14 Aug 2006

On and Off

Submitted by Karl Hagen
I've been neglecting this blog for a while, largely the result of going on vacation. I spent two and a half weeks in Malaysia, and another two weeks recovering from jet lag and trying to catch up with other work. We went to introduce our son Aran (now 14 months old) to his great grandmother and the rest of my wife's very large clan. We all had a wonderful time, even Aran, who, after getting over some stranger anxiety, seemed to lap up the attention from all his cousins.

I, as you might expect, couldn't help noting the interesting usage of Malaysian English (Manglish).

English in Malaysia isn't just a foreign language. It has no official status, but a large portion of business is conducted in English, and many people (at least those from certain social classes), including most of my wife's relatives, regularly speak English in the home.

Malaysian English (and the closely related Singaporean English (Singlish)) have many features that resemble those of a creole, including a dialect continuum that ranges from an acrolect (very close to standard British English) to a basilect (hard to understand if you're an outsider).

One of the features that is most salient (to me anyway) is the use of "off" for "turn off" and "on" for "turn on", as in "Off the computer." (This feature is mentioned in the article for Singlish but not for Manglish. It's also found in Indian English.)

In other varieties of English, it's extremely rare to have verbs formed by conversion from closed-class words. (The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language would call on and off prepositions, but if you prefer the more traditional particle or adverb I won't argue.) The only parallel examples I can think of are "off" in the meaning of "kill" (cf. the radical slogan from the 1960's, "Off the pigs!"), and the British expression "down tools" (i.e., go on strike). Both of these appear to be restricted to less formal than Malaysian English on/off, which I hear regularly even in the acrolect. Like the Malaysian/Singaporean/Indian on/off, it appears as if these other instances also derive from verb + particle idioms ("knock off", "put down"), so maybe there's a minor lexical process at work here. The CGEL doesn't mention it, though. Does anyone know of similar examples where prepositions/particles have become verbs?

I forgot two other obvious examples (both still highly informal):
down, as in to down a beer and
out, as in George was outed by his friends.

Neither of these seem to come from verb + particle constructions (drat--the pattern isn't as neat as it first looked).