Date: Fri, 8 Sep 1995 22:16:35 EDT


Subject: Re: contempt vs. content

This is a question that particularly interests me, since one of my recent

research programs has exploited this very contrast. Let me explain and


In a paper I gave at a conference in Helsinki in 1993 (following earlier

oral presentations of the same material) and wrote up for the proceedings, I

sponsored a slogan of the form "Familiarity Breeds CNTNT". The paper,

called "Economy and Redundancy in a Dualistic Model of Natural Language", was

published in SKY 1993 ("SKY" is, of course, an acronym for the Linguistic

Association of Finland--don't ask), edited by Maria Vilkuna and Susanna Shore.

The first section of the paper is called


and a relevant passage refers notes that

"...the inverse correlation of familiarity and linguistic form--the

principle I dub Familiarity Breeds CNTNT--is reflected by minimal pairs

in which the locally more familiar or frequent member retains or comes

to acquire reduced expression."

(This principle, unlike its cover label, is hardly my invention; it was iden-

tified by Paul, Martinet, and especially Zipf. I'll spare you the details,

since this isn't a pragmatics list, but sample illustrations of its effects

include the degree of vowel reduction in frequent words [astronomy vs.

gastronomy]; the initialization of OSU with different interpretations in the

midwest, southwest, and northwest; and the "marking reversals" noted by

Witkowski and Brown in their Language paper in 1983.)

So a few months after the paper appeared, I received an outraged note

from a friend and colleague, who (while not a native speaker) evidently shares

the majority dialect of ADSers...

Date: Mon, 25 Apr 1994 11:36:07 -0500

From: Knud Lambrecht lambrec[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]


Subject: breeds cntNt ???

I hve nthng bt cntMPt fr yr ignrnce, lrry.

Or is it the Finns that screwed up?

You can all see where this is heading, and you can probably anticipate my

response to Knud...

No, no, it's intentional, and in any case it's not the Finns' fault. Now I'll

admit that the more standard and no doubt the original form of the adage is

the -MP- version. But I've heard the other quite a bit too, and assume it

responds to "Out of sight, out of mind", just as the other (your) version

responds to "Absence makes the heart grow fonder". (Sort of like "Look

before you leap" and "Fools go in where angels fear to tread" vs. "He

who hesitates is lost".) In any event, since it's got to represent the

idea that the more familiar or predictable the expression is, the more

compressed the content can be, while keeping the form

constant (cnstnt?), I need it to be my version. Of course, this assumes a

finesse over CONtent and conTENT as well as over familiarity's breedee, but I

assume you'll let that one pass. Too bad there's no OED for adages.

My background is New York City Rochester Southern California Northern

California ... I have no idea where I might have picked up the "content"

version, and I freely acknowledge that I'm not the most impartial source.

In any case, I'm mr thn cntnt to welcome a few speakers with no career stake in

their judgment to my side of the isogloss.