The impact of autonymy on the lexicon Philippe De Brabanter



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The impact of autonymy on the lexicon

Philippe De Brabanter

Institut Jean Nicod — Université Libre de Bruxelles

phdebrab@yahoo.co.uk
In this paper, I wish to examine the relations between the English lexicon and the discourse phenomenon that consists in quoting or mentioning a linguistic object, as in The word ‘why’ was spelt incorrectly (henceforth, ‘autonymy’). Autonymy turns out to underlie the formation of a substantial number of lexemes, all of which may be assumed to derive from a quoted word or sequence rather than from an ‘inert’ item. This is a word-formation process that has been largely overlooked by lexicographers, who have tended to consider that the input to word formation was provided by lexemes, stems and affixes, in other words, by elements in the system rather than by occurrences in discourse.

I will start by defining autonymy, go on to consider the best way to tackle the question how autonyms can find a way into the lexicon, then quickly go over the existing literature (mainly devoted to so-called ‘delocutives’). When that has been done, I will review what I regard as the four major guises in which autonyms can serve as input to word-formation processes. It will turn out that a general consequence of the incorporation of autonyms into the lexicon is that they lose most of their reflexivity, i.e. they stop denoting something very much like themselves (as in We don't have any time to look into the why of things). Yet, the fourth category examined will raise the intriguing question whether the lexicon does include some autonyms after all. This hypothesis is supported by some lexicographical data, but also, more decisively, by the finding that, in the case of those items that derive from words or phrases whose utterance carries illocutionary force (e.g. a bravo), it is often difficult to draw a precise line between what is a purely reflexive occurrence (a one-off autonym) and what is a minimally reflexive occurrence (a lexeme derived from an autonym). The question also arises whether one and the same lexical item can be instantiated now as an ordinary lexeme, now as an autonym. If my hypothesis is correct, it sheds new light on the relationships between discourse phenomena and the language system: not only do the former, trivially, nourish the later, but they also connect with it in such a way that certain items do not clearly belong to one domain rather than the other.


1. Autonymy


‘Autonymy’ is the name I have chosen to name a phenomenon that has been widely studied, especially by philosophers of language, under such labels as ‘mention’ or ‘quotation’. It is in essence a discourse phenomenon that consists in using a word, phrase, sentence, not with its ordinary denotation, but in order to highlight that word, phrase or sentence itself, or some relevant linguistic aspect of it. Here are a couple of examples (the autonyms are in boldface):
(1) Do you really think Prague rhymes with plague?

(2) She shouted, “Why don’t you let me go?”.

(3) And anyway, she only said that she hasn’t slept with him yet [...]. But it doesn’t stop me worrying about the ‘yet’. (Hornby 1995: 121-23)

There exist several major semantic and pragmatic accounts of autonyms, from the most straightforward theory, which assumes that autonyms are ‘words that refer to themselves’, to more subtle and complex proposals. My preference goes to a theory that treats autonyms as metalinguistic ‘demonstrations’ that have the effect of turning whatever sequence is highlighted into an NP that refers to, or an N that denotes, ‘some linguistic object’ that is iconically related to it.1 In (1), the utterer displays two words, Prague and plague, not in order to conjure up a Czech city or a deadly contagious disease, but to highlight their phonological make-up. The word-tokens displayed are used to refer to their corresponding word-types and to demonstrate a characteristic — the pronunciation of their final syllable — on which hinges the meaningfulness of the question asked. In (2), an instance of direct speech, the token displayed is used to refer to a previous utterance by another speaker (the one designated as she). Whereas that utterance – the referent of the sequence in boldface – is a main clause with its ordinary meaning, the quoted sequence does not operate as a main clause in the sentence in which it is embedded. Rather, it functions as an NP endowed with reference. In (3), ‘yet’ is the autonymous head of an NP. This NP is an anaphor of the homonymous token at the end of the first sentence and presumably refers to the token yet in the utterance of the female speaker whose words are reported indirectly.

The basic presentation above will suffice for my present purposes: in the end, whichever theory of autonymy is adopted has very little impact on the discussion I want to embark on. The very existence of autonyms and their reflexive metalinguistic nature — two facts not denied by any writer — is sufficient to warrant an investigation of the penetration of autonyms into the lexicon. This is the central business to which I now turn.

