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Thread: A really cryptic question about English usage

  1. #1
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    A really cryptic question about English usage

    This is probably too far out there to get any meaningful response, but I've been wondering:

    I usually say my "mother and father", not "father and mother". But I say "brothers and sisters", not "sisters and brothers". Why the order? Since societies tend to be paternalistic, many languages consistently put men before women in such phrases. Which makes sense in the case of "brothers and sisters", but not "mother and father".

    One thought I have was that it could be alphabetical. But then why "mother and father"? Could it be from "mater" and "pater"?

    Incidentally, I would say "aunts and uncles", which is also alphabetical, though in that case it might be the one-syllable two-syllable combination like in "bread and butter" or "salt and pepper".

    And I think I tend to say "grandma and grandpa", which seems to fit with the "mother and father" pattern. Perhaps because mothers are a closer presence for children?

    I wonder if anybody has any thoughts on this fascinating dilemma.
    As above, so below

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    Re: A really cryptic question about English usage

    In parts of the South the solution is to refer to them as "mah folks", "mah ken", or (more formally) "mah fummuly". For the other side, if'n not formally hitched, then it's "them folks" or "her folks", or if formally hitched, it's "mah inlahws".

    Then there's "mammaw" and "pappaw", but we won't got there.

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    I believe that part of it is because certain combinations of words just flow better verbally in a certain order.

    Take the example of a word ending in "K" preceding a word beginning with "K".
    The words get run together or have a very deliberate stop in between them which is awkward. The flow is better if the positions of the two words can be swapped.

    Many words are like this, allthough in most cases it's much more subtle

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    That may be true, but most of the words I brought up, i.e. mother, father, brother, sister, grandfather, grandmother, end in the same sound, so I can't see what role phonetics would play.
    As above, so below

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    They end in the same sound, but they don't sound alike, if you see what I mean. Then again, I say "father and mother" and "mother and father" about as often, likewise "brothers and sisters" and "sisters and brothers." However, if you get into one pattern, you're likely to repeat it whether it makes sense or not. (Hence, I would imagine, my posts about the Big Bang tending to be posts about the "Big Band" if I'm not careful.)

    I will also note that in both "salt and pepper" and "bread and butter," the more important one comes first. While you might expect a mother to be less important in a patriarchal society, she is more important, I think, to most children--certainly in the first perhaps two years of life.
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    Re: A really cryptic question about English usage

    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    [edit]I will also note that in both "salt and pepper" and "bread and butter," the more important one comes first....
    Salt more important than pepper? Not around here!

    Hold the halite, come on with the capsicum!

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    There seem to be some cases where it really is the most important that comes first, regardless of which is longer:

    macaroni & cheese
    burger & fries
    table & chair

    But there are others where the shorter one comes first, even when I don't think one is necessarily more important:

    peas & carrots
    cream & sugar
    milk & cookies (surely the cookies are more important!)
    soup & salad (a bit iffy, I guess soup is probably the main dish)

    And I found one pair where the longer word comes first, even if they seem to me to be of equal importance:

    bacon & eggs

    So it seems to me that the "more important one first" is definitely one criterion, but there is something more as well.

    And the thing about "mother" being more important than "father" may be important in this case. It's one of the factors I considered at first.
    As above, so below

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    Well, if not cryptic, pretty effin' arcane, jens. As for "fascinating dilemma," well, I'll leave both of those assertions politely unchallenged... (there'd be a smiley here if I knew how to make one yet in "quick reply"). I wouldn't want to be contentious on my very first post here.

    First thought: This isn't codified, but just a matter of custom, right? (I wonder if there are regional differences in the US or UK.) To my ear, when I said "father and mother" and your other examples of unusual order, they sounded a bit unusual but not glaringly wrong. I peeked and saw you're a translator, and you say "many languages consistently..." -- is it just casually consistent, as in English, or is it actually codified anywhere (except, presumptively, French, of course)?

    I know what it's not: It's not alphabetical, just because customs and patterns like this never seem to develop along logical lines. And with due respect to sockmonkey, it's nothing to do with the flow of consecutive words, sicne they're all separated by "and."

    Aaaahhhh. Was it meaningful for you too?

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    Quote Originally Posted by madmansf View Post
    Well, if not cryptic, pretty effin' arcane, jens. As for "fascinating dilemma," well, I'll leave both of those assertions politely unchallenged... (there'd be a smiley here if I knew how to make one yet in "quick reply"). I wouldn't want to be contentious on my very first post here.
    It's OK, I was trying to be funny but without the smiley face, too. I know it's a pretty inconsequential thing. Just something that I was wondering about.

