Pivotal Moments in the History of Linguistics—John Miaou SpecGram Vol CLVI, No 4 Contents The Highly Variable Lexicon of 955—Extremely Rapid Diachronic Change (ERDC)—Medulla Oblonglotta

A Reanalysis of English Cat

By Hoam L. E. Orange, Ph.D.
Besterly University

I and a few of my graduate students were sharing a round at the Ecks Bar one night, when we overheard a rather dull conversation taking place at the table behind us. It went something like this:

Gentleman:   “I do help out around the house!”
Young Lady:“Oh really? Name one thing that you’ve done. Name one thing!
Gentleman:“Well, obviously if you want me to
Young Lady:“Of course! Here we go again. I ask you for an example, and you conveniently can’t remember a single one, and that’s my fault somehow?!”
Gentleman:“All right, fine! You know what I did? I did it today, just before you came home: I emptied the cat box.”

Of course, the gentleman meant the litter box, but his word posed a curious problem I left my students to ponder over. The word “cat” in this sentence is acting more like an adjective than anything else. Even if one argues that it’s a noun, one can’t deny that there might, indeed, exist a secondary “cat box”say, a cat-shaped box, or a cat-flavored boxthat must be accounted for. Currently, I don’t believe the framework employed to describe English morphology is equipped to handle phenomena such as this one. As a result, I decided to sit down and modify it.

So, let’s start from the beginning. We have the following pair: cat and cats, singular and plural. The latter can be separated into cat meaning “cat” and -s meaning “plural”. In order to get the meaning “plural cat” out of cats, one has to add the two together, so naturally cat by itself cannot mean “cat singular”. This argues for the existence of a zero morpheme meaning “singular”, which, in addition to solving the current problem, conveniently accounts for similar problematic English nouns (cradle, filibuster, sludge, jauntiness, etc.).

At this point it would be nice to say that the category of “number” is accounted for, but there is still work to be done. Consider “cat box”. Is it a box for or about a singular cat? Perhaps a herd of cats? That seems rather to be missing the point. Indeed, the point here seems to be that the “cat” entity is being evoked, and that the modified noun should serve for one or many cats. I shall refer to this as the “positive”, in that the number of cats equal to or greater than one will be positive. This gives us three numbers for “cat”: singular, plural and positive.

Unfortunately, there is another aspect of number that needs an account. Consider the sentence, “There are no cats in the stove” (cf. *“There are no cat in the stove”). While the word looks plural, the number of cats actually being referred to is zero. The same is true of any number of cats less than zero, as in the following: “My niece took four cats from two cats and ended up with negative two cats” (cf. *“...ended up with negative two cat”). Consider also the sentence, “After the cat tax passed, I was left with negative one cats” (cf. *“...left with negative one cat”).1 This, of course, requires a fourth number: the “negative”. Thus, we have four: singular, plural, positive and negative.

While this may adequately account for the number of cat,2 much of the story, so to speak, remains to be told. Consider, for example, the status of cat in “The cat hurled itself off a bridge” and in “Mary hurled the cat box at her live-in boyfriend John”. In the first sentence, cat is nominal, while in the second it’s adjectival. All the same, cat is not as adjectival in that second sentence as it is in “Sally painted her walls very cat”.3 This will require a set of part-of-speech zero morphs. The first, for obvious nominal instances of cat, will be “nominal”. For the latter two, the terms “non-nominal” and “adjectival” will suffice, the latter for obviously adjectival uses, and the former for those in between nominal and adjectival.

Of course, these parts-of-speech morphemes work perfectly well for cat, but what of the rest of the English language? Well, it turns out the existence of each of the three of these part-of-speech morphemes can be confirmed independently. Consider the following sentences illustrating three different uses of fun:

  1. “I had fun launching cats into space.” (Nominal)
  2. “I frequently lock my cats in a funhouse overnight.” (Non-Nominal)
  3. “It is really fun to dress cats up like pickles.” (Adjectival)

Thus, the analysis is confirmed.

Though my work in this area is preliminary, I did want to share some of what I’ve discovered about tense. Consider the following sentences:

  1. “I am sorting cats.”
  2. “I’ve finished sorting all my cats.”
  3. “I look forward to a productive evening of sorting cats.”

Disregarding number and part of speech, the first sentence is a present tense sentence, the second a past tense sentence, and the third takes place in the future. A cat now is different from a cat yesterday, which is, in turn, different from a future cat. As these three types of cat are inherently different, their presence must also be marked with zero morphs for “present”, “past” and “future”.

Though we still have quite a bit of work to do with cat, our research should be completed within five to six years, at which point in time we can move on to other complex words, like “village”, “snout”, “biscuit” and “gonad”. And even though we can’t say much for certain yet, we have confirmed the existence of the following morpheme classes, one of which must be present on every noun (and in the following order):

  1. Number: Singular (), Plural (-s), Negative (-s), Positive ()
  2. Part of Speech: Nominal (), Non-Nominal (), Adjectival ()
  3. Tense: Present (), Past (), Future ()
  4. Aspect: Perfect (), Imperfect (), Perfective (), Imperfective (), Fective ()
  5. Case: Unique ()4
  6. State of Mind: Depressed (), Significantly Depressed (), Inanimate ()
  7. Status: Alienably Possessed (), Inalienably Possessed (), Free ()
  8. Evidentiality: First-Hand (), Second-Hand (), Non-Evidential (), Hypothetical ()

And here is a full gloss of cat in the sentence, “My therapist berated my cat publicly”:

5.      cat-Ø-Ø-Ø-Ø-Ø-Ø-Ø-Ø

As I mentioned, this research is in its infancy, and more funding is required. I have no doubt that we’ve but scratched the surface, and that, pending funding, more categories and zero morphemes will be uncovered soon.5

1 I’ve been informed that certain dialects find this ungrammatical sentence acceptable. These dialects, however, do not conform to the hypotheses I’ve proposed, and so they will not be considered.

2 One might, at this point, ask about the dual, trial, tetral, quinqual, sextal, septal, octal, etc. As I hope the tone of this piece will indicate, this investigation is in its earliest stages, at present, and there is still much work to be done.

3 While this datum was never elicited, it nevertheless illustrates the point I’m making.

4 Even in a pair of sentences like “I yanked the cat by the tail” and “I yanked the cat by the tail again”, the cat itself is experiencing two different sensations, and, as a result, the cases assigned must be different. Thus, following Morontz (2006), we hold that each noun in each sentence receives a case as unique as the sentence itself, and that no two cases are ever repeated.

5 This research programme has been approved by and has the full support of the Natural Language Research Approval Committee. We shall triumph!

Pivotal Moments in the History of Linguistics—John Miaou
The Highly Variable Lexicon of 955—Extremely Rapid Diachronic Change (ERDC)—Medulla Oblonglotta
SpecGram Vol CLVI, No 4 Contents