In Defence of the Lexome—Ἀλέξια Ἀγνωσῐ́ᾱ, Лекс Циркумф, Լեքս Ռեֆ, & Lex Retrof SpecGram Vol CXC, No 2 Contents Caraway Crossing

Linguistic Squirminology:
Coming to Terms with Linguistics Terms

An Investigative Narrative
with Professors Lynn K. Wystick & Lexi K. O’Graffie
Issue 715
Direct Objections to the Direct Object:
On the Redefinition of ‘Grammatical Object’

So, the two of us, Lynn and Lexi, Professors of Linguistics and regular visitors to ornamental gardens, were admiring the colourful arrays of flowers during an exquisite visit to the manicured gardens of a local stately home recently, when out of the respective corners of each of our respective eyes, we caught sight of one darkly handsome, 6 foot 2, white–T-shirted garden employee spraying what looked like weedkiller over the crazy paving while another, blonder but similarly tall specimen loaded some sacks of some kind or other onto a wooden pallet.

You can guess what came next! After a sit down on a thankfully nearby bench to recover our equilibriumand indeed recover ourselvesone of us, I forget who, remarked upon the fact that the two strapping employees were virtually indistinguishable in terms of attractiveness. A brief silence fell, after which the other remarked that the famous spray/load alternation, well known in syntax circles, not only fit the context (re the spraying and loading activities of the two young gentlemen mentioned above) but were also, qua constructions, very similar both syntactically and semantically. ‘Yes’, the first of us agreed, ‘they are!’

The conversation pirouetted on, kaleidoscoping beautifully between the fragrance of the peonies, the muscular physicality of the pair of gardeners, and the spray/load alternation. A Holy Trinity of conversation themes! The two young men eventually moved on to another part of the garden, alas, leaving us with just flowers and syntactic forms. It was at this point (and I’m sure it was Lexi who said this) that one of us remarked, ‘Of course, the spray/load alternation has a versatile direct object’. And so it does. In ‘The muscular young gardener sprayed weed-killer onto the crazy paving’ it is of course the weed-killer which is the direct object, whereas in its cousin alternation ‘The muscular young gardener sprayed the crazy paving with weed-killer’, the nominal ‘the crazy paving’ is the direct object.

This got us thinking: so, what does that familiar linguistic term ‘the direct object’ actually mean? At this point, the sun had dipped behind a bank of greyish cloud leaving the quiet area of the garden in which we found ourselves slightly less warm; we therefore decided to potter on and perhaps locate the gentlemen whom we had been able to enjoy a few moments before.

As we tottered on, past the greenhouses with the potted plants and cacti, we reviewed the notion of direct object as we had come to understand it. Of course there are classic ‘tests’ for objecthood which syntacticians merrily teach their students as fail-safe diagnosticscase morphology, propensity for passivisation, canonical position in kernel sentencesbut each of these bends under the eventual weight of cross-linguistic reality, only to break in the end and send the whole example sentence cascading over the edge of the churning waterfall of textbookery into the swirling abyss of linguistic reality. If diagnostic tests fail, so does any definition; we’re forced to concede that even a lengthy and multiply hedged formulation such as ‘a required nominal or clausal construction prototypically associated with Patienthood or Themehood which, in English at least, tends to occur to the immediate right of a (di)transitive verbal predicate in an unmarked sentence’. It’s definitions like that which, after we’ve provided them in slide 2 of a lecture, both of us need a sit-down and a cup of tea and a battenberg slice.

‘But are direct objects compulsory,’ we asked ourselves and each other? ‘Certainly not,’ we both and each replied. ‘Consider,’ suggested Lexi, ‘ “I talk {rubbish/French}” in relation to “I talk quickly” or “I eat {hamburgers/chips}” in relation to “I eat late on weekdays”; in both cases, each is a complete sentence but in the second there is no direct object. And with the passive construction, transitive verbs suddenly cannot take a direct object.’ ‘Moreover,’ continued Lynn, ‘certain post-verbal entities are required by the semantics of the verbal predicate but are neither nominal nor clausal and are not associated with Patienthood or Themehood. Take “The garden swarmed with bees” and “Bees swarmed in the garden”. In each, a post-verbal PP is compulsory and pertains to location and in-respect-of respectively.’

