My inner nerd is really going to make an appearance in this post.
The other day, I caught a short preview of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Since I was an impressionable child when “TMNT” first appeared, I’m rather attached to the original concepts, both the cartoon version and the movies. Kids who watched TMNT picked their turtle soul mates without the help of a Buzzfeed quiz (mine was Donatello). We had the action figures. You get the picture.
But there was something in this particular preview that caught the attention of the linguistics nerd part of my brain. Here’s the preview, via YouTube, and the part I’m talking about starts at :10 seconds. There’s a short transcript below the video…
April O’Neil (Megan Fox): “Ninja…Mutant…Turtle…Teenagers?”
Donatello (Jeremy Howard): “Well when you put it like that it sounds ridiculous.”
Clearly a joke, since the basic concept of the main characters is bizarre no matter how you describe them. But it struck me as true that there’s something more fluid about saying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was concerned that maybe that’s a result of being introduced to the name when I was young. But then I found a Slate.com article that talks about the preferred order of adjectives in English.
To summarize: while in English, it’s not incorrect to use adjectives in any particular order, there does seem to be a preference, and some linguists have broken these adjectives down into regions. Here they are in order:
General Opinion or Quality
Specific Opinion or Quality
One professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy, Barbara Partee, also “observes that the modifiers most likely to sit right next to nouns are the ones most inclined to serve as nouns in different contexts.”
So when we take Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,
We have Age Origin* Noun in other context Plural Noun
The joke version Ninja Mutant Turtle Teenagers
We have Noun Origin Noun Plural Noun
It seems that the official name is a better fit, according to the suggested explanation for adjective preference. And phonetically, the official name is easier to pronounce, due to the separation of the two T’s by the M and N, in the same order as they appear in the alphabet, and with the tongue in same place to first make the N and then the T sound. If you say it out loud slowly, you’ll see what I mean.
Of course, the joke version in the preview is an example of how the language can intentionally be changed, which according to the Slate.com article can require more cognitive focus. At the very least it makes us pay close attention to the phrasing, and at the most it can change the whole meaning of the phrase.
Who knew seven seconds of a movie preview could say so much about word order?
*Not sure if “Mutant” should be considered a Specific Quality (in which case it’s out of order) or Origin—weigh in by leaving a comment below!