Indigenous nudity

« previous post | next post »

Caught on-screen in an episode (set in Namibia, a re-run from some years ago) of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, a travel-and-food television show:

This program contains indigenous nudity. Parental discretion is advised.

It's a warning that there were to be (female) breasts and (male) penises on display, though surely only fleetingly or out of the main focus of the camera, combined with the reassurance that the people whose bodies are (however negligently) on display are indigenous peoples — "primitives" and not "full people" like you and me, the viewers (or like Janet Jackson). That's the social point, which has been commented on on the net by a fair number of people, and about which there's a gigantic literature having to do with the attitudes and stances of people in dominant, urban, colonializing, modern, Western, literate, largely white, and/or "civilized" cultures towards the Other, the Exotic.

Then there's a linguistic point, about the nominal expression indigenous nudity, which is clearly an adjective modifier plus a noun head, but isn't understood as predicating some property (indigenousness, in this case) of some entity (nudity, in this case), but is understood as relating two entities (nudity and indigenous peoples, in this case). That is, the expression is Adj + N, but it functions semantically (and to some extent syntactically) like N + N, like a noun-noun compound.

As I said in a recent posting, non-predicating modification is all over the place. I noted in that posting that there are many types. Some of them are adverbial in their semantics: miserable dancer 'someone who dances miserably', former friend 'someone who was formerly a friend'. But most of them have what have been labeled "pseudo-adjectives", evoking nominal references, in them.

A few examples:

electrical engineer 'engineer who deals with electricity [in a way to be specified further]'

historical figure 'figure/person in/from history'

political opponent 'opponent in politics'

dental hygiene 'hygiene of the teeth'

mental health 'health of the mind'

Canadian border 'border with Canada [with respect to some adjoining country]'

northern border 'border on the north [of some point of reference]'

These examples involve some further degree of semantic specification (hinted at above for a few of them), beyond the relationships suggested by the glosses here. In a few cases, which have been much studied, the semantic relationships are more transparent and and the patterns are productive:

Italian invasion 'invasion by Italy, Italy's invasion' OR 'invasion of Italy, Italy's invasion' OR 'invasion by Italians'

In general, there's a big range of examples: a few types of recurrent relationships; many partially conventionalized examples with moderately close semantic relationships (like the ones above); some conventionalized examples with distant semantic relationships (civil engineer, natal day); and other examples with distant semantic relationships that can be created on the spot (provincial candidate, diabetic handbook, and of course indigenous nudity). It's just like noun-noun compounds.

As with Italian invasion, many combinations have more than one interpretation. Floral design, for example, has at least the interpretations 'a design incorporating representations of flowers as a central design element' ("My Hawaiian shirt has a floral design; it has orchids all over it") and 'the designing of assemblages of flowers' ("Sandy's floral design firm specializes in weddings"). These are interpretations with some currency, but you could easily imagine fresh creations — with, say, the interpretation 'the designing of artificial flowers' or 'the designing of new types of flowers by genetic manipulation'.

If you're not familiar with one or the other of the first two interpretations of floral design above, and you come across it, you might well balk at the expression, saying that it is meaningless or incomprehensible or incoherent or just plain ungrammatical (the sort of response some people had to the novel noun-noun compound canoe wife that Geoff Pullum talked about here not long ago). People are sometimes enraged by non-predicating Adj + N combinations that are unfamiliar to them and can't easily be treated as fitting one of the familiar patterns.  Bloggers commenting on indigenous nudity seem to have understood the expression perfectly well, though; their comments about it are mostly mocking rather than incomprehending:

Viewers all over America have reported bemusement and/or an increase in night tremors wondering what “indigenous” nudity actually means … (link)

Indigenous nudity. Interesting— I regularly experience indigenous nudity in my shower as well and my bedroom. (link)

The fact is that novel non-predicating Adj + N combinations, like novel N + N compounds, are wonderful things to have available, because they are so flexible; they allow you to express new kinds of semantic relationships. Interpreting them does depend on your having either prior experience with the combination in question or else the background knowledge that would let you work out the connection between the parts (or else the willingness to live with an incomplete understanding until you can get more information). But understanding language is like that: it depends at every step on presumed shared knowledge, features of the context, assessments of the goals of the speaker, and the like.

A few final words about some ways in which pseudo-adjectives (though clearly, from their morphological forms, adjectives) are awfully noun-y (this is old stuff, depending heavily on Judith Levi's work in the 1970s):

(1) Pseudo-adjectives are really really non-gradable: they resist modification by degree adverbs like very and how (*a very electrical engineer, *how electrical an engineer). (Yes, I know, there are predicational uses of adjectives like electrical, but that isn't the point. For further comments on non-gradability, see the note at the end of this posting.)

(2) Pseudo-adjectives are not happy as predicatives: *your engineer is electrical, *I made your engineer electrical. (Proviso as before.)

(3) Pseudo-adjectives are not happy conjoined with predicating adjectives: *a highly competent and electrical engineer.

(4) Pseudo-adjectives are sometimes conjoinable with nouns in N + N compounds: several electrical and  computer engineers.

[Note on some adjectives that have been widely castigated as non-gradable because of their meaning: unique is the classic example. Some people claim that adjectives like unique cannot take degree modifiers (very unique, how unique) BECAUSE OF THEIR MEANING: unique MEANS 'only one'. Part of this claim is just fallacious Originalism (Etymology is Destiny), part raw assertion that the critic knows what the word REALLY means. To which I always ask, "How do you know this?" And, "What do you mean by really?"

This particular case is a topic for another posting. But the general situation is clear: if a word denotes the end-point of some scale (as unique surely does), then it can be used -- and will be used -- in describing approximations to that end-point, using approximative expressions like almost and nearly. (If there are only two occurrences of X in the world, then each of these is nearly unique.) Then, of course, you can ask how close to the end-point something is by asking how X it is, and you can describe something that has very few competitors for being the one and only as very X, and you can describe something that has no competitors at all as entirely X.

Back up. Some of you are objecting that unique does not denote the end-point of a scale, and you say that because unique is not used in mathematics that way. But it's a mistake to suppose, when we're talking about ordinary language, that the mathematical usage of terms takes priority over ordinary people's usage of them. Yes, in mathematical usage, unique is used "crisply", for 'one and only one' (and that's an important concept to have in mathematical contexts), but, frankly, this really doesn't have beans to do with how unique is used in ordinary English. Instead, the mathematical usage is a specialization, a refinement, of ordinary English in a technical context. (The 'one and only' use of UNMODIFIED unique is of course alive and well in modern English.)

Scalar relationships are incredibly important in the way people structure the world and talk about it, and people are inclined to see scalarity whenever they can.

The larger point is that adjectives like unique are in fact gradable in ordinary English -- while pseudo-adjectives are in general really really non-gradable.

MWDEU has a long entry on unique, with a history of the word's uses and a history of critical opinion about it. This is yet another case, unfortunately, where many writers and editors are dead set against a usage (whatever the actual practice of many other writers), so that using it will bring the disapproval of these critics down on your head.]



Comments are closed.