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call or name
Posted: 22 May 2012 11:00 PM   [ Ignore ]
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My topic is the verb call, meaning to apply a name to or use a name for.
It is similar in meaning to the verb name, though name would usually refer to the act of applying a name for the first time. e.g. They named him Bob. (The act of naming him Bob only happened once, and happened in the past in this case.) Call could either mean apply a name for the first time, or use the name habitually.
They call him Bignose. (ie Bignose is the name they still use for him.)

What an odd verb is call.

In most English verbs that take an object and an indirect object, the dative case is implied, but that doesn’t really seem to be true of call or name.

(Am I correct in thinking the third noun in the sentence “They call him Bob” is an indirect object, or should another term be used?)

The reason this comes to mind is that as I was asking my question about Latin in the other thread, it struck me that such questions could be ambiguous.

Consider “They call him Bignose.”
Someone might ask “What do they call him?” and be told “They call him Bignose.”
Someone hearing the name used for the first time in a particular social setting may not know who is meant, and could logically and grammatically (and unambiguously) ask:
“Who do you call Bignose?” (or, if they are slightly Fogeyish, “Whom do you call Bignose?")
The indirect object (if that is what it is) is being specified in this sentence. The asker wants to know the identity of the direct object.

Consider a case where neither object nor indirect object is human.
Someone who has discovered “The Americans call scones biscuits, but the British call cookies biscuits.” might ask “What do the Australians call biscuits?”
This might seem a bit contrived but I’ve encountered something of this kind in the wild which made me ponder what was meant.

I suppose my main point is to highlight how unusual call is. You can’t pull this kind of trick with other verbs that take indirect objects, not matter how you contrive.

EDIT
Just learnt a word: dechticaetiative
EDIT2
I realise that in any such ambiguous case, there would be other ways of asking for the same information. “What do they Australians mean by the word biscuits?”

[ Edited: 22 May 2012 11:09 PM by OP Tipping ]
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Posted: 23 May 2012 05:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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the dative case is implied

English has no “dative case,” and the attempt to apply categories derived from Latin and other inflected languages to English can only end in tears.

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Posted: 23 May 2012 03:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Very well. It implies something semantically akin to the dative case.

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Posted: 24 May 2012 02:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Linguists use case to refer to the thing doing the pointing and not to the thing being pointed to.  I have been unable to get a satisfactory answer to the question of what linguist use to refer to the latter.  It’s not a simple subject.  For example, in Latin the ablative is used for the instrumental.  In English, back in the day, the instrumental was sometimes used but we normally used the dative for the purpose.

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Posted: 24 May 2012 08:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Linguists use case to refer to the thing doing the pointing and not to the thing being pointed to.  I have been unable to get a satisfactory answer to the question of what linguist use to refer to the latter.

I don’t understand what you mean; could you give an example?

For example, in Latin the ablative is used for the instrumental.

You mean, where some other language would use the instrumental?  (Which?)

In English, back in the day, the instrumental was sometimes used but we normally used the dative for the purpose.

I presume you’re talking about Old English; which purpose?

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Posted: 24 May 2012 10:35 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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It’s possible (indeed, experience would say, “likely") that I’m missing something, but I don’t think here is anything peculiar about “call” and the fact that a sentence which contains it may reference an “indirect object” without specifying the “direct object” (I have no idea if those are the proper labels, either, but I think I know what you mean, and can’t think of a better label.)

I presume that, here, direct object refers to what (a given thing) is called, while the indirect object is what (thing) is being called something.  Put another way, the indirect object is the recipient of an action, and the direct object is the thing conveyed/granted/accomplished by the action.

You can specify the indirect object without specifying the direct object with verbs other than “call”.  They may be EVEN more “contrived” than the “call” examples, but you can do it through a contrivance.

Example: Bob and Alex discuss what gifts they received from their wives for their birthdays, and they muse about another couple, Sally and Mark.  Bob says, “I wonder what Sally gave Mark?”. Mark is the indirect object (a person who was given something) but what was given, the direct object, is not specified.

Example 2:  Debbie and Sandra are students, and chat about their classmates and their rumored or actual love lives.  Debbie says, “I heard Mike told Julie he wants to see other people!”. Sandra gasps, “what did Julie tell Mike?”. The indirect object (who was told something) is specified (mike), but the direct object (what Mike was told) is not.

[ Edited: 24 May 2012 10:38 AM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 24 May 2012 10:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I reread the OP and realize I got direct and indirect backwards.  But I think verbs other than call can specify the one without specifying the other.

Examples: “who did Bob throw a stick at?

Who did Callie say lied about his age?

Where did Bob park his car?

These sentences, like the call sentence, seem strange.  But what makes them seem strange is the seeming non-sequiturness of them, I.e., why is Bob throwing a stick at anybody?  But this seeming oddness is mitigated when the stray remarks are put in context.  If we’ve already been told that Bob was mad and wanted to start a fight with somebody, so he threw a stick at them, but for some reason were weren’t told who he threw it at, the sentence isn’t a non-sequitur (bob’s decision to throw a stick might seem bizarre, bu asking who he threw a stick at would not be.

