Michael Shapiro

As readers will see, this blog is written by someone who is a professional linguist and semiotician (specialist in sign theory) with a uniquely wide range of knowledge and experience in the humanities and social sciences. Since retiring from active university service in 2005, I have devoted myself to writing of all kinds, including fiction, and to public lectures at a variety of venues in the USA and abroad. In October 2017 I will be lecturing in China on language and linguistics at Beijing Language and Culture University and at Mongolia Technology University (Hohhut, Inner Mongolia).

For readers who are interested in availing themselves of my expertise and experience as a teacher and lecturer, I am available to tutor students who are preparing for various examinations (including the SAT, GRE, and LSAT) that test proficiency in the language arts. Initial contact with me can be established by e-mailing me (mms33@columbia.edu). Students wishing to get my help in preparing papers, theses, and dissertations are also welcome to contact me. I have a wealth of experience in this kind of work with students, including guidance in turning drafts of books into finished publications.

Done and Dusted: Paronomasia as a Form of Emphasis

September 18, 2017

Languages have a variety of means to express emphasis, including repetition, lengthening of vowels, raising and lowering of normal pitch, pleonasm (and other species of hypertrophy), etc. In English the typical alliterative phrase one finds in paronomastic constructions (e.g., “through thick and thin”) is particularly effective because it utilizes the poetic principle of similarity amid difference to seal the semantic bargain. “Done and dusted” is to be heard in British English but has yet to attach itself to cis-Atlantic speech. It’s just a matter of time.


For the Nonce: Spontaneous Neologisms in Speech

August 31, 2017

Y-H-B was waiting for his gazpacho to appear as the start of a noon meal at one of his favorite Manhattan restaurants (Quatorze Bis on East 79th Street) when instead of the waitress one of the owners appeared bearing the soup––an unprecedented event in Y-H-B’s experience––which elicited my comment: “Are you short-staffed today?” To which the man (looking to be in his sixties or seventies) retorted: “No, we’re undercustomered,” a complete nonce word (spontaneous neologism) that he’d conjured up on the spot (the restaurant was empty except for me).

All languages have considerable room for word play of this sort, especially languages like English with a rich derivational morphology. The use to which speakers put this capacity is very much a matter of individual linguistic skills and predilections. Upon hearing undercustomered, Y-H-B made a mental note of it and silently complimented the owner-turned-waiter on his linguistic sprezzatura.


Syntactic Change Is Always Semantic Change: A Case in Progress

August 20, 2017

When rules of grammar change, meaning is always involved, whatever the formal effects of the change. This is illustrated concisely by the current expansion of the syntactic government of the past participial form of the verb base, i. e., based, in both American and British English, whereby the traditionally normative phrase “based on” is being replaced and or augmented by the variant “based around” (and even “based off of”), as heard increasingly in media language on both sides of the Atlantic.

This change is semantic as well as syntactic because it can be analyzed as an attenuation of the meaning of the complement on, which is what results when the complement changes to based around. The conceptual core of on is weakened to indicate only something circumferential (as it were) rather than solidly central. Speakers who have shifted to using based around mean something different, therefore, from those who adhere to the traditional norm.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 12: Words with Private Meanings

August 15, 2017

As has been noted several times in earlier posts, particular words may have private meanings for speakers while remaining vocabulary items of natural languages, not fabricated items in ad hoc or artificial languages (like Esperanto or those spoken by characters in theatrical or cinematic productions). Especially memorable for individual speakers may be names by which people refer to each other, such as pet names from early childhood or those exchanged by members of one’s immediate family. But nomina propria are not the only category of words that may carry a private meaning.

It is accordingly a reminiscence from childhood that has prompted this post. Driving from Manchester to Bennington (cities lying near one another in the state of Vermont), Y-H-B happened to turn on the classical radio station of Vermont Public Radio and heard the piano music his mother, Lydia Shapiro (1905-1983), often practiced at home and played in her concerts. It was Liszt’s “Au bord d’une source [Beside a Spring],” an especially powerful and beautiful exemplar of the composer’s consummate mastery of the lyric genre. But it was when the announcer identified the piece after the performance had concluded that the (utterly mundane) words of the French title exerted an especially powerful emotional effect on the listener, moving him to tears. They had brought back to mind, from many years of repetition in the distant past, the flawless French in which they had been uttered by the pianist whose playing of Liszt’s music had lain deeply embedded in her son’s psyche for all time.


Linguistic Purism

August 4, 2017

A purist (according to the definition in the OED Online) is “a person who aims at or insists on scrupulous adherence to an ideal of purity or correctness, esp. in language or style; a person who adheres strictly to a principle or doctrine.” As readers of this blog may have divined from earlier posts, Y-H-B belongs to the dwindling breed of linguistic purists, especially when it comes to the languages he speaks fluently (Russian, Japanese, and English).

