December 22, 2011


I enjoy the playfulness of linguists much more than that of, say, economists or quantum physicists, perhaps because it seems accessible and directly relevant to things I might do, hear, or be. Today's Geoffrey Pullum posting at Language Log (A wee conventional implicature) relays his observation of Scottish English and "its much more inscrutable sister language, Scots, which in general I cannot even understand" and has all the charm of the aforementioned linguistical playfulness, and so is worth quoting at length (though you'll doubtless want to go and read the whole thing):

...When you check in at the desk for a dental or medical or optician's appointment they will mark you down as having arrived and then say, "If ye'd just have a wee seat over there, we'll call ye in a minute or two." The seats indicated are not liliputian but of standard size, with a sitting surface about as 1.3 times the width of an average butt.

Usages of this sort are actually the majority of instances of wee that I hear. And what this usage seems to be doing is to impart some kind of friendly and encouraging attitude about this event not being a significant setback...the wait for the doctor won't be too long and they'll call you quite soon… That's the sort of thing people seem to be implying by popping a wee wee in there.

I have a hypothesis about the meaning. I think wee is developing into something rather like damn, only positive. Let me explain.

Damn has the syntax of an attributive adjective but the semantics of a scowl. When you say Somebody stole my damn guitar, you aren't describing the guitar as damned. It might be a much-treasured full-bodied Martin acoustic from the 1960s with genuine mother of pearl fretboard inlays and you might love it dearly. The irritation is at the whole event, the theft and everything surrounding it. Damn can be inserted as a modifer of any suitable noun phrase in the sentence (and I agree that "suitable" there needs some detailed explication), but its semantic contribution is always one of speaker attitude toward the whole situation...

It seems to me that wee has a similar syntactic privilege of occurrence — you can just pick a salient noun at random and stick wee on that — but the semantic contribution is just an optimistic and comforting attitudinal overtone: rather than the vague impression that the speaker is pissed at the situation, which is what damn conveys, wee supplies a vague impression that the speaker is being helpful and optimistic and that things are going to be just fine. But there is no necessary entailment that anything is little.

I'll keep an eye open for further examples of this, and perhaps post them here as updates.

[Ye shouldnae hold yer breath for me tae open comments, even if ye're a Scot, but if ye've got a wee example for me tae consider, I wouldnae object tae a wee email. Try mail2languagelog at; but keep in mind that we've no staff at all here at Language Log Plaza, and we've no got the time tae read all the email that comes in as it is.]

See? A stem-to-stern treasure

Posted by oook at December 22, 2011 07:08 AM
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