Language Matters: doubly useless words
Alden Williams / Stuff
Rowing boat on the River Avon in Christchurch. The word Avon is Celtic, meaning “river”
Laurie Bauer is emeritus professor of linguistics at Victoria University of Wellington, where he taught for 40 years. He is the author of over 20 books on linguistic subjects and winner of the 2017 Royal Society of New Zealand’s Humanities/Aronui Medal. Language Matters is a bimonthly column on language.
OPINION: I don’t know when you last punted on the River Avon in Christchurch, but whenever it was I’d be surprised if you spent a lot of time wondering the name of the River Avon.
Have is a Celtic word meaning “river”, dating back to when the ancestor of English was not spoken in England; you can see Welsh cognate in Afon Dyfrdwy ‘The River Dee’. The River Avon is therefore something of a tautology, historically speaking. It means ‘river river’.
This is certainly not the only example where we have a borrowed word and an English word that mean the same thing, side by side. Consider Rotoiti Lake. Rotoiti means ‘small lake’ so Rotoiti Lake means ‘small lake’. To go up Maunganui Is similar: Maunganui means ‘big mountain’ so To go up Maunganui means ‘mountain great mountain’.
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The phenomenon is so common that Wikipedia has example pages, including the Hatchie River in the southern United States, Yallock Creek in Victoria, Lagoon Lake in California or the Philippines, Lake Michigan (‘big lake lake’), knock hill in the Scottish Lowlands, Penhill in Yorkshire or Somerset, Kodiak Island in Alaska, the La Brea Tar Pits (“the the tar tar pits”) in California, and so on.
We have other ways to create tautological names. For those who remember the strategic arms limitation talks between the United States and the USSR in the 1970s, the label SALT talks will also be familiar, although this actually means “strategic arms limitation talks”. On a similar model, consider cash machine, covid virus, GPS system, Pin code and RAT test.
More obvious examples include a Free gift (aren’t gifts free by definition?) Oak (isn’t every oak a tree?), to join (if you join things, aren’t they automatically together?), go in (not implied in ?), a unconfirmed rumor (if confirmed, surely it’s no longer just a rumor?) where the duplication is not masked by another language or the use of a single-letter abbreviation.
This material is not really a surprise, I guess. To quote Yogi Berra: ”It’s deja vu again”.
Double negatives, like He did not do anythingand comparative doubles, such as It’s a bigger questionhave been considered tautological, but this is a matter of perspective: for speakers who use these constructions, repetition may be obligatory, and when it is obligatory it makes more sense to speak of redundancy than tautology.
Various people have calculated that the language is about 50% redundant. This is a useful feature because it means we can understand spoken language against background noise, understand written text that contains spelling mistakes, and deal with language errors or just grammar confused when we meet her. Y cn prbbly ndrstnd ths wtht vwl lttrs, but vowels make processing easier.
The difference in speech between Why choose and white shoes is indicated by minute differences in the [t] sound, which allows us to hear where words begin and end. In I washed the car yesterday the yesterday removes the need for -ed on wash, but the suffix helps us keep the information clear. Saying things twice isn’t necessarily bad, but too much can be a problem.
As a postscript, note that although this may be the River Avon in Christchurch, in Stratford it is the River Avon. British usage is conservative; American usage is like New Zealand usage.
Language questions is a bi-monthly column on everything related to language. Readers are invited to send questions to the authors at [email protected] Not all questions will find an answer.