Sunday, July 26, 2015

The grammar of "Dylan goes electric"

As many have noted, this past week saw the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan's famed electric set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, preceded by the publication of Elijah Wald's book Dylan Goes Electric (which sounds like a good read).

While I am interested in the subject itself, I also have to confess an interest in the grammar of the short sentence "Dylan goes electric." My first idle question to myself was, What grammatical role does the adjective "electric" play in the sentence? My first idle answer was that it was functioning as an adverb, but a moment's thought demonstrated the wrongness of that answer. "Dylan goes electric" is not synonymous with "Dylan goes electrically"; i.e., "electric" doesn't describe how Dylan went.

But it's also not where he went, although the verb "to go" typically takes a complement indicating location. "Dylan goes electric" is not the same type of sentence as "Dylan goes home."

The key is that "to go" in the sentence is not functioning as a motion verb, but, as it often does, as a kind of linking verb, like be (prototypically), become, appear, seem. "Dylan goes electric" has a family resemblance to "Dylan is electric," "Dylan becomes elecric," "Dylan appears electric," "Dylan seems electric," or to non-Dylanesque sentences such as "Maggie went native" or "The lake goes flat when the wind subsides." NOUN + GO(linking) + ADJECTIVE means "NOUN adds property ADJECTIVE."

"Electric," then, is a predicative complement. But also the word "Dylan" requires a certain amount of semantic unpacking. In the sentence it is straightforwardly a Noun used as a Subject.  But it can't be interpreted straightforwardly as a proper noun, denoting the person Bob Dylan, who did not become electric. Here "Dylan" refers via metonymy to "Bob Dylan's music."

But "Dylan" = "Dylan's music" is not so simple, either. There is an overtone to "Dylan goes electric" that is not found in the paraphrase "Bob Dylan's music changed to electric (=using amplified instruments)." Some people blame or praise Dylan for going electric, which would make no sense if Dylan, the person, was not volitionally involved in the process. The thing is, "Dylan" has to refer simultaneously to the performer and the music.

The linguist James Pustejovsky has a name for words that display this kind of two-sidedness: dot objects. Dot objects display "inherent polysemy," that is, entities that can simultaneously be interpreted as two different types of entity.  One example is "book," which can be simultaneously "tome" and "content": "The book with a green cover [physical object] is interesting[story]."

This is signified by a dot: tome•content. One of the dot-object types is performer•product, which licenses "Dylan [performer•music] goes electric." The "performer" facet licenses the volitional feature of "goes," while the "product" licenses the predicate complement "electric."

By the way, judging by the video, the most "electric" part of the set was not Dylan's Stratocaster strumming, but the late Michael Bloomfield's face-melting Telecaster licks. In my opinion, the wrong guitar gets all the credit. Where is Bloomfield's Telecaster now? (EDIT: here.)

BIBLIOGRAPHY: James Pustejovsky, The Generative Lexicon (MIT Press, 1996); Elijah Wald, Dylan Goes Electric: Newport, Seeger, Dylan, and the Night that Split the Sixties (Harper Collins, 2015).

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