Tag Archives: Linguistics

Butter the bread with cream cheese

Today in my computational lexical semantics class we were discussing Talmy’s Toward a Cognitive Semantics, specifically about Lexicalization Patterns.  At one point in the presentation our presenter spoke to how some verbs undergo “incorporation” wherein they integrate multiple semantic concepts in one verb usage.  For motion events, the semantic concepts include:

  • Figure – object moving or being located
  • Ground – reference object
  • Path – path followed or site occupied by figure
  • Motion – presence of motion of locatedness in the event

so in a sentence like “The pencil rolled off the table” Figure = pencil, Ground = table, path = off.  What is interesting about the verb roll has a manner co-event in addition to its motion one meaning that it manages to incorporate two semantic concepts into the same verb usage.

At the point this came up, our professor suggested that the somewhat-uniquely English verb “butter” also undergoes incorporation in a somewhat different way.  In “I buttered the bread”, butter is both the Figure and the Manner and possibly even Motion, whereas many other languages would force the construction to look like “I put the butter on the bread” or “I spread the butter on the bread”.  Another student countered that in the sentence “I buttered the bread with cream cheese” the Figure and the Manner are different, and that this semantic decomposition can be undergone through some other explanation.  Most of this class thought the sentence seemed a little awkward as “I spread the bread with cream cheese” would be more natural to a native speaker.  Promptly after this was brought up, yet another student went to Google, our repository for all possible combinations of language and searched for “butter the bread with cream cheese” and found no matche

And such brings me to this post.  I thought it was a pity to have something so simple spoken in real life, yet not  reflected in the vast index that is Google.  To perform due diligence, I put together a more general query taking note to subtract the name of a band that would skew the results.  Among the first several pages of results the phrase following “butter the bread with” was followed with some variation like “softened butter”, “teaspoon of butter”, “lowfat butter” or with some instrument like a “knife” which does not change the Figure.  Though if you go far enough you start to find some different Figures including “mustard”, “coconut oil”, “garlic powder”, or “cheez-whiz”.  Even further down I found an article on load alternation and semantic shift that stated one can only butter things with items that are butter like in consistency. It is funny how garlic powder still kind of fits that restriction.  Given all this, it may be acceptable to say something like “butter the bread with cream cheese” after all.  If nothing else, perhaps this posting will bump that phrase to at least one hit in the annals of search