Golly gosh and Oh my days! What a linguistic tiswas we’d got ourselves into. By lucky chance, however, we’d come upon the children’s play area where we like to stand a while and cogitate upon our shared decision (in the distributive sense of shared) never to marry or engage is the havoc and highlights of parenthood. Our publications are our children and between us we have birthed many! Nevertheless, it is sweet, although perhaps bitter-sweet, to watch the children, bundles of energy, ricochet around the wooden structures, instantiations of youthful energy blissfully ignorant of the slow pace of the later years.

Our glance fell upon one, stocky, shaven-headed and apparently partnerless chap in his late 30s as he observed two young children career around the play area. As we enjoyed observing his broad shoulders and powerful upper body, he stooped and removed some mud from one of the walkways which formed the wooden mock-castle of the play area. ‘Hmmmm,’ ventured Lexi. ‘ “Swarm” allows two alternations as we discussed a moment ago, as does “buzz” in “The street buzzed with shoppers” ~ “Shoppers buzzed in the street”. But “career” does not: “The children careered around the wooden mock castle” ~ *”The wooden mock castle careered with children.” ’

‘Indeed,’ answered Lynn. ‘And consider this: “The boat swayed/rocked with people” is an alternate of “The people swayed/rocked the boat” and not “the people swayed/rocked in the boat”. But consider this also: “The thirtysomething apparently single dad of two cleared mud from the walkway” ~ “The thirtysomething apparently single dad of two cleared the walkway of mud.” And does that not take us back to our previous observations, both of men and sentences, and the spray/load alternation?’

We gathered our energy, gathered our skirts, gathered ourselves, got up and gathered our thoughts in relation to direct objecthood. Lynn was right to note that ‘clean’ patterns like ‘spray/load’, which was of course where our meanderings had begun. So spray/load/clean need a direct object, but the constructions allow either post-verbal entity to assume that role, the other necessarily surfacing in a PP. Here, then, direct objecthood is required but can be one of two entities. Mysterious, indeed.

We pottered on, prattled on and thought on. We covered ground both literal and conceptual, and much fun and talk was had. Ergatives, nominal morphology and semantics entered the door of the terrace house of our discussion, stayed a while, supped a cup of tea and a slice of battenberg, and then bade us farewell only to reappear back at the front door once more for a refill. We picked at and unpacked the notion of direct objecthood as the spring sun wheeled its smiling arc over the garden, stretching the shadows ever more eastward.

It was 4:30ish and time to be dallying off. We’d decided that direct objects were probably some kind of shorthand for a bundle of characteristics and in some sense was a linguistic fiction. And this brings us to the heart of this issue of Linguistic Squirmology: should the term ‘direct object’, proud and arrogant in its connotations of solidity and objectivity even exist? We began to suggest not. Then, all unlooked for, the two young men, the two employees of this sumptuous garden, once more hoved themselves into view. Their spraying and loading was over it seemed as each now pushed a barrow with his long, toned arms, overflowing with flora of many a distracting colour. ‘Objets d’art, no less!’ remarked Lynn in the flawless Hungarian accent in which she spoke French.

‘That’s it,’ responded Lexi immediately. ‘That’s what to rename the so-called direct object! It captures the connotation of subjectivity, the constructed and emergent nature; not, as we’ve discovered, some fixed point in linguistic space.’ ‘Yes indeed,’ countered Lynn. ‘But why not this: objet directe?’ And there it was, a new term for what linguistics has been calling the direct object for decades. A far more fitting epithet, rich in the nuanced and tendencial realities of the phenomenon under discussion throughout the afternoon.

With that decision made, we exited the garden through the bookshop, bade farewell to each other, clambered into our respective vehicles and drove off on our separate ways, certain of meeting again on the Monday in the context of our duties. This, however, was weeks ago. We’ve yet to write all this up of course, other than here. But that’s probably because we’ve been heading back to the garden a touch more often that perhaps we should have, primarily in search of the apparently single thirtysomething dad of two who’d cleared mud from the walkways/cleaned the walkways of mud. We haven’t seen him again, more’s the pity, but the expectation is half the excitement in any case. Someday soon we’ll have to commit all this stuff to paper and hopefully effect the terminological shift our thinking so strongly implies. But for now, back to the garden and all the sights it has to offer.

In Defence of the LexomeἈλέξια Ἀγνωσῐ́ᾱ, Лекс Циркумф, Լեքս Ռեֆ, & Lex Retrof
Caraway Crossing
SpecGram Vol CXC, No 2 Contents