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Monday, April 7, 2014


I'm enjoying my stint as linguistics professor. I'm not a linguist, but that makes it even better, since I get to teach something that's usually nothing but a pure hobby for me. There are two small area of linguistics I know a slight bit about, prosody and phraseology.

Here is a question I've been pondering.

Pullum, one of the funniest writers I know, doesn't like the term "people of color."

First of all, two caveats. He doesn't dislike it because of any dislike of the politics associated with it or motivating it. Secondly, he doesn't say that anyone else has to like or dislike it, or that there is anything grammatically or linguistically wrong with it: "When I say that the phrase person of color just irks me, and I refuse to use it, that's a fact about me. It's like the fact that I will never (I hereby pledge) write an academic paper with 'revisited' (or its Latin verson 'redux') or 'whither' in the title, or write a blues song that begins with the words 'Woke up this morning'."

It is, rather, the "the quasi-archaic syntactic weirdness of the phrase makes my teeth itch." He makes an argument from "failure of pattern": "you can't refer to someone who is freckled as a person of freckles, or a person who is dazed as a person of daze. Batman, the caped crusader, is not a person of cape."

Here's my take on it: the "person of _____" pattern is used in English mostly in set phrases:

"man of the cloth"
"person of interest"
"women of distinction"
"people of the book"
"man of steel"
"soldier of fortune"
"men of good will"

It is a productive pattern, in that it generates set idiomatic phrases, but what is not idiomatic is to simply use the construction willy-nilly. Pullum admits that "There are, of course, such things as entirely idiosyncratic one-off constructions." I'd further say that the "of" construction marks such a phrase as an idiom. As such, it is not an idiosyncratic way of forming an idiom, but a rather commonplace one. One thing that makes the phrases idiomatic is that you cannot deduce their meaning from their constituent parts. So "people of freckles" would not be a well-formed idiom in this sense. Of course, "man of wealth" is also transparent from its parts.

I know if you add an adjective then you can make this pattern very productive: "person of enormous empathy" or "woman of great intelligence."

Do I personally like "person of color"? I'll never say. I do love the phrase "quasi-archaic syntactic weirdness" and promise to use it in a blues song.


Vance Maverick said...

The ham-handed but moderately amusing "honest" trailer for Game of Thrones rightly jabs Martin for reliance on the "of" pattern, in his case for faux-medieval flavor.

Jonathan said...

Ha ha.

I guess my argument is that the construction is common in "terms of art" or idioms in which the words are used in special way (like the phrase "term of art" itself).

Vance Maverick said...

Just heard "activists of color" on KPFA. Perfectly clear, with the established "people of color" audible right behind it. So agreed about willy-nilly, but it's not obvious where the boundary lies.

Jonathan said...

Well once "of color" is in wide use, there be men, children, girls, activists, students, faculty, of color. There's no question of that. I'm just wondering about how easy it is to produce other constructions of this type, like, say, "people of muscle" for weightlifters. Pullum's point was that many expressions like this can sound strange.

Anonymous said...

Gente libre de color. Totally idiomatic in Spanish. I always thought it was some kind of borrowing.

Linguists: my classicist friend, with the philological training I have, claims most linguists nowadays are a waste of a line: they know less not more about linguistics and languages than we do.


Jonathan said...

I would never say I know more about language than a good linguist. There's Sturgeon's law, of course.

Andrew Shields said...

Linguists know less about language? Just this week in my theory of English grammar class (and I'm not a trained linguist but an autodidact), I discussed the redefinition of the preposition as taking additional types of complements that are not noun phrases. This is fascinating and insightful stuff that reveals a great deal about how English works, and it was linguists who came up with it.

And I could provide a dozen other examples of cases where linguists have opened my eyes to how language really works and not how what amounts to "folk linguistics" says it works.

And I, too, have my training in philology, not linguistics.