    Actually, on second thought, my comment about "many languages" was probably wrong. There are only two languages I know that do it consistently that way: Japanese and Chinese. And they may be special cases because you don't need to put an "and" between those words. They are like compound words.

    My French is kind of rusty, but I'm not sure how it would work: Ma mere et mon pere? Mon pere et ma mere? I think the first sounds more natural, but I'm not French so I may be prejudiced by the English.

    But definitely, it's just an issue of convention, somehow of "which sounds better". But it's just an interest, why we say it one way rather than the other...
    As above, so below

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    Darn it, the server just ate my reply. Once more into the breach then.

    I've always just assumed that this sort of thing develops with no rule, rhyme, or reason, just haphazardly. Willy-nilly. Helter-skelter. Higgledy-piggledy as the Brits say. Don't you as a linguist find this to be the case more often than not? I mean, we can't even seem to get our verbs conjugated in much of a regular fashion, and the more common the verb, the more wacky it gets.

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    I forgot to say you put a smile on MY face with all those examples.... bacon and eggs.... I love it. How's the weather in Tokyo? (San Francisco is having an extremely rare warm night, and I haven't a hope of sleeping.)

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    One could explore further, such as placing adjectives. We say "I have a big, red bike." and not "I have a red, big bike." Why that order? There was an article (possibly the guy who wrote "The Language Instinct") where he discusses those orders, and there was no definitive conclusion made.

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    Well, ya wanna get into adjective-noun order, that's a whole new kettle of linguistic fish isn't it. Can of worms, whatever. Most European languages would say not "red bike" but "bike red." Go figure....

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    Gillian use "salt and pepper" as an example, and she's right, but in another usage, for a pattern of fabric or sometimes a person's greying hair, "pepper and salt" may be the usual way of using the words. I think that may be a clue - different uses aquire a definite and individual usage.

    I'm sure you've trie turning some examples around in the same way. Many don't work, but "eggs 'n' bacon"/"bacon 'n' eggs" do, and they have slightly different 'flavours' (!). I wonder if the first trips off the tongue of an American while the second suits a Brit?
    The classic must be "cart and horse". Which should be put before the other?

    John

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maksutov View Post
    Salt more important than pepper? Not around here!

    Hold the halite, come on with the capsicum!
    I don't remember why I did it, but I picked up the book Salt from the library, and read it (I think it was kinda like, huh, there couldn't possibly be enough stuff about salt to fill a book this thick--I was wrong )

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    milk & cookies (surely the cookies are more important!)
    Not nutritionally. But probably to most children (and many adults) the cookies are the focus of this particular snack.

    However, in this particular case I would say "cookies and milk" 99 times out of 100.

    I think the most likely explanation is simply force of habit. You learn a particular expression one way early in life and it stays with you. I'm sure there are regional differences; maybe "milk and cookies" is more common in the South and the reverse in the North.

    Historically, the preferred order may have developed by chance or by the smoothest result when spoken.

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    Kibbles 'n' bits.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maksutov View Post
    Salt more important than pepper? Not around here!

    Hold the halite, come on with the capsicum!
    No capsicum in salt and pepper! That's a different kind of "pepper".
    Cum catapultae proscriptae erunt tum soli proscript catapultas habebunt.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maksutov View Post
    Salt more important than pepper? Not around here!

    Hold the halite, come on with the capsicum!
    Well, sure, if you don't mind the nutritional deficiency . . . . (Which a friend of mine probably had as a child, because they didn't eat any processed foods, and her mother never added salt to anything. She started to after taking a nutrition course, though.)

    John, I've always referred to "salt and pepper" hair. It could be a regional difference. I suspect several of the pairings we use involve regional differences.

    As to "big red bike," "big" is actually modifying "red bike," which is why I didn't use a comma there. You are not describing any old bike. You are describing a red bike. In this instance, it's actually a noun phrase. Not quite a compound noun, because "red bike" isn't something that'll get used as essentially one word, but a noun phrase. This happens with other phrases in English as well--"Little Red Riding Hood" doesn't take a comma, either. (Everyone knows she takes a basket of goodies.)
    _____________________________________________
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    "Now everyone was giving her that kind of look UFOlogists get when they suddenly say, 'Hey, if you shade your eyes you can see it is just a flock of geese after all.'"

    "You can't erase icing."

    "I can't believe it doesn't work! I found it on the internet, man!"

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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    As to "big red bike," "big" is actually modifying "red bike," which is why I didn't use a comma there. You are not describing any old bike. You are describing a red bike. In this instance, it's actually a noun phrase. Not quite a compound noun, because "red bike" isn't something that'll get used as essentially one word, but a noun phrase. This happens with other phrases in English as well--"Little Red Riding Hood" doesn't take a comma, either. (Everyone knows she takes a basket of goodies.)
    Heheheh.

