"We need wall"

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Josh Marshall, "We need wall", TPM 12/20/2018:

For reasons that are not entirely clear to me the word has apparently come down from the White House that the wall, as in the wall to be built along the southern border, must now be called "wall". In other words, no definite article, no "the".

Here's DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen testifying in congress today:

From congress I would ask for wall. We need wall.

And apparently a DHS press release posted on 12/12 began

DHS is committed to building wall and building wall quickly. We are not replacing short, outdated and ineffective wall with similar wall.

and continued in a similar vein. I'm reminded of the joke about the first lecture of Russian class for English speakers: "I start with good news! In English language, is necessary to use article! But in Russian language, no article!"

Someone at DHS (though apparently not Secretary Nielsen) seems to have had second thoughts, because the page was edited on 12/18 to add some articles:



30 Comments

  1. Arthur Waldron said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 7:08 pm

    Somehow this so indefinite a noun that no article is ndeeded beg nothing but wall therr to thr beach, we need wall there lots of it. Artlclr is specific that tall wall the western wall. This is how lots of country folk talk

  2. Y said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 7:26 pm

    Wall is blocking off Latin America. No articles in Latin.

  3. Joe Rojas-Burke said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 7:50 pm

    That's one small step for wall, one giant leap for wallkind

  4. Chris C. said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 7:55 pm

    It struck me that they're treating it as a mass noun.

  5. S Frankel said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 8:04 pm

    Wall is not Latin. Wall is American and we speak the English here.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 8:13 pm

    This strikes me, abstracting from politics, as perhaps another instance of whatever article-shunning shift in usage means that Young People These Days seem to typically talk about e.g. "going to prom" whereas Back In My Day it was invariably "going to the prom." The anarthrousness still sounds totally weird to my ear, but I must confess it does not really create, in context, any incremental ambiguity.

    Thus, fwiw, I think the attempted fix of adding an indefinite article doesn't work. "We need wall" seems synonymous with "we need the wall," where everyone knows from context which wall (or potential wall) is meant. "Need a wall" is almost as odd as "going to a prom" would be. Any particular prom? Any particular wall? But the anarthrousness implies a definiteness that is somehow implicitly specified by context.

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 8:16 pm

    Ya gotta have wall,
    Miles and miles and miles of wall…

  8. Pete C. said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 8:25 pm

    I agree with Chris C., it looks like they're using it akin to "we need to lay pipe" or "we need to build track"; I'm not sure, but this may be how people whose actual job it is to build wall talk about building wall.

  9. Catchling said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 8:50 pm

    Thus, fwiw, I think the attempted fix of adding an indefinite article doesn't work. "We need wall" seems synonymous with "we need the wall," where everyone knows from context which wall (or potential wall) is meant. "Need a wall" is almost as odd as "going to a prom" would be. Any particular prom? Any particular wall? But the anarthrousness implies a definiteness that is somehow implicitly specified by context.

    I disagree insofar as "the wall" does not yet exist, and thus there's nothing to add some more "wall" too. So it would be a bit like a high school that has no prom saying "We need prom" rather than "a" prom. If they officially started construction of a border wall, then "more wall is required" becomes more coherent.

  10. mnoelle said,

    December 20, 2018 @ 11:10 pm

    "In English language, is necessary to use article! But in Russian language, no article!"
    Well there you have it, Homeland Security's talking points were translated from the Russian.

  11. john burke said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 12:54 am

    Cf. R. Frost, "Mending Wall."

  12. Chas Belov said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 2:03 am

    My day was some time ago and I'm pretty sure we called it "going to prom" and not "going to the prom." Western Pennsylvania.

  13. ajay said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 4:50 am

    Some man or other must present Wall, and let him have some Plaster, or some Lome, or some rough cast about him, to signifie wall.

  14. Dave said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 7:47 am

    Thinking charitably, might it be that US people (of a certain age?) prefer to distance themselves from the DDR, avoiding (at only slight cost to normal usage) any potential confusion with "The Wall" that fell?

  15. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 8:10 am

    Dave said:

    "Thinking charitably, might it be that US people (of a certain age?) prefer to distance themselves from the DDR, avoiding (at only slight cost to normal usage) any potential confusion with "The Wall" that fell?"

    Ah, yes, I remember clearly. I went on holiday to Berlin, and when The Wall fell, a piece of it hit me and I had to go to hospital.