2. Autonymy and the lexicon


The relationships between the lexicon and autonymy have not been a key topic in contemporary linguistic scholarship. Among the few writers who have addressed the issue, let me cite Jespersen (1961); Benveniste (1966); Rey-Debove (1975, 1978); Droste (1983); Anscombre (1985); Ducrot & Schaeffer (1995). (Richard (1986) and Lepore (1999) have also looked into the metatheoretical implications of these relationships.) Initially, the problem lends itself to two main approaches, one diachronic, the other synchronic. In other words, one can ask if a given lexeme can be traced back to an original autonym or, alternatively, if the meaning of this lexeme is judged by the current community of speakers to rest in part on a homonymous autonym (in other words, if this lexeme is understood in terms of that autonym).

It might well turn out that some lexemes are judged to be derived from an autonym on one approach but not on the other. This is a familiar problem to those linguists who have attempted to inventory homonymy and polysemy in the vocabulary of a language: there too, the two approaches sketch different maps of the lexicon. For practical reasons, however, I could not afford spotless methodology in this paper. In other words, I was in no position to provide either a fully diachronic or a fully synchronic account. Diachronic evidence is scarce. The lexemes that derive from autonyms (henceforth ‘de-autonymous lexicalisations’, or ‘de-autonyms’, for short)2 have rarely been given due consideration by lexicographers. I have used what little evidence can be collected from dictionaries, but that remained fairly patchy.3 On the other hand, I could not afford to offer a purely synchronic account either. There were too many potential de-autonyms to be dealt with. For each, I would have had to consult native speakers on whether they understand the lexeme in terms of a homonymous autonym. This proved unfeasible.

Let me use a set of examples (adapted from Rey-Debove 1978: 160) to illustrate the sorts of problems I was confronted with:
(4) Why is he going back? [interrogative adverb: « for what reason? »]

(5) Your why makes no sense; the question is when he is going back. [autonym « (use of) the word why »]

(6) What I’m interested in is the why, not the where or the when [lexical noun: « the reason »]

I regard (5) as containing a true autonym and (6) as containing candidate de-autonyms (why, where, when) for the following reasons: the ‘why’ in (5) is a genuine autonym, not a lexicalised one, because it is fully reflexive, i.e. it denotes a lexeme that is iconically related to it. By contrast, the why in (6) is far from being fully reflexive, since it does not denote a formally similar linguistic object but a mental one that is in no iconic relation with why. This being clarified, the question that arises is how to show that the why in (6) ‘stems from’ an autonym as in (5), not from the plain adverb as in (4). The dictionaries I have consulted offer no direct evidence that the diachronic transition from the stage represented by (4) to that represented by (6) must have involved the autonymous stage, as exemplified in (5). As for synchronic evidence, one should ideally be able to check with a representative number of English-speaking informants that they ‘sense’ a direct connection between the whys in (5) and (6), that they understand why6 in terms of why5. I have settled for the following adjustment: the question whether why6 is understood in terms of why5 is rephrased as the question whether the definition of a putative de-autonymous item includes, or may include, a morphologically close autonym.4

In the end, I have chosen to use both the diachronic evidence available and my own intuitions to answer the following question, “what can become of an autonym in the lexicon?”. There seem to be four possible outcomes, which can be broken down as follows:


  1. an autonym can yield a lexeme whose citation-form is identical with it, and whose conventional lexical content includes the original autonym (‘form-preserving lexicalisation’):

And as to how she behaved to your mother you’d never believe it — cigarettes, mess, gin in the teacups, and never a please or thank-you. (BNC A0D 1504)5

  1. it can go through derivation or compounding and survive as an autonymous morpheme in the resulting lexeme (‘autonym as morpheme of lexeme’);

The evaluations are replete with mentions that he ‘was not a yes-man,’ and ‘says what he thinks.’ (Website)

  1. it can exist temporarily as a virtual member of the lexicon, as it were, without eventually finding its permanent abode there (‘virtual de-autonymous lexicalisation’);

Don’t Jimmy me! From now on I’m Mr. James Malloy.

  1. it may, exceptionally, enter it as an unadulterated autonym. This is a controversial category, the only one likely to attest to the presence of genuine autonymy in the lexicon. At this stage I prefer to offer no illustration. (See 4.4. — ‘autonym in the lexicon’)

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