The puristic impulse was rekindled anew by the trip I took recently to Japan; also by viewing the new Yiddish-language film “Menashe,” in which all but one actor belong to the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community in Borough Park Brooklyn, New York. In Japan I constantly heard the contemporary variety of standard Japanese wherein practically every other word or phrase is a Japanized borrowing from (American) English, also known as Japlish (cf. Spanglish, Franglish, etc.). This hybridized (not to say bastardized) species of language eschews perfectly well-established native (or Sino-Japanese) forms of expression when an English alternative is readily available through the penetration of modern media. In “Menashe” a similar situation obtains, with lexical items from American English studding the speech of the characters, especially the younger ones.

Linguistic purism is seen as “the practice of defining or recognizing one variety of a language as being purer or of intrinsically higher quality than other varieties.” A linguistic purist is exercising a value judgment as to the integrity of the spoken or written language in active use. In the case of contemporary English, like any language with a long record of lexical borrowing from other languages, speakers resort to items that are of foreign provenience and of different time depths without realizing that they were borrowed (typically, from Latin or Anglo-Norman). When an item is obviously foreign––like machismo—it has a cultural resonance and is utilized in contexts that make direct or indirect reference to its origin.

Unlike borrowings in active use in contemporary English, however, those that are so frequent and growing in number in Japanese or Yiddish serve only the most expedient communicative purposes, which enable speakers to elide the necessity of learning how to express the same linguistic content in language that is more in keeping with traditional norms.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 11: Japan Redivivus

July 18, 2017

Finding myself in Japan (the land of my birth) again after a hiatus of seven years, I silently observed the country and the people as I made my way from the airport to Tokyo on the train. The manicured countryside brought to mind an undated poem by my father, Constantine Shapiro (1896-1992), probably written in the 1930s, on the same topic (rough translation follows):


Япония, страна искривленных деревьев,
Япония, страна улыбок и поклонов,
Япония, за что ты ненавидешь нас?

Япония, где все уныло и угрюмо,
Япония, где даже дети смотрят злобно,
Япония, скажи, за что?

За то ль, что мы пришли к тебе незваны?
За то ль, что мы стальной тебя сковали цепью?
Япония, скажи, за то ль?

Так мы уйдем обратно в свои долы,
Мы не хотим насильно твоей дружбы.
Пусть вновь сияет голубое небо,

Пусть вновь луна взойдет над небосклоном
И пусть, как некогда, в безмолвье недвижимом
Земля уснет и море опустеет.


Japan, land of crooked trees,
Japan, land of smiles and bows,
Japan, why do you hate us?

Japan, where all is depressing and morose,
Japan, where even children peer angrily,
Japan, say, what for?

Is it because we came to you unbidden?
Is it because we bound you with a steel chain?
Japan, tell us, was it for that?

Then we’ll go back to our valleys.
We don’t wish to have your friendship by force.
Let the blue sky glow once again,

Let the moon rise once again over the sky
And let the land, as long ago, in motionless wordlessness
Go to sleep, and the sea become desolate.

For a person in his seventies, with fourteen years of Japanese life in his mental cupboard (including World War II and the fire bombing of Tokyo) behind him, this poetic recollection of his father’s musing on Japan and the Japanese shortly after taking up residence there as a Russian refugee, emphasizes the fact that the emotional life of one’s parents is essentially and permanently a terra incognita.

Language as Semeiotic: The Example of the Russian Verb

June 25, 2017

Recalling the singular appearance of the word hermeneutic in the title of any article published over the multi-year history of the journal Language, and relying anew on Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmaticism and his apothegm “My language is the sum total of myself,” a program for reorienting linguistics in the twenty-first century can be sketched, prompted by the conviction that the prevailing conception of language as rule-governed behavior tout court has driven linguistics into barren byways which are powerless to explain speech as it is manifested in nature (in the spirit of the physis versus thesis debate in Plato’s Cratylus). This sterility can be overcome by postulating as a fundamental principle the idea that the locus of linguistic reality is the act, the creative moment of speech––a moment made possible by the existing structure of language with its general rules but which transforms that structure, so that linguistic structure is itself always in flux, always being modified by acts of speech. This principle then encompasses the following five postulates: (1) language is like a piece of music or a poem––i. e., a made (aesthetic = L formosus) object, a work that unfolds in time (unlike an art work which is static), always dynamic, while remaining changeable and stable simultaneously; (2) linguistic competence can only transpire in performance, and in ensembles of performances, and is not a work; (3) the ecology of language is constituted by discourse rather than by structural relations; (4) linguistic theory is immanent in the concerted––i. e., syntagmatic––data [=performance] of language in its variety, not merely in its paradigmatic structure; (5) hence the goal of theory is the rationalized explication of linguistic variety.