  16. Ellen Contini-Morava said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 8:40 am

    I agree with Chris: "wall" is being treated as a mass noun, and this is strategic. Opponents of "the" wall have been arguing that other forms of security such as sensors, personnel etc. are more effective than a physical barrier. So supporting "wall", which could accompany other methods, allows just an unspecified symbolic amount of physical wall to placate the wall fanatics, but is less than a commitment to "a" wall.

  17. Gabriel Holbrow said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 9:26 am

    To my ear, "we need wall" is most remeniscent of lolcats, by way of their (probably) most famous "I Can Has Cheeseburger?" line.

    For those of us younger than 12, or otherwise unfamiliar with lolcats, old Language Log had some good commentary, e.g.
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004442.html

  18. Chris Guptill said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 10:03 am

    I agree with Brick Tamlan. I love lamp.

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 11:29 am

    My intuitions may well be idiosyncratic and thus my analysis wrong, but I am puzzled by Catchling's comment to the extent it seems to suggest that a not-yet-existing-or-even-actively-under-construction wall is insufficiently definite for the definite article to be idiomatic. Josh Marshall himself in the bit blockquoted from myl in the original post used "the wall" for the very (not-yet-existent) wall in question. More broadly, I happened to hear Pink Floyd's "Mother" on the car radio this morning as I was driving to the train station in the rain, and the protagonist asks the question "Mother should I build the wall" and eventually receives the answer "Of course mama's gonna help build the wall." And that wall is not only in context not-yet-existent, it's some sort of self-pitying-rock-star Big Metaphor rather than a literal wall.

  20. Ben Zimmer said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 11:56 am

    Here's my take for The Atlantic: "Why Kirstjen Nielsen Sounds Like the Hulk."

  21. KeithB said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 12:25 pm

    If you capitalize it you can go for a YA dystopian vibe.

    "We all had been told since birth that crossing Wall was impossible, and that it would be instant death…"

  22. Neil Dolinger said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

    Seems to me they are not talking about any old inanimate "wall", but a warm and fuzzy "Wall" that everyone can love and hug. Maybe someone will project a picture behind the podium the next time the Pres or Sec HlS talks up our friend Wall, drawing him (or her) with googly eyes and a big smile, and eyebrows levitating above. Make Wall adorable enough, and maybe even Mexico will say, "Awww, how can we deny funding for such a cutey-pie!"

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 3:38 pm

    Ben Zimmer's piece and some of the other comments suggest sort of an interesting Rorschach test re what mainstream AmEng speakers tend to free-associate to when confronted with unexpected anarthrousness, with options including: a) lolcats; b) the Incredible Hulk; c) stereotypical Slavs-and/or-Pottsylvanians ("Is good plan. First keel moose and squirrel."); and d) other?

  24. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 3:42 pm

    @J.W. Brewer:

    Under "d. other," I would definitely include Tarzan :)

  25. Philip Taylor said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 5:07 pm

    ("unexpected anarthrousness") — No idea what "mainstream AmEng speakers" think; this Briton simply assumes that the author is Russian.

  26. Fred Fnord said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 7:47 pm

    Going to prom is like going to inauguration or going to Mardi Gras. It's a singular event.

  27. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 21, 2018 @ 10:47 pm

    J.W.: Mine was Damn Yankees, in case you hadn't picked that up.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 22, 2018 @ 11:21 am

    Gregory K.: I did recognize it as a snowclonish variant of some existing text that seemed vaguely familiar in pattern, but did not immediately pick up the specific point of origin, although it clicks once you pointed it out. (The array of English texts I carry around in my subconscious memory to do free-associative corpus linguistics with is overweight lyrics from old rock songs but underweight show tunes.) More substantively, however, I think your contribution was parallel to my "go to prom" example, i.e. trying to approach the usage as a perhaps-novel extension of an established idiomatic usage that is anarthrous in standard English, rather than analogize it to some well-known speaker(s) (whether lolcats, Hulk, Tarzan, or Boris & Natasha, etc) whose usage is stereotypically non-standard as exemplified by omission of articles where they are obligatory in the standard dialect.

  29. Stephen said,

    December 22, 2018 @ 5:34 pm

    This reminds me of some people wanting more cowbell.

    https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/more-cowbell-with-will-ferrell-on-snl-video-saturday-night-live-nbc/3506001

  30. David Mayerovitch said,

    December 29, 2018 @ 1:10 pm

    I think "We need wall" is best understood as the plural of "Me need wall", which is the natural language style of the infant.

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