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Non-Pathological Agrammatism

Agrammatism––treated as a medical disorder––is defined as ‘a type of aphasia, usually caused by cerebral disease, characterized by an inability to construct a grammatical or intelligible sentence while retaining the ability to speak single words’. But there should be a different––wider––understanding of agrammatism as the regular incidence of ungrammatical forms in the speech of native speakers arising from imperfect learning.

Such incorrect forms may, of course, enter the canon willy-nilly by being sufficiently well-attested to warrant recognition as alternatives to the standard. Here, for instance, is the case of the past passive form of the verb enamor, used as an adjective (as cited in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary Online), where the complement of is the traditional form and with the (formerly) erroneous one:

1:  to inflame with love :  charm, captivate — usually used in the passive with  of <tourists were enamored of the town> and sometimes with with <a beautiful Indian girl with whom he was enamored — Walter Havighurst>

2:  to cause (someone) to feel a strong or excessive interest or fascination — usually used in the passive with of or with < … kids who grew up enamored of both Black Sabbath and Black Flag … — Gillian Garr, Rolling Stone, 19 May 1994> <In 1999 Wall Street was enamored with anything dot-com … — Donna Seaman, Booklist, July 2003>

This particular example is relatively benign. But the wholly erroneous use of the Italian borrowing graffiti as a singular instead of graffito(an error compounded by the use of graffitis as a plural [sic!]), heard emanating this morning from the mouth of a published author on the American Public Media radio program “Marketplace Morning Report” (and noticed publicly in an ameliorative tag by the show’s literate host), can only be adjudged agrammatistically wholly beyond the linguistic pale.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Speaking like a Native (When the Spirit Moves One)

It takes unusual circumstances for someone not to be a native speaker of a language. Normally, one has a mother tongue, the language of one or both of one’s parents. Unusual circumstances of another sort can produce the situation of a person speaking more than one language like a native. That is the situation in which Y-H-B has found himself in all his life due to circumstances of birth and life history.

I was reminded of this conjuncture when eating lunch in a Japanese restaurant today in Beverly Hills. My habit is not to speak Japanese to waiters and waitresses in such restaurants so as not to shock them. Members of the Nipponese nation are still not entirely habituated to hearing native Japanese emanating from Caucasians, and in my case the temptation to épater le bourgeois is routinely resisted.

Speaking like a native also involves cultural paralinguistic patterns that one falls into effortlessly and almost obligatorily. It’s as if one took off one mask and put on another when speaking a language. The Japanese cultural situation is full of behavioral peculiarities that are incumbent on one who speaks the language natively, including nods of the head, intakes of breath, ejaculations, etc. that are wholly absent from the speech situation attending American English. Withal, these features are ineluctable for someone who is a native speaker, and a trilingual one (like your Y-H-B) cannot escape them any more than a monolingual one.

Switching to Russian, as Y-H-B had to for long stretches during a recent week-long stint at Eastern Washington University while conversing with one’s host––a man born and bred in Russia––entailed quite other sequelae. One’s mentality shifted from the habitual Anglo-American context to the poetically-inflected world of Pushkin and the Golden Age, including Krylov’s fables, which bodied forth a quite different personality.

Language is the instrument of thought, to be sure. It is also the determinant of one’s personality in many respects. A trilingual speaker must maneuver effortlessly between the worlds that a native knowledge of three languages adumbrates, and it is not always a task that a normal psyche can accommodate.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Prestige and Language Change

Languages change for extrinsic (heteronomous) reasons as well as intrinsic (autonomous) ones. A typical extrinsic cause of linguistic change is prestige. While all speakers generally are impelled to speak like their fellows, the spur to imitate the speech of others is particularly potent when prestige is involved.

This situation is true of institutionally regulated speech as well. Thus, in the recent past, speakers of British English (as heard, for instance on the BBC World Service) have largely converted to using the word sports in the plural rather than the traditional British English singular sport. This change can only be reckoned as resulting from the influence of American English (where sports is de rigueur), whose prestige has grown to such an extent that even speakers from the mother country must now bow to its status as the world language and change their idiolect accordingly. Autres temps, autres mœurs.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Pathos of Everyday Life 6 (Language as a Badge of Authenticity)

This morning I had to telephone the call center of a bank in order to transact some business. The voice that eventually got on the line sounded like a middle-aged woman who announced that she was speaking from South Dakota, so I said to her: “You sound like a native South Dakotan.” Her happiness was clearly audible: “Born and bred,” she answered, with a lilt in her voice, and repeated the phrase to punctuate her pride. “I’ve lived in South Dakota all my life! I’ve lived in the eastern part, and I’ve lived in the western part.” For my part, I said nothing about my being a linguist and being able to discern a South Dakota accent. (Listening to “Prairie Home Companion” for many years helped, of course, since Minnesotan and South Dakotan American English are similar.)

