David Lodge’s 2007 novel Deaf Sentence is about a retired professor of linguistics who has a progressive hearing disorder, as does Lodge himself.  His character, Desmond Bates, is unable to hear the high sound frequencies which we use to form consonants, and the book contains lots of puns and other distortions caused by Bates’s mishearing what people say.  It’s quite fun to read, there are some musings about language.  At one point, Bates says

I looked up deaf a few years ago in the biggest corpus of written and spoken English available, about fifty million words, and the most common collocation, about ten per cent of the total, was fall on deaf ears (counting fall as a lemma, standing for all forms of the verb).  Now it’s no surprise that the main contribution of deaf to English discourse is as part of a proverbial phrase signifying stupid incomprehension or stubborn prejudice; what’s puzzling is the verb fall, given that the the human ear is positioned to receive sound waves from the side, not from above.  And the enigma is not peculiar to English.  A quick dictionary search revealed that German has auf taube Ohren fallen, French has tomber dans l’oreille d’un sourd, and Italian cadere sugli orecchi sordi.

Norwegian has the same phrase, å falle for døve ører.  I don’t think fall is the wrong verb — it’s metaphorical: the words are broadcast and fall indiscriminately, like the drops of water issuing from a lawn sprinkler — but I do think it’s odd that it has been passed into so many languages (probably even more than those that are listed here).  I wondered if it might have started life in literature and then subsequently became a quotation; does anyone know?

And a happy New Year, by the way.  Earlier in the chapter quoted above — Bates is recalling a review he wrote of a book on corpus linguistics — there’s a much longer digression analysing collocations of happy.  Oh, all right,

A footnote to the above: it occurred to me that negative particles might have been omitted from the analysis of collocations of happy, so I did a check on a the small corpus I have on CD here at home, and sure enough, entirely happy is frequently preceded by not or some other negative word like never.  But perfectly is usually unqualified.  In fact the distribution is almost exactly equal: not entirely happy occurs about as often as perfectly happy, and entirely happy is as rare as not perfectly happy.  I wonder why?  Corpus linguistics is always throwing up interesting little puzzles like that.

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