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Posted: 24 May 2012 03:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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languagehat - 24 May 2012 08:03 AM

Linguists use case to refer to the thing doing the pointing and not to the thing being pointed to.  I have been unable to get a satisfactory answer to the question of what linguist use to refer to the latter.

I don’t understand what you mean; could you give an example?

For example, linguists use case to mean the inflectional endings on Latin words rather than to mean the relation between the inflected word and other words in the sentence.  My question is whether there is some word used to mean the relation between a word and other words in a sentence.

languagehat - 24 May 2012 08:03 AM



You mean, where some other language would use the instrumental?  (Which?)

In Latin the ablative is used for the instrumental.  In Latin the ablative is used in, e.g., Sergius occidit Julium cum gladio. I’m not sure the cum is necessary in this case but my Latin isn’t all that good so I’m relying on Google translate, here.  The word gladio here is the ablative form of gladius.  This is what I learned as the ablative of means, AKA the instrumental.  As for languages that have the instrumental case Wikipedia mentions Sanskrit, Hungarian, and Nahuatl, not to mention Russian.

languagehat - 24 May 2012 08:03 AM


In English, back in the day, the instrumental was sometimes used but we normally used the dative for the purpose.

I presume you’re talking about Old English; which purpose?

Yes, Old English.  It is my understanding that generally the dative case was used to indicate an instrument used for some purpose.  Browsing through A Guide to Old English it would seem that the instrumental case was only used with some adjectives and pronouns.  Dave could enlighten us further on this.  I see I’m making the word purpose do extra work here.  What I’m saying is that the dative is used to indicate that a given word is naming something that is doing the work.  Where Latin would use the ablative, gladio, Old English would use the dative, [i[sweorde(?).

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Posted: 24 May 2012 03:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Examples: “who did Bob throw a stick at?

Who did Callie say lied about his age?

Where did Bob park his car?

Svinyard118, none of these have the ambiguity that I’ve referred to in the OP.

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Posted: 24 May 2012 04:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Yes, Old English.  It is my understanding that generally the dative case was used to indicate an instrument used for some purpose.  Browsing through A Guide to Old English it would seem that the instrumental case was only used with some adjectives and pronouns. 

This is essentially correct. The instrumental was a vestigial case in Old English--English was losing its declensions even back then. Only masculine and neuter singular adjectives and pronouns had a distinct instrumental case in Old English. In all other cases the dative was used to mark the means by which something is done.

But going by the name of the case is poor guide for what the case is used for. For example, in modern English the possessive does a lot more than simply mark possession. And in Old English the instrumental, where it still exists, does more than simply mark the means by which something is done. The instrumental was also used with comparative adjectives (þy geornor, “the more eagerly"), as the object of the preposition mid ("with," which does not always denote means), and in statements expressing time (ilcan geare, “the same year")

And the dative of sweord is sweorde, or sweordum in the plural.

[ Edited: 24 May 2012 04:38 PM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 24 May 2012 04:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I’m still not certain of the precise sense in which you are saying call creates a unique type of ambiguity.  I am skeptical that call is uniquely capable of some form of ambiguity.

I’ll take two more guesses at what you might mean, and give a non-call example of ambiguity.

Guess #1: your point is that somebody could ask a question (involving “call” as the action) and be given an answer which is literally responsive to it, but that doesn’t seem to really answer the question (unless a non-verbal clue is also given).  (they call him bignose.  Who do you call bignose?  They call him bignose.  The last answer could either mean they call him (some guy I am pointing at but not specifying verbally) big nose or they call him (a completetly unidentified person, or perhaps animal, who is male) big nose.

Non-call example.  They fired him!  Who did they fire?  They fired him.  The answer is literally responsive but seemingly not helpful.  It is possible, as with the “call” example, that the “him” is being identified in some non-verbal fashion (I.e., pointing) or that no clue as to who was fired is given aside from it being a male (which we already knew based on the first sentence in the exchange).

Guess #2: your point is that somebody could ask what (some person or group) calls something else (which is called different things by different people) and the person trying to answer the question wouldn’t know whether you are referring to the thing that is called something by the first group or the second group.  Example: the Americans call scones biscuits, but the British call cookies biscuits.  What do the Australians call biscuits?  A person hearing this question wouldn’t know whether the questioner is seeking the australian term for “American biscuits” or “British biscuits”.

Non-call example:  Bob is taller than Shelia, but Alex is shorter than Shelia.  Question: is Max taller than him? The “him” could “logically” be Alex or Bob, so it isn’t clear if the question is whether Bob is taller than Max or alex is taller than Max. 

