“Able was I ere I saw Elba.” – Napolean
Poetic as it may sound, “able was I ere” is not a sentence we may normally use, even if we forgive the archaism of the expression. When you introduce yourself to someone, it is customary to say ”My name is Thomas” rather than “Thomas is my name”. Grammatically speaking, there is nothing in particular that forbids you to say that. The verb ‘to be’ is a so-called copular verb, which means that it acts like an equal sign, signifying that the two nouns or adjectives surrounding it are equal (or at least that is the simplistic view). For an equal sign, then, which one of the two arguments comes first should not be a matter of concern, because they are, after all, equal. But we know that is not true.
Let us start examining this issue by first considering under what circumstances we might use the sentences:
- My name is Thomas.
- Thomas is my name.
As we mentioned above, sentence 1 is used when we first introduce ourselves, when we first meet someone who does not know anything about us, not our name at least.
A: What is your name?
B: My name is Thomas.
Sentence 2, on the other hand, may be used when someone has mentioned the name/word ‘Thomas’, but does not know whose name it is or what it is. Consider the following situations:
C: Whose name is Thomas?
D: Thomas is my name.
E: What is this word written here? ‘Akwasi’?
F: Akwasi is my name.
Portia: Is your name Shylock?
Shylock: Shylock is my name.– Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
In summary, for sentence 1, “Thomas” is unknown to the listener, or in other words, it is a piece of new information to the listener; while for sentence 2, “Thomas” (or “Akwasi”) is a piece of old information, and instead, “my name” is the piece of new information.
In natural languages, English included, there is a tendency to place the old information in the beginning of a sentence, and the new information towards the end.
Technically, we can identify a topic and a focus in basically every statement.
A topic sets the context or the scope of a sentence, it tells the listener what this sentence is about. A topic can be specified using phrases like “as for…”, “as far as … is concerned”, “concerning …”, but they can also be present without the use of any such devices. When I say “My name is Thomas,” for instance, “my name” is the topic I want to talk about. It can be rephrased or understood as “as far as my name is concerned, it is Thomas.” Because of its function, the topic must be a piece of old information that the listener knows about or understands.
A focus, on the other hand, is the main message or information the speaker wishes to convey to the listener. Because of its nature, it is usually a piece of new information to the listener. “Thomas” in “My name is Thomas” is therefore the focus of the sentence.
So it explains why normally it does not sound right to say “Thomas is my name” when you first introduce yourself. We can now also understand the weirdness of “Impossible is nothing” (although it certainly sounds better once you have got used to it). For the latter case, the sentence word order is reversed to emphasize “nothing”. Similarly Napolean’s quote is constructed that way to place the focus on “ere”, creating a contrast between “ere” and “now”.
A legitimate question to ask at this point is why our languages have these properties. A probable answer is that when we communicate, we need to first give the listener a signal of what we are going to talk about, catch their attention and get them prepared, and leave the most important information at the end so that the listener has sufficient time to process the message.
A Thomas’ article a day, keeps the doctor away. haha. Brilliant work. Keep it up!
Quite funny and interesting, but why didn’t you mention the palindrome in that sentence about Napoleon?
The palindrome is certainly fascinating, I wish I will say something about it later, but the point I would like to make here is on the word order. =)
Have u ever studied functional grammar ? It talks about what you have mentioned here.
By the way , are you an English teacher or student in linguistics ?
1. In fact the most part of my studies in linguistics focused on Chomskyan generative grammar. Personally, I am deeply fascinated by this elegant theory, so simple and neat, and yet so powerful and elaborated. I have studied a little bit of functional grammar before, but probably that’s all.
2. Both =)
Well, my syntax and morphology covered some parts of generative grammar. It seems to me although we can analyze a sentence into different NP VP ,etc, it doesn’t give a deeper understanding of that sentence or of the philosophical question ” what is language”. Perhaps it is only because of my inadequate training in this theory.
To be honest, I think generative grammar is a much more beautiful theory than functional grammar, scientifically speaking. I always feel that functional grammar has a lot of explanatory power but too little predicative power, which renders it a pseudoscientific theory (or maybe it didn’t intend to be a scientific theory in the beginning anyway, its applications are often pedagogic).
On the other hand, generative grammar starts off from a few assumptions (universals and principles, language acquisition device, etc.), a set of tools (X-bar theory, case theory, etc.), and proceeds to demonstrate its power both in explaining existing structures as well as predicting possible structures. It’s simply marvellous! Admittedly there are some difficulties with the theory, but if a theory can explain so many phenomena across different languages, there has to be something right about it. That’s what I believe.
Maybe I should mention that generative grammar is not only about drawing syntactic trees and analysing sentences into NPs and VPs. They are only tools to help us understand how the brain process language. Drawing trees is just like basic arithmetic, and generative grammar is like physics. While physics applies mathematics to understand our physical world, the beauty of generative grammar is in its application of these analytic tools to understand our mind.
Every theory has something right about it otherwise it won’t be called a theory. But unless one has enough knowledge of both grammars, one can hardly compare their limitations in deep.
Most laymen are emotionally attached to what they specialize and not able to receive whatever comment against their belief. I truly believe you are open-mind, which is the most important quality when one seeks knowledge.
Very true. There’s always something to appreciate in any respectable theory.
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I think I’m misunderstanding something here, when you say that “in natural languages, English included, there is a tendency to place the old information in the beginning of a sentence, and the new information towards the end.”
If I ask the question ‘What is an anaconda’ in Welsh, to elicit the answer ‘An anaconda is a snake’, it would have the following pattern:
Beth yw anaconda?
what is (an) anaconda?
Neidr yw anaconda.
(a) snake is (an) anaconda
Here, the meaning is not ‘a snake is an anaconda’ (i.e. providing a definition of ‘snake’ but ‘an anaconda is a snake’ (providing an explanation of what an anaconda is.
Similarly, to say ‘the name is Thomas’ using the copula in Welsh one would usually say::
Thomas yw’r enw
On the other hand, in Irish, the word order would be rather different:
Cad i ‘anaconda’?
What (is) it (an) anaconda?
Is nathair i anaconda
is (a) snake it (an) anaconda
Do you happen to know how widespread this ‘tendency’ is? Are the Celtic languages perhaps just exceptional?
Also, shouldn’t the Napoleon palindrome be rather punctuated:
“Able was I, ere I saw Elba” (i.e. ‘I was fully competent, before I saw Elba)?
Thanks for a stimulating blog!
The idea of topic and focus is very similar to the Japanese idea of topic and subject (‘wa’ vs. ‘ga’). Indeed, Japanese sentences are often translated beginning with ‘As for…’.
It sounds wrong to me. I’m thinking “impossibilities are nothing” that sounds way more natural to me.
It’s like the same with invulnerable. In some games you have an invulnerability bonus. You don’t say “Invulnerable is great!”. You tend to say “Invulnerability is great!”.
Then again, maybe it is right and it just really sounds very unnatural.