking several native speakers to order a string of adjectives.

It turns out that rather than falling into the class “relational” OR “qualitative,” adjectives occupy a spectrum, with relational at one end and qualitative at the other, and a host of adjectives falling somewhere in between. The adjective “bloody” describes a relationship to the noun “blood,” but it behaves like a qualitative adjective: you can say “the shirt is bloody” or that one shirt is bloodier than another. Toward the other end of the spectrum are adjectives that denote composition or material, such as “wooden” or “golden.” Speakers will accept “the spoon is wooden” (though perhaps reluctantly), but it will be more difficult to get them to accept “the spoon is more wooden than the knife.” This refusal of adjectives in particular and language in general to be pinned down into one specific category or other is what makes studying it so fascinating.


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