For those readers of this blog who have an appetite for linguistic theory, offered below is a truncated version of the beginning of the article by Y-H-B in the journal Language (Vol. 56, No. 1 [Mar., 1980], pp. 67-93), which can be accessed in full among the PDFs listed under the links above (see ‘Russian Conjugation: Theory and Hermeneutic’).

Russian conjugation has a rather special place in the history of linguistics, quite apart from its intrinsic interest as a topic of inquiry. Thirty years ago [this article was written in 1978], Roman Jakobson published his celebrated ‘Russian conjugation’ (1948), which became the seedbed for an over-arching concept of language that  was  later known as transformational-generative grammar (cf. Birnbaum 1970:31, Halle 1977:141, Worth 1972: 80). That article was preceded by the equally important ‘Zur Struktur des russischen Verbums’ (1932), which focused on the grammatical categories of the Russian verb and analysed them in terms of markedness, while reserving treatment of morphophonemic alternations for a future  study. The latter was, indeed, executed as Jakobson (1948; and the triptych was completed by Jakobson 1957, representing an innovative synthesis of the earlier panels.

Jakobson’s application of the concept of markedness to morphology was utilized by Trubetzkoy in his path-breaking Das morphonologische System der russischen Sprache (1934), the ‘first structural description of the morphophonemic system of a contemporary literary language’ (Stankiewicz 1976:109). For all its merits, however, this short book makes no real attempt to integrate. the fine discussion of grammatical categories with the thorough analysis of morphophonemic alternations.

In short, neither Jakobson nor Trubetzkoy appears to have implemented fully the requirement of a thorough-going, unified theoretical approach to the problem of form and meaning-specifically, in an explanatory rather than a purely descriptive framework. Unfortunately, the subsequent history of structural linguistics failed to make significant advances toward the solution of this all-important problem (cf. Andersen 1975). This is true no matter how broadly or narrowly the scope of ‘structural’ is construed. Contemporary linguistic practice of all persuasions is notably characterized by a preoccupation with rule formulation-–in concord with the prevailing concept of language as rule-governed behavior, and the presumption that advances in theory are to be identified with the construction of formalisms of maximal generality and abstractness. Even when the overt aim is claimed to be the explanatory understanding of structure, the chief goal of linguistic research-–MAKING SENSE OF GRAMMAR-has never effectively been at the forefront of theoretical concern (cf. Anttila 1975, 1977a).

In the last ten years [i. e., 1968-1978], however, a concept of linguistic structure has emerged that places precisely this goal at the center of its research program. The fundamental assumption of this attitude toward structure is that LANGUAGE IS A SEMIOTIC, A SYSTEM OF SIGNS. Taking Jakobson 1949, 1965c, and 1970 as its basis, the research conducted under the aegis of this concept has striven to give practical substance to the assertion that ‘language is …  a purely semiotic system. All linguistic phenomena-–from the smallest components to entire utterances and their interchange-–act always and solely as signs’ (Jakobson [1970] 1971: 703). This emphasis largely relies on Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of signs (cf. Hardwick 1977). As one modern student of Peirce has put it, ‘The semiotical method is a kind of analytical interpretation which EXPLAINS THE SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHED COGNITION’ (Buczynska­Garewicz 1978:14; emphasis added).

My own explorations of language in a semiotic perspective (particularly 1969, 1972, 1974, 1976) are an attempt to amalgamate Peirce’s thinking about signs with neo-structuralist work in linguistics (e.g. Andersen 1972, 1973, 1974a; Anttila 1977b). Three cardinal interconnected tenets inform this perspective: (1) semiotic universals–-principles of organization-–exist which govern  the  patterning of linguistic data; (2) the patterning is COHERENT, in the sense that the genuinely structured or motivated sets of facts (the STRUCTURE sensu stricto, as distinct from the rule-governed ADSTRUCTURE) are explicable as cohesions or correlations between expression-form and content-form (cf. Hjelmslev 1954); (3) the patterning of form/meaning correlations owes its coherence to a mediating interpretative component of ‘structural cement’ that binds the facts together and allows them to subsist systematically alongside each other. This component is MARKEDNESS. Though contemporary semioticians have taken little notice of it, markedness will be seen to provide the key to the understanding of form/meaning correlations in grammar.

The cardinal question is: WHY are certain specific expressions associated with certain specific contents? Expression and content cannot be compared directly, because the structure of language is such that purely diacritic signs (the ultimate units of phonology), which possess no meaning except ‘otherness’ (Jakobson [1939] 1962: 304), are implemented to constitute content signs  (more precisely, their signantia), which do possess a substantive meaning. Language overcomes this structural disjunction by means of an intermediary component of the sign situation: the semiotic value, Peirce’s INTERPRETANT, which inheres simultaneously and uniformly in the expression-form AND the content-form. The structuralist thesis of isomorphism obtaining between all parts of grammar and lexis reposes on just this kind of concept.

