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"Functional Shift"

Bruce Abel

you're lost," Sandie said. "We've been driving around for the last hour. Stop at this corner store and ask for directions," she demanded.

"OK," I said sheepishly.

"Hello," said the friendly person behind the counter.

Before I could respond, she announced proudly, "Yeh know, the telephone was invented right here in Brantford, Ontario on March 10, 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. Did yeh know the word telephone illustrates some important linguistic and etymological processes eh."

A senior over by the newspapers added, "Ya, that's for sure, Rosa's right. The noun telephone is one of a class of technological and scientific words made up of combining forms derived from classical languages."

"Yeh can say that again," said the postie getting a coffee. "Don't yeh know, tele is from the Greek 'tele' meaning 'afar, far off,' while phone means 'sound, voice' in Greek."

A teenager buying milk said, "Youse guys gotta know that such words derived from classical languages can be put together in French or German too eh"

"Ya, that's for sure," the senior agreed. "In 1830, the French called it téléphone."

"Alexander Graham Bell," Rosa continued. "Appropriated the word for his invention. Yeh know, in 1877 was the first instance of the verb telephone meaning 'to speak to by telephone' eh."

By the video games, a rapper sang out, "Yo, functional shift, homie, the verb is an example of a linguistic process called functional shift. A word develops a new part of speech: a noun is used as a verb, a verb as a noun, an adjective as a noun, a noun as an adjective, or even an adjective as a verb." His arms and hands accentuated every word.

"Ya, that's for sure," the senior agreed. "When we telephone, we change the syntactic function of telephone, making it a verb rather than a noun."

"And, yeh know," Rosa said, looking at me. "In Bell's instrument, an electric current varied in intensity and frequency in accordance with sound waves eh."

I ran from the store.

"So, what kept you?" Sandie asked impatiently.

"Functional shift," I mumbled.

At home early the next morning, the telephone (noun) rang.

"Hello," I said.

"Doctor, this is Marcy. I've a rash all over my privates. . . ."

"You've telephoned (verb) 821. The doctor is 823," I answered.

At 9:11am the telephone (noun) rang again. "Hello."

"Doctor, this is Jake. I've a rash all. . . ."

"You've (verb) called 821. The doctor is 823."

9:30am (noun). "Bruce?"

"Yes."

"This is Raymond. My glands are. . . ."

"You've (verb) called 821. Dr. Bruce Siebert is 823."

10:05am (noun). "Hello."

"Can I speak to the lady of the house?"

"There's no lady, we share the household responsibilities equally," I said.

"Huh?"

Noon (noun). "If you're telephoning (verb) the doctor, you have the wrong number. Please leave a message for Bruce or Sandie at the beep," answers my machine.

Beep. "This is Rose. I need a Doctor's certificate to be off work. My shift begins at four, please call."

1pm (noun). "If you're (verb) the doctor, you have the wrong number. Please leave a message for Bruce or Sandie at the beep."

Beep. "Call Rose. Urgent."

2pm (noun). "If you're (verb) the doctor's office, you have the wrong number. Please leave a message for Bruce or Sandie at the beep."

Beep. "Please return my call, Rose."

3pm (noun). "Hello"

"It's Rose, I finally got you."

"You've (verb) called 821. The doctor is 823."

4:06pm (noun). "Hello."

"Mr. A Bell, Sears has a special offer to clean your. . . . "

"We don't have a furnace."

4:29pm (noun). "Hello."

"Mr. A Bell, Sears has a special offer to clean your. . . ."

"We don't have wall-to-wall carpets."

5:15pm (noun). "Hello."

"We'll deliver the National Post for. . . ."

"I don't buy anything that has involved Conrad Black," I said.

"Who's Conrad Black?"

5:21pm (noun). "Hello."

"We'll deliver the Toronto Sun for. . . ."

"The Sun has no journalistic qualities," I said.

"Does that mean you aren't interested?"

6:01pm (noun). "Hello."

"This is Trent University Alumni. Since you're a '68 grad, you'll get the Green Mastercard with a $50,000 credit limit. . . ."

6:03pm (noun). "Hello."

"This is University of Western Ontario Alumni. Since you're a '69 grad, you'll get the Purple MasterCard with a $50,000 credit limit. . . ."

6:05pm (noun). "Hello."

"This is University of Guelph Alumni. Since you're a '95 grad, you'll get the Red MasterCard with a $50,000 limit. . . ."

6:10pm (noun). "Hello."

"I'm doing a survey. What brand of vacuum cleaner. . . ?"

6:14pm (noun). "Hello."

"I'm doing a survey. Which magazines. . . . ?"

6:20pm (noun). "Hello."

"Would you like to earn a six figure income? I'm looking for key people to join my rapidly expanding. . . ."

6:31pm (noun). "Hello."

"Would you sponsor a child to attend the Circus?"

"Circuses violate animal rights," I said.

"Animals have rights?"

6:42pm (noun). "Hello."

"Congratulations, you've won a Florida dream vacation. To reserve your spot, we need the first four numbers of your credit card. . . ."

9:37pm (noun). "Hello."

"Do you rent hard-core, triple X rated sex movies?"

"Roger's Video is 1533, not 5133."

10:06pm (noun). "Hello."

"When do you close?"

"We're never open," I replied.

"Then, how do I rent a movie?"

"Roger's Video is 1533 not 5133.

10:30pm (noun). "Hello."

"Hi. . . ."

"Roger's Video is 1533 not 5133 and if you have a rash over your privates or your glands are swollen or you want a medical certificate to get off work call the doctor at 823 not 821 and there is no lady of the house because we share responsibilities and I don't have a furnace or wall-to-wall carpets that need cleaning and I don't want the National Post because of Conrad Black and the Toronto Sun has no journalistic merit or a Trent Western Guelph Alumni credit card even though I could use the $150,000 line of credit and I'm not answering surveys about magazines or vacuum cleaners and yes I do want to make a six figure income but I'm not joining your rapidly expanding whatever and I'm not sending a child to the Circus and you know why because circuses violate animal rights and I'd love to have a Florida dream vacation but I'm not dumb enough to give you my credit number and we are all out of hard-core, triple X rated sex movies and don't ever telephone (verb) me again," I said.

"Did yeh know the word telephone illustrates some important linguistic and etymological processes eh," said the caller. "The noun telephone is one of a class of . . ."


Bruce Abel is a Guelph, Ontario writer and e-journal editor.

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