    While I agree with what you say, I don't think it explains mr obvious's original observation. There's no particular reason why we couldn't consider "big bike" to be the noun phrase and modify that with "red", thus "red big bike". But we don't. Why? Uh... we just don't.

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    Bangers and Mash?

    For that matter (I know someone can definitively help me here)

    Lock and load.

    Wouldn't you load first, then lock?

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    Roll 'n Rock (not to be confused with Rolling Rock)?

    Jerry and Tom?


    Soda and Whiskey?

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    Re: A really cryptic question about English usage

    And from the realm of industrial-strength expressions:

    Lockout/tagout.

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    Re: A really cryptic question about English usage

    Quote Originally Posted by Trebuchet View Post
    No capsicum in salt and pepper! That's a different kind of "pepper".
    Right, as regards "black pepper". Around here the salt and pepper on the lazy susan are the usual salt and typically a bottle of Yucatan Sunshine.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Gillianren View Post
    Well, sure, if you don't mind the nutritional deficiency . . . . (Which a friend of mine probably had as a child, because they didn't eat any processed foods, and her mother never added salt to anything. She started to after taking a nutrition course, though.)
    I don't want to derail the thread, but I don't agree. You don't have to add salt to anything. In fact, we were not designed to have salt added to our diets, and processed salt is only a relatively new invention. Salt is found in many foods naturally. You don't have to add it. IMO. Now, there may be certain situations in which you have to be careful, like heavy exercise or when you drink lots of water, but it's pretty clear that hunter-gatherers (who generally do not add salt to their food) do not die when they start exercising.
    As above, so below

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    Quote Originally Posted by madmansf View Post
    How's the weather in Tokyo? (San Francisco is having an extremely rare warm night, and I haven't a hope of sleeping.)
    Actually, pretty horrible here too. It's just the middle of May and the high today is like 28 degrees C. I'm not looking forward to the natural disaster we inevitably get once a year (summer).
    As above, so below

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    Quote Originally Posted by madmansf View Post
    Well, ya wanna get into adjective-noun order, that's a whole new kettle of linguistic fish isn't it. Can of worms, whatever. Most European languages would say not "red bike" but "bike red." Go figure....
    I'm not a professional linguist, though I guess I'm an applied linguist. Aren't we all? But that is an interesting issue to me.

    In fact, the world's languages nearly all fit into three categories:

    SOV (I fish eat)
    OSV (Eat I fish)
    SVO (I eat fish)


    In languages in the first category (Hindi, Japanese), which make up almost 50%, the adjective almost invariably comes before the noun.

    In languages in the second category (Malay, Tagalog), which make up about 10% of languages I think, the adjective almost invariably comes after the noun.

    And in the third category (Chinese, Thai, English, and most European languages), which make up the remaining 40% or so, all bets are off. In Chinese and English the adjectives come first, but in Thai and many European languages they come after the noun. And in fact you have schizophrenic languages like French where they do both. (Un grand maison rouge).

    Incidentally, there are practically no languages that follow other word orders, such as OSV or OVS. I think Klingon is OVS, but that's different.
    As above, so below

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    I don't want to derail the thread, but I don't agree. You don't have to add salt to anything. In fact, we were not designed to have salt added to our diets, and processed salt is only a relatively new invention. Salt is found in many foods naturally. You don't have to add it. IMO. Now, there may be certain situations in which you have to be careful, like heavy exercise or when you drink lots of water, but it's pretty clear that hunter-gatherers (who generally do not add salt to their food) do not die when they start exercising.
    What, you never heard of salt licks?

    Now, I could be wrong; I didn't take the nutrition class. And besides, Heather's mother had them on an unnatural diet anyway, in my opinion--since we're omnivores and all that. But I think there's evidence that humans have tried to find outside sources of salt for a long time, although (since I'm not an anthropologist, nutritional or otherwise) I freely admit I could be wrong about this.
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    "Now everyone was giving her that kind of look UFOlogists get when they suddenly say, 'Hey, if you shade your eyes you can see it is just a flock of geese after all.'"

    "You can't erase icing."

    "I can't believe it doesn't work! I found it on the internet, man!"

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jens View Post
    SOV (I fish eat)
    OSV (Eat I fish)
    SVO (I eat fish)
    Don't you mean VSO for option 2? Yoda was OSV, if I recall my Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language ("Judge me by my size, do you?"), although looking at the quotes on IMDB he isn't consistent at all.

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