The semiotic values that enable sounds and meanings to cohere in a pattern are markedness values. Just as the phonological structure is determined ultimately by the markedness relations between the sets of oppositions that comprise it, so grammatical and lexical categories organize themselves into a coherent system through oppositions of grammatical and lexical meaning informed by the evaluative dimension that is markedness. The common intermediary, semiotic value, bridges the apparent chasm between expression and content in language.

In an earlier article (Shapiro 1974), dealing primarily with anaptyxis (vowel/zero alternations) in the morphophonemics of Russian derived substantives, I pointed to a major impasse in contemporary linguistic theory brought on by the pervasive recourse to ‘deep structure’.  As is well known, this practice results in the positing of underlying forms, and the derivation of surface forms by a mechanistic application of ordered rules. Collocating the problem of morphophonemic alternation in an explicitly semiotic framework-–that of markedness––suggested the existence of certain principles of grammatical structure, and traced the means of their implementation in the Russian material. My concept of structure prompted me to substitute for the question ‘How does one get from deep to surface structure?’ the question ‘WHY are the facts of grammar as they are?’ Seeking the answer to such a radical question presupposes, naturally, the belief that ‘surface’ variations­–the actual stuff of language-do not vary unsystematically, but rather organize themselves into a semiotic, a system of signs. Surface variants are thus seen not as mere agglomerations of data to be systematized by appeal to formalisms at a putatively deeper (hence ‘truer’) level of reality, but as entering into patterned semiotic relations with each other.


American English as a Typologically Hypertrophic Language

Linguistic typology studies the various types of language structure as evidenced by human languages past and present. For instance, when it comes to the sound structure of a language, the broad general division is into two types, vocalic and consonantal languages. Accordingly, a language with a relatively large inventory of vowels (like English) is contrasted with one (like Russian) that evinces a relatively large inventory of consonants.

A language type that has not been noticed by linguists is one that can be called “hypertrophic.” More concretely, as has been explored in many posts on this blog, American English should be regarded as a hypertyrophic type for manifesting a marked tendency toward all kinds of superfluous engorgement and functionless redundancy, including pleonasm. This tendency should be classified as a species of failure of thought and rooted out wherever possible. Unfortunately, even educated speakers of Standard American English can be heard utilizing locutions that evince this typological feature. For instance, on this week’s NPR program “On the Media” the author David Daley was heard uttering the phrase “based off of” instead of the correct “based on” in a spontaneous answer to the host’s question about the American census. In analyzing this solecism, only some sense of linguistic hypertrophy accurately reflects what is at stake.


Grammar and Usage: The Abuse of the Vocative

June 21, 2017

Every language has its own rules of grammar which must be followed by native speakers as well as non-native learners. These rules have differing degrees of play or looseness/strictness, such that some rules are observed without fail by those who are speaking/writing the language correctly, and some rules are episodically or regularly bent by users.

Usage (L usus) is not tantamount to strict observance of grammatical rules. There are always more or less idiomatic ways of using any given language, and the tolerance between idiomaticity and stiltedness is largely a matter of linguistic style. Speakers typically have individual styles that reflect the tolerance that is built into usage. When this tolerance is exceeded––which is largely a matter of judgment––a given usage may become evaluated as a verbal tic.

An interesting case of ticacity is the abuse of the vocative, by which is meant the excessive insertion of the interlocutor’s name in the utterance that is being addressed to him/her. An example of this abuse can regularly be heard from the NPR social science correspondent  Shankar Vedantam (as it was today on “Morning Edition”). Mr. Vedantum, who is evidently of South Asian extraction judging by his accent (but whose English is otherwise impeccable), habitually and ticastically inserts the name of the show’s host in his responses to their questions. Different listeners may respond differently to this usage, but Y-H-B considers it an abuse of the vocative.


Degrees of Veracity of Utterances (“to be honest”)

June 9, 2017

When a speaker makes a simple declarative statement, there is an implicit assurance in both the utterer’s and the interlocutor’s minds that it is veracious. If one wishes to make the assurance linguistically explicit, one can interpolate the phrase “to be honest” (which has its counterparts in European languages besides American English). This phrase has recently risen in frequency to be almost a verbal tic with certain speakers, especially those whose speech is recorded in the broadcast media.

The reason for this tic is not hard to find. The anomie surrounding public discourse––particularly in America, but not only––includes designations such as “post-truth,” “alt-truth,” etc., which have put participants and observers on the alert to the ever-present possibility of an utterance’s factitiousness, not to speak of its falsity. In such an environment, the addition of a phrase such as “to be honest” becomes almost mandatory, if one wishes to vouchsafe the truth of any utterance. A sorry state of affairs.