Border Patrol

One intention with last week’s “mílujem ťa” was to show how the notion of “listeme” can be rather more helpful in explaining language than the notion “word”: As I pointed out, the Slovak expression has two words, while the English expression has three, yet they mean the same thing. Thanks to Eva S, we can highlight further the problem with the notion “word,” she writes:

“But let`s complicate the task with a Hungarian word “Szeretlek” which means “I love you”. It is just one word in which everything is included as in “I love you”. In “szeretlek” there is included both the object and the subject.”

So whether we have one, two, or three words we nevertheless have the same meaning in each case, crucially because each of these expressions contains exactly the same three listemes: the content listeme {love}, and the two function listemes {first person, singular, subject} and {second person, singular, informal, object). I leave it to my students with a knowledge of Hungarian to show exactly how “Szeretlek” expresses these three listemes.

I think most readers could see the distinction between word and listeme involved in analyzing “mílujem ťa.” However, how to separate out the boundaries between the three listemes turned out to be considerably more contentious. Zdenka K thought that the scope of the content listeme should be a bit more expansive:

“As far as concerning the word MILUJEM TA, in my opinion the base of the verb is MILU and the person who wrote it is JEM.”

And Michaela L argued to push the boundary of the content listeme “to love” even farther rightward into the sentence:

“But in the word “Milujem”, I think that this ending “m” means that “I” love somebody. If there will be “miluješ” – it means that not “I” but “you” love somebody (ja milujem, ty miluješ, on miluje, my milujeme, vy milujete, oni milujú). I think that the root of the verb “milujem” is “miluje”. Because, “mil” is not a verb, we do not know from which word, verb it is derived.”

So we have as possible candidates for the content listeme we associate with the meaning love: “mil-“, “milu-“, or “miluje.” One of Michaela’s problems with the first two possibilities is that they do not stand for something on their own; that is, they cannot be used as separate phonological words in a sentence. This, however, should not rule out their status as listemes, which are defined as he smallest units of meaning in a language, and not as something that must stand alone. When it cannot possibly stand alone, we have the terminology “bound listeme” for describing it. Note that we would have a problem in considering “miluje” to be a listeme in that there are not one but two meaningful units, the contentful notion involving love, and the functional notion involving a third person singular subject: “miluje” means ‘he or she loves”.

Deciding on a content listeme between “mil-“ and “milu-“ is a bit trickier, although a beautiful posting by Lenka V helps point the way. Notice that all the words in Lenka’s list share two things: in terms of meaning, a positive, affective denotation; in terms of form, the sounds constituting “mil-“:

“In the classroom last week you asked about the meaning of ‘mil-‘, and then about what the love is. That discussion motivated me to do a little research: Immediately after the lesson I went to the library and took an old Slovak dictionary (Slovník slovenského jazyka II. Vydavateľstvo SAV. Bratislava 1960). I found all the words beginning with ‘mil-‘, meaning something positive. I came to a list of 30 items as following:
milenec, milenecký
milkovať sa, miliskovať sa
milký, milkovný
milohlasný, milohlasý
milosťpán, milosťpani, milosťslečna

All these words have a listeme indicating positive feelings (or love) of somebody towards another person or thing, or pleasant, agreeable perceptions. The underlined items are strange to my computer and probably to a modern Slovak reader too, because they were created by some Slovak writers like Andrej Sládkovič (milokrásny, milovonný, milošialený) or P. O. Hviezdoslav (milký, milkovný, milohlasný). I did not understand the words put in italics. Just to make it clear: the term ‘milostnica’, introduced by Margita Figuli (also a Slovak writer), was used to denote a beloved woman or a courtesan; and Milostenka is the name of a goddess of attractiveness, Grace (according to Sládkovič). Another surprise for me was the fact that I have never heard about ‘milota’ denoting a genus of gramineous plants (milota veľkoklásková, milota chlpatá). No idea what it is, however, interrresssting… Some proper nouns should belong to the list above too: Milada, Milan, Milena, Milica, Miloslav, Miloslava, Miloš, Milota (again!). I am sure that they were created through the application of our “positive listeme” as well as all the mentioned nouns.”

To capture the overlap in meaning in the list that Lenka V provides, we must narrow down to the listeme “mil-,“ the only surface phonological part that all the words share. Lenka’s posting is an excellent model of the way we can circumstantially detect bound listemes, those that cannot stand alone as a phonological word.

Now Mirka O’s question can be sorted out:

“I just wonder about how did you came up with the idea that the first part “MIL” of the word MILUJEM means something laden ‘love’. When I think about “MIL-“, I rather connect it with another Slovak word “mily” (kind).”

We can trace the difference between “mil-” and “mily” not to the meaning of “mil-“, but rather to the contribution made by the functional listeme “-y,” which may have the role of somewhat softening the intensity of “mil-“.

But this last claim points to another “boundary issue” regarding in particular content listemes: their meaning tends to be a little slippery. As Petronela L observed . . .

“I would like to add my personal experience with the expression ´milujem ťa´, or, more precisely, with its french equivalent ´je t´aime´. When I was in France, I met a boy and after some time, we became really good friends. As the time went on, the expression ´je t´aime´started to appear in his messages and e-mails and I became confused about what it could mean, so, after some hesitations, I simply asked him. Much to my surprise, it turned out to be just a casual way to finish one´s message or e-mail! I made a fool of myself, but the idea of saying ´milujem ťa´to any of my friends appears really strange to me! This proves that even such a simple expression like ´milujem ťa´ doesn´t necessarily have to have one clear content and clear meaning. In one language, it is used to express feeling of love, whereas in another, you can use it when adressing even to your neighbor!”

That fluidity of meaning in content lexemes is not just across languages, but occurs language internally, as Alena B observed . . .

“Many words and expressions are becoming less and less intensive. Even their true and original meaning is sometimes arguable. They are being used so often and in so many different situations that they start to lack the power they once had. They are more and more often being taken for grounded. Milujem ta, for example. It used to be a verbal proof of one’s strong and true affection, emotional warmth towards some other person (your “definition” is nice as well); a testimony of profound feeling that one could rely on, believe in, consider to be of great importance…
Today, Ja milujem otca, matku, brata, sestru;
Also Ja milujem priatela, manzela, milenca; – boyfriend, husband, lover
But I also milujem vychadzky do parku – walking in the park
A ja proste milujem taliansku kuchinu – Italian kitchen
A ja ozaj milujem Channel 5…
Ja milujem on every step I make, in every situation, what ever comes into my way.
I am rather disappointed and sad to see/hear that even the expressions such is this are becoming usual, universal and worn out.”

Thus boundaries, both in terms of phonological form and semantic content prove to be continual points of interest. It nevertheless becomes quite clear when borders are illegitimately crossed, as Renata M shows us in this final anecdote:

“I add a special kind of explanation of the utterance “Milujem”: it has nothing to do with love… just I was playing with the verb milujem and I create a sentence Milu(as a slovak biscuit)jem (eat)=I eat Milu:-)”