Receive Second Knighthood—
But Can Linguistics
Cope With It?
by our Honorary
British Titles Editor,
Sir the Honourable Rear-Admiral the Lord Earl-Baron of
With the welcome news that all-round naturalist and TV supremo dude, Sir David Attenborough, has received a second knighthood from the Windsor clan at one of their many castles/palaces/stately homes/estates, the world of linguistics went into literal meltdown as observers pondered the un-sir-tainty of how to best address a double knight of the realm.
Sir David, who was of course ecstatic about the award, played the role of scientist to a tee when asked by reporters how he might best be addressed now that the doubly deserving double ‘Sir’ is prefixed to his name. Sir David replied, ‘While a naturalist at heart, I maintain a keen interest in lexico-morphosyntax, particularly in how using fewer lexemes may have a beneficial impact on the ever-deepening climate crisis. In respect of the ‘double Sir’ that I’ve been lucky enough to be honored with, I’m sure a range of lexico-morphosyntactic options may present themselves, and I look forward to seeing which one the global linguistics community comes up with as the best option. I’d be happy to screen a documentary on it on BBC if space can be found amid the myriad of other documentaries I have made.’
Well, Sir David, SpecGram to the rescue! We’ve assembled a crack unit of epithetic-focussed linguists to address the issue of the ‘double Sir’ appellation and can now provide a run-down of the suggested options.
Simple lexical reduplication seems the most straightforward response. This would of course yield ‘Sir Sir David Attenborough’. However, as both titles are the same, the question of prosody has been raised: should each title receive equal stress and a full phonetic form or should one be the reduced form [sə] and if so which one? This is of course related to the orthographic representation of the ‘Sir Sir’ string with two suggestions garnering some attention: a hyphenated form (‘Sir-Sir’) or a comma (Sir, Sir).
A deeper problem is that the ‘Sir Sir’ ordering leaves it ambiguous as to which Sir refers to which knighting. Pragmatics fails to help here as a tension obtains between a time-based reading (the first ‘Sir’ is the earlier one) or a prestige-based reading (the second Knighthood is of a higher status than the first). Possible resolutions to this include the formulation ‘Sir Sir David Attenborough’ but this takes us into the thorny territory of whether the  ~  formalism is the most appropriate. Should [A] ~ [B] be preferred—or some other?
Returning to the issue of reduplication, given that the majority of reduplication processes in the world’s languages are not full reduplication, it seems counter-intuitive and linguistically non-representative to elect the ‘Sir Sir’ form. To navigate these choppy morphological waters, proposals have been made for partial reduplication of various types. ‘Si-Sir’ seems the most intuitive, although other options include ‘Sir-ir’ or the infixed form ‘Si-s-r’. Proponents of these possibilities also note that a partial reduplication approach obviates the ambiguity issues of the full lexical reduplication.
Those of a more syntactic bent suggest that extraposition might be employed with Sir David’s new title being ‘Sir ti David Attenborough Siri’. The challenges here of course include the formulation of an appropriately constrained rule that addresses the issue of how the ‘David’ and ‘Attenborough’ lexemes are not extraposed, or indeed, how the first ‘Sir’ also remain in situ. Clearly the following are unacceptable:
*ti Sir David Attenborough Siri
*Sir Sir ti Attenborough Davidi
*Sir Sir David ti Attenboroughi
While the last is indistinguishable in surface form from ‘Sir Sir David Attenborough’, it nevertheless violates Trondleheim’s right movement constraint as formulated for extraposition in Dyirbal non-agentive arguments of telic verbs.
To conclude, while the whole of the UK and many other nations besides will be overjoyed at the news that the nonagenarian veteran broadcaster has been honoured with two Knighthoods—coming, moreover, as it does, most helpfully, at a time of rising living costs and global political instability and thereby distracting those of us yet to receive a single Knighthood from our woes—there clearly remains much to be done in terms of the linguistics of this prestigious award. Ever the scientist, Sir Sir David has agreed not to use the double honour until the world’s linguists have settled on an appropriate form. Sir David said, ‘the planet is undergoing immense and irreversible ecological changes which will result in a near total reconfiguration of the habitability of the Earth for humans and other species. However, with linguists working hard on how best to represent the ‘Sir Sir’ double honour I’ve recently received, I remain hopeful that the worst effects of the climate catastrophe can be addressed and that BBC will be able to continue to transmit my documentaries about antelopes and golden eagles for many decades to come.’