It is, of course, a poorly worded question (unless one is deliberately being confusing). But the same is true of the “what do Australians call biscuits?” question: it is worded in a needlessly confusing way.  As you noted, the “Australian biscuit” question could be reworded to make it non-ambiguous, and the same is true of the “is he taller than max” question.  Also, you don’t need to delete “call” to make the “australian biscuit” question unambiguous.  One alternative would be something like “what food do the australians call biscuits?”.  This question might receive an ambiguous or confusing answer (I.e., “cookies”, which could be either “American cookies” or “British cookies") but the question itself is not inherently ambiguous.

I think the source of the ambiguity is that all of these examples involve a question that is inherently relativistic, but the questioner fails to clearly identify the benchmark for the (perhaps implied) relative comparison.  “call” lends itself to such ambiguity, because different people call a given item different things, but other verbs can fall into the same kind of ambiguity.

Put another way, it is “biscuit” that’s ambiguous, not call.  Call is an accessory to the crime, as different folks call things (including biscuits) different things, but biscuit can be ambiguous without “call”.

[ Edited: 24 May 2012 05:37 PM by Svinyard118 ]
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Posted: 24 May 2012 05:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I think you’ve misunderstood me but I don’t know how to restate my point in a significantly different way.

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Posted: 24 May 2012 06:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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(Am I correct in thinking the third noun in the sentence “They call him Bob” is an indirect object, or should another term be used?)

This seems easy to solve in German, which retains many inflections. It requires equating the subject, direct object, and indirect obect system with the nominative, accusative, and dative case system, but for the moment let’s go with it.

First:

er: he (subject or nominative)
ihn: him (direct object or accusative)
ihm: him (indirect object or dative)

der: the (subject or nominative)
den: the (direct object or accusative)
dem: the (indirect object or dative)

Now:

He gives him the ball. = Er gibt ihm den Ball. (Thus analogous to “He gives the ball to him” with “him” or “ihm” being the indirect object/dative case.)

He calls him “the ball.” = Er nennt ihn “Der Ball.” (Thus subject, direct object, subject/nominative case.)

So in your example, “They call him Bob,” according to German, the noun “Bob” would be in a kind of grey area which I cannot define. Is it like “I am he.” where both sides of the verb are the subject (or nominative)?

German also eliminates some ambiguity with the verb heissen, which simply replaces the passive voice entirely:

I am called Whatchuwill. = Ich heisse Ixbeliebiger.

The verb never is used for a first time naming. It just means, more or less, this is my name, the one I go by.

It’s a verb that made it up to the early Middle Ages in English, I think, but then disappeared.

English has no “dative case,” and the attempt to apply categories derived from Latin and other inflected languages to English can only end in tears.

Ultimately true.

[ Edited: 24 May 2012 06:45 PM by Iron Pyrite ]
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Posted: 25 May 2012 04:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I’m with Svinyard118 regarding any potential ambiguity in the original examples. The only ambiguity in “they call him Bignose” is the standard problem of pronominal antecedent. To whom is the “him” referring? You have the same problem with “they threw him the ball.” In the biscuits example, the ambiguity results from having introduced two senses of biscuit into the conversation, and to clarify any further reference one must be more specific, as in “what do Australians call English biscuits.”

I suppose that since the verb to call identifies and names an object that referential ambiguity is somewhat more likely to crop up when it is used, but that’s a contextual, not a grammatical problem. There is nothing grammatically unusual about the verb.

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Posted: 25 May 2012 04:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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The only ambiguity in “they call him Bignose” is the standard problem of pronominal antecedent.

Um, I specifically _said_ that example was unambiguous.

You have the same problem with “they threw him the ball.” In the biscuits example, the ambiguity results from having introduced two senses of biscuit into the conversation, and to clarify any further reference one must be more specific, as in “what do Australians call English biscuits.”

Okay, it’s very clear now that I have not explained my point well. I’ll have another crack.

Consider a case where neither object nor indirect object is human.
Someone who has discovered “The Americans call scones biscuits, but the British call cookies biscuits.” might ask “What do the Australians call biscuits?”
This might seem a bit contrived but I’ve encountered something of this kind in the wild which made me ponder what was meant.

be
Compare the question asked with the statement before it. The ambiguity in the question lies in that the last noun could be the direct or the indirect object. The asker might mean “What name do the Australians apply to biscuits?” or “To what foodstuff do the Australians apply the term biscuits?” This is what makes call/name unique, or at least rare.

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Posted: 25 May 2012 06:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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OP Tipping - 25 May 2012 04:45 AM

Compare the question asked with the statement before it. The ambiguity in the question lies in that the last noun could be the direct or the indirect object. The asker might mean “What name do the Australians apply to biscuits?” or “To what foodstuff do the Australians apply the term biscuits?” This is what makes call/name unique, or at least rare.

This would give the question two layers of ambiguity.  The first rewording leaves ambiguous the referent of the word biscuits.  Is it referring to what the Americans call cookies or what the British call scones?

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