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Living Norms in Language

In a joint campaign appearance yesterday with Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama used the word “embracing” as an adjective describing Mrs. Clinton’s relationship to Mrs. Obama. Now, this is an unusual––and apparently nonce––instance of a present active participle (< v. embrace) functioning as an adjective. Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online lists it as meaning “encircling, enclosing: such as a: of a leaf : having the base clasped about the supporting stem of the plant; b: comprehensive, inclusive.” It is clear that Mrs. Obama’s particular use of the word has embraced a function that is implicit in English but generally not recognized formally (e. g., in dictionaries) as part of the norm.

As Henning Andersen sets out in his far-ranging and definitive discussion of the concept of norm as applied to language, “the notion of language norms has played an important role in practical (‘applied’) linguistics since antiquity and in linguistic theorizing since the 1800s” (“Living Norms,” From Poets to Padonki: Linguistic Authority and Norm-Negotiation in Modern Russian Culture, ed. I. Lunde and M. Paulsen, Slavica Bergensia, 9 [Bergen: University of Bergen], 2009, p. 18). He goes on to distinguish between what he terms “declarative” and “deontic” norms, under which headings a further distinction is made between “explicit” and “implicit” norms. “Living norms” are then called “implicit deontic norms.”

When a speaker makes up a word that is perfectly understandable and in conformity with the morphological rules of the language, they are not contravening any norm, except perhaps the “statistical” one that is based on hitherto observed language usage. No native speaker of American English would characterize Michelle Obama’s use of embracing as a pure adjective (derived, to be sure, from the verb embrace) as ungrammatical and would moreover, if questioned, agree with the observation that her word choice was perfectly in the spirit of creative exploitation of the language’s inherent norms, alias its implicit deontic norms.


3 Responses to “Living Norms in Language”

  • Gary Richmond says:

    Actually, one hears “embracing,” much as Michelle Obama used it, in Christian churches in the USA, e.g., “God’s (or Christ’s) embracing love.” While I too haven’t heard it used in this way outside the church, perhaps this is the source of Mrs. Obama’s usage.

  • beneficii says:

    Having a word move from one part of speech to another, or zero conversion, appears to be characteristic of analytic languages such as English and Chinese:


    According to this article, the more frequently used words are the ones that tend to be used across multiple parts of speech. The function of multiple word classes appears to be achieve both “economy” and “iconicity”, that is to say, effectively get across what you are trying to convey with the fewest words possible. In my experience as a native English speaker, using the gerund like an adjective seems simpler and less verbose than putting a proper relative clause after the noun, like “embracing” vs. “that embraces”.

    I think some of these issues might come from grammarians who have only really studied English and other European languages, and so try to impose a lot of the rules of the latter on the former, even though English grammar tends to work differently. Like, on the topic of “singular they”. “Singular they” has been in use since the 14th century, but starting in the 18th century, Latin fetishists started saying that we should use “he” instead to refer to a generic person because that’s how Latin does it, and it’s “logical” and all that. The problem with this is that English and Latin treat gender very differently; whereas Latin’s use of gender has a more strictly grammatical function, Modern English lacks grammatical gender and thus the use of a pronoun of a certain gender always has semantic implications,–that is, by using “he” to refer to a generic person you are implying you would expect the person to be male. By imposing the rules of Latin on English these fetishists are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

    I find this blog very interesting and look forward to following it. Thank you!

    • beneficii says:

      To make a correction, I mean to speak of conversion or zero derivation, where a word is re-coined in another part of speech without changing its form.

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