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Is Intonation Iconic?

Every language has differences in intonation of utterances depending on the latter’s content and purport. The basic divide is between questions and statements, hence interrogative intonation is invariably different from declarative intonation, although a relatively new phenomenon in American English––Valley-girl patois ––tends to usurp the declarative mode by substituting the interrogative at the end of every clause, including sentence-final.

In languages as disparate as Russian, Japanese, and English (to name just three that happen to be Y-H-B’s native languages) interrogative intonation comports a rise that is lacking in declarative intonation, and this suprasegmental feature can be understood as an icon of the difference in meaning between the two types of clauses or sentences uttered with these two intonations. Interrogatives always come with a rise in the voice, whether or not attended by a minimal fall, whereas declaratives always lack this rise even though they may have a perceptible but non-significant fall across the final portion of the utterance. Final position in the clause, sentence, or utterance is decisive for interrogative meaning except where the rise occurs on interrogative words (like ‘how’, why’, ‘when’) that come before final position.

The intonational universal determining rises and falls has to do with how all languages construe questions. The obligatory rise in interrogatives is an icon of the unsettled state of questions vis-à-vis statements: the former figuratively “hang in the air” (cf. R висят в воздухе), whereas the latter are “grounded.”


Fear of Linguistic Indirection: British ‘if you like’

Regular readers of this blog may remember mentions of British ‘if you like’ by comparison with American ‘if you will’ as phrases used by speakers to warn addressees about (or implicitly apologize for the use of) a proximate figurative expression, as if figuration in speech were somehow a transgression of linguistic protocol. (In that connection, readers are directed to the PDF available on this blog, entitled “Wimp English,” which analyzes the use of “if you will” in American English; and is, curiously, the most oft-downloaded item on the list of PDFs [according to Webalizer].

The use of these phrases in the two varieties of contemporary English speech is not uniform. Whereas ‘if you will’ has declined on this side of the Atlantic, the incidence of ‘if you like’ across the pond is more frequent than ever (judging by BBC World Service broadcasts). One can only conclude that the British, among their other linguistic mannerisms, are more sensitive than Americans to the possibility of saying anything that their interlocutors might deem non-U or inappropriately idiosyncratic.


Meaning Is Not ‘In the Head’

Meaning is a perennial problem in the philosophy of mind but seems to pose no problem for language users and linguists alike. The latter locate it as residing ‘in the head’ of speakers, and language seems to facilitate this view. However, on closer inspection, and when we compare how different languages use words to mean the same thing (synonymy), we become convinced that meaning is all around us, and words in different languages have different ways of carving out a specific meaning from the semantic universe that surrounds us in the world, differing from the physical environment only by mode of embodiment.

Y-H-B was reminded of these considerations when hearing the English word tie on the radio used to designate a match or contest where there is no winner and an equal score and translating it mentally into its Russian equivalent ничья (nich’ya). The Oxford English Dictionary Online gives as the primary meaning ‘that with which anything is tied; a cord, band, or the like, used for fastening something; a knot, noose, or ligature; a natural formation of this kind, a ligament’. The notion of being inextricably bound to each other is then implemented figuratively to give the meaning ‘equality between two or more competitors or the sides in a match or contest; a match in which this occurs, a drawn match; a dead heat’.

The Russian word ничья by contrast utilizes a different concept, literally that of ‘belonging to no one’, i. e., ‘[victory] belongs to no one’. Both the English and the Russian words denote exactly the same thing but do so in different modes of figuration. The semantic web in which the words are embedded is the same, but the construal in the two languages gives linguistic expression to that embeddedness in two entirely different ways that end up meaning the same thing nonetheless.


The Epidemic of Verbal Misgovernment

With the rise of the internet and mass communications has come the establishment of (American) English as the world’s lingua franca. This development has necessarily been accompanied by imperfect learning, which means that grammatical normativity has suffered, perhaps nowhere more noticeably than in the matter of verbal government, specifically the use of the correct postposition after verbs.

For instance, even native speakers of American English are now constantly heard confusing the phrases “ask (a question) of” with “put (a question) to,” substituting the postposition to for of after ask. The media universe is rife with such mistakes, which linguists are prone to identify with analogy as a cause. One can see, of course, why to seems more “natural,” given its use in other constructions involving directionality and the indirect objects of certain verbs, but correct usage is not just an arbitrary or slavish adherence to traditional rules of grammar but the bedrock of the felicitous expression of thought. Its raison d’être has a cognitive dimension that goes beyond language as a cultural phenomenon.


Does the Gorilla’s Avoirdupois Matter?

A quite common idiomatic expression in contemporary American speech is “the 600-/800-/900-/1,000-pound gorilla in the room,” which is used to mean “a very large issue that everyone is acutely aware of, but nobody wants to talk about. Perhaps a sore spot, perhaps politically incorrect, or perhaps a political hot potato, it’s something that no one wants to touch with a ten foot pole” (as defined by the Urban Dictionary). Interestingly enough, the expression started life with the word elephant instead of gorilla , i. e. “(pink) elephant in the room.” Because of its gigantism an elephant’s weight is much harder to specify than that of a gorilla, so the change of animal can be explained by the desire of the speaker to indicate just how large the undiscussed but relevant issue actually is in context.

