26 May 2007

this is a *postest. wait, no...

today i again had occasion to lament the fact that it's impossible to add superlative endings to nouns in English like you can in (at least some) Romance languages. so i'm sitting around on Saturday morning, watching Serie B calcio (like you do), when the Italian announcer on Rai International says:

c'era una occasionissima per la Juve!
the only way to render this in English is to say something like "that was a great chance for Juve!" something like "that was a chancest..." or even "that was the chancest..." (since English superlatives like to take definite articles) are both horrible. in lay terms, chancest is just not a word. more precisely, the rules of English morphology and in particular the features of the superlative suffix -est prohibit it from being attached to nouns.

although -est most frequently is suffixed to adjectives, it's common knowledge that not all positive adjectives mesh nicely with it. thus there are sets such as:

sweet / sweeter / sweetest
sour / *sourer / *sourest
elite / *eliter / *elitest

these two examples can rule out semantics (sweet and sour are both taste sensations) and phonetics (sweet and elite both terminate in a stressed syllable [it]) as reasons that -er and -est are prohibited here. they are some of the most fickle morphemes English has. the semantic concepts of sourer, sourest, eliter, and elitest are still representable in English, but rely on periphrasis.

sour / more sour / most sour
elite / more elite / most elite

so how well does most pair with nouns? not great. taking our chance example from above, applying most gives equally bad translations:

*that was a chancest for Juve
*that was a most chance for Juve
*that was the most chance for Juve
that was the most chance that they'll get today

the fourth and final example, with a restrictive relative clause introduced by that and modifying most chance works. its semantics are slightly different. it turns chance into a mass noun, which allows most to exert a quantificational force over it. consider the semantics of the following:

the best chance they'll get all day
the most chance they'll get all day

they are very similar, but i would say not identical. the syntax certainly teases apart when using a concrete count noun that cannot have a mass noun interpretation.

the best book i read all summer
*the most book i read all summer

[i might be able to utter the second of these sentences, given the right context and a bit of sarcasm thrown in. for example: "so you had to read War and Peace for your summer reading assignment?" "yeah, that was the most book i read all summer!" in this case, though, the most book means the longest book, not the highest quality book.]

i think i've run out of comments and written myself into a corner to boot. this is a pretty long post. but i don't think that can make it a most post or certainly not a postest. not in English at least.

1 comment:

John Cowan said...

"Non sequitur!"

"De contrario, sequitissimur!!"