Speaking of weight, although the variability of the beast’s poundage in the contemporary version may have something to do with the figurative force the user wishes to impart to the hidden but significant considerations at stake in discourse, this consideration is less likely than that of the sheer bulk of the animal. Ultimately, a gorilla in the public imagination looms large––especially in a room!––regardless of avoirdupois, hence the instability of its linguistic designation.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 7 (Authenticity)

All of us––but especially Americans, because of our history as a nation of immigrants––have a drive for authenticity in our lives, in our experience and use of language, as well as in other aspects of our daily existence. This was exemplified yet again this morning when Y-H-B descended to the laundry room in his Manhattan apartment building for his weekly wash and encountered the sole other visitor, a man in his sixties who asked Y-H-B for help with the new machines that had just been installed.

What was remarkable about this gentlemen (for Y-H-B, at least) was his impeccably authentic New York accent, with all the correct vowels and intonations and the thorough r-lessness (elision of the liquid /r/) in all the right contexts. What a joy to hear this historically pristine speech, this rarely encountered exemplum of linguistic tradition!


Incomplete Voicing in Initial Plosives: A Survival of Immigrant Speech?

Americans who learned English as children and were either born overseas or grew up in a family in which foreign languages––particularly, German––were spoken by the parents or other close relatives may pick up and unknowingly import one or another heterolingual phonetic trait into their own speech. This is the case with the so-called incomplete voicing of initial stop consonants such as [b] in boy or [dʒ] in judge, which one occasionally hears on the radio from announcers whose family background probably includes non-native speakers of American English.

The incompleteness pertains to the onset of the stop, which is to say that the speaker starts by pronouncing the consonant without voicing––i. e., delays the vibration of the vocal bands––and only midway through its articulation actuates the vocal bands.

Two radio personalities who regularly manifest this trait are Terry Gross of the program Fresh Air (on NPR) and Jim Svejda (on-air host on KUSC, the classical music station of the University of Southern California). Gross apparently grew up in Brooklyn and must have encountered many speakers of Yiddish as a child. The origin of this feature in Svejda’s speech is unclear, but given the fact that this surname derives from Bohemia and the Austro-Hungarian area in general, one suspects a German-speaking milieu somewhere in America as the likely source.


[ADDENDUM: In answer to my query about his background, Mr. Svejda kindly responded as follows: “It was 22nd Street Chicago English (with a Czech accent) leavened by Arkansas white trash; I also spent several years in speech therapy for various afflictions, including a lateral lisp.”]

A Grammatical Case of Euphemism (pass)

Every language has euphemisms, which are defined as “that figure of speech which consists in the substitution of a word or expression of comparatively favourable implication or less unpleasant associations, instead of the harsher or more offensive one that would more precisely designate what is intended” (Oxford English Dictionary Online). But this definition trades exclusively in terms of lexical substitution, whereas English, for instance, has at least one euphemism that is grammatical, specifically that of pass ‘to die’ instead of pass away (mainly in Black English, but now not exclusively). (Note, incidentally, that pass away is already a euphemism to begin with.)

This use of the verb pass without the postposition away can be seen as a grammatically achieved attenuation of the “harsh” or “offensive” meaning comported by the original construction with the postposition, and in that sense it fits the ontology of any euphemism by taking the sting out of the lexical unit being defanged.


Hypertrophization Continues Apace (definitive, secretive)

In many previous posts, the march of hypertrophization in contemporary English has been instanced via examples of redundancies and pleonasms of all stripes, including ones that have become conventional and accepted like advance planning. To continue in this vein, recently your Y-H-B has repeatedly heard presenters on the BBC World Service use the words definitive instead of definite and secretive instead of secret (adj.), where the suffix {-ive} is added redundantly to unaffixed counterparts whose meanings and usage are well-established in the traditional norm.

Like all discourse strategies that have become so ubiquitous in contemporary English, hypertrophization seems to answer to a felt need for overdetermination of meaning through formal redundancy, in what seems to be a (misguided) linguistic application of the principle, “The more, the merrier!”


Sound-Meaning Relations as the Engines of Linguistic Change

An earlier post, “The Supersession of Literal Meaning (incredibly, unbelievably),” provided a possible motivation for the rise of the two adverbs at the expense of the traditional emphatics very and extremely. But in view of the clear fading of the latter two under the onslaught of the longer words, length ought now to be considered as a possible driver of the change, even though the tendency toward hypertrophy that has been instanced repeatedly in earlier posts cannot be ruled out as a contributory factor.

The length of a word can enhance the word’s suitability as an emphatic because by comparison with shorter candidates like very and extremely a pentasyllable and a quadrisyllable like unbelievably and incredibly, respectively, enhance the iconic relation between sound and meaning that is the teleological end-point of all linguistic change. Here, emphasis as a meaning is abetted in the measure that the formal means of its expression promotes this iconicity, the relative length of words clearly being one such means.


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