In an era when regional dialects are fading under the onslaught of media language, it is clear that natives of rural areas still cling tenaciously to their traditional linguistic forms of expression, and for them the fact that a stranger on the other end of the telephone line has acknowledged the authenticity of their speech is of considerable personal and social import.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Vocative and Its Functions in Discourse

The traditional name for the form of a noun when a member of this word class is used not just to name but to address someone or something is vocative. Together with the imperative of verbs, the vocative, strictly speaking, serves the so-called conative function. Thus the Indo-European languages (but not only) have to one or another extent maintained a vocative case and its concomitant separate desinence (ending) in the paradigm devoted to this naming or addressing function, although the overarching tendency in the history of these languages is for the vocative to fall together with the nominative in form. In a language like Russian, for instance, where the vocative overwhelmingly gave way to the nominative (except for the recent resurgence of the so-called “new vocative”), the form of the noun used for address is the same as the nominative, although Russian still has fossilized instances of the old vocative in religious terms like Боже (for nom. Бог ‘God’) and Господи (for nom. Господь ‘Lord’), which are now just part of common parlance as exclamations rather than terms of address.

Like any other language, English has a vocative intercalated in discourse that is identical in form with the nominative (subjective); moreover, as in all languages, English vocatives serve the phatic and emotive functions over and above the conative. A word like sir in military practice, for example, is a token of deference and is de rigueur in speech whenever a person of higher rank is addressed. This sort of practice can be called the “formulaic” use of the vocative, which also occurs in other contexts, such as in advertising and marketing, where agents who are serving customers or clients are encouraged to sprinkle their utterances with the addressees’ names (usually preceded by a term of deference such as “Mr.” or “Miss/Mrs./Ms.”).

A particular instance that is worthy of further study is the variable phatic and/or emotive use of the vocative as a feature of an individual speaker’s predilections when addressing an interlocutor. Speakers typically differ from each other in the frequency with which they resort to naming their interlocutors as part of discourse. Constant interspersion of one’s wife’s or husband’s name in addressing a spouse may start as a sign of endearment but may also ultimately devolve into a verbal tic devoid of emotive meaning and destructive of genuine affection. Similarly, the same speech habit in addressing a customer or client can easily lead to annoyance on the part of the addressee and subvert the very psychological affect that the utterer is aiming to engender in order to further their mercantile goal.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Contraction in Language and Its Stylistic Dimension

To expand a bit on the previous post (prompted in part by Gary Richmond’s apposite comments), contraction in language is necessarily to viewed as a stylistic alternative to its unexpanded counterpart, specifically as a colloquial/informal/elliptical variant on a “full” form that is employed in stylistically formal or neutral contexts. This is overwhelmingly the case in English (as well as most other languages), where augmentation as part of a shift to a colloquial or informal genre of speech is extremely rare. Thus nope, which is the colloquial counterpart of no, represents a completely atypical example of adding a segment in order to signify informality instead of subtracting one.

By the bye, the case of nope, while rare, is nevertheless a good riposte to those who maintain that informality is achieved through economy of effort, hence contraction as something to be explained primarily as a physical means. Anything stylistic, whatever its value, is always conceptual precisely because value is necessarily conceptual, always part of the cognitive dimension of human semiosis.

Why contraction lends itself to implementation as a means of conveying informality is an interesting question. There is clearly something about the human mind that tends to regard the patterned reduction of plenitude as informal in comparison. But examining this question further would take us too far afield from language and must therefore be left unanswered for the time being, at least.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Vowel Syncope and Its Functions

Vowels that appear in one form of a word may be elided in speech (and even in writing) depending on the context, especially between consonants but not only. This elision (called “syncope”) occurs in many languages of the world including European languages like English or Russian and is typically the product of a historical process, wherein earlier “full vowel” forms (i. e., unsyncopated) alternate with newer forms that omit the vowel in question. The occurrence of syncope is routinely associated with the stylistic dimension of language, specifically with the so-called “elliptic code,” and contrasted with the “explicit code” wherein the vowel in question appears unelided. (These terms were introduced for the first time into the discourse of linguistics in Y-H-B’s first book, Russian Phonetic Variants and Phonostylistics [University of California Press, 1968]). The elliptic form tends to be generalized over time at the expense of the explicit one, as often happens under the appropriate circumstances in the pronunciation of nomina propria, including English (British) place names such as Leicester (pronounced [lɛstər]); cf. the colloquial syncopated pronunciation of the British English word governor as [‘ɡʌvnə(r)], occasionally rendered as guvna orthographically to reflect the colloquial phonetics.

In English the archetypical instance of syncope is in contractions. Thus, for example, the subject-verb combination “I am” is characteristic of the explicit code but is reduced to “I’m” (where the apostrophe marks contraction) in the elliptic code.

Certain phonetic contexts are more likely to induce syncope than others. The occurrence of a vowel in an unstressed syllable is a sine qua non by itself. From that basic starting point, the occurrence of an adjacent sonorant in the syllable––more specifically, a nasal consonant like /n/ or /m/––often leads to the unstressed vowel being dropped, as when heaven is pronounced (esp. in British English) in the second syllable without the vowel and a syllabic nasal.

Traditional phonetic explanations of vowel syncope rely on such notions as economy of effort, but this is clearly inadequate, even though items in the elliptic code tend to be pronounced faster than their counterparts in the explicit code. The function of vowel syncope is rather the usual semiotic one, viz. of mapping the hierarchy of distinctive features that define a phoneme through its instantiation contextually in speech. Thus vowels––which are defined as [+ vocalic] and [- consonantal]––signify this definition in connected speech by being liable to syncope, the only speech sounds which function that way in the rules of implementation characterizing a phonological system.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Pluralia tantum and Their Contemporary Misconstrual

In the European languages, including English, there are words which either appear exclusively in the plural form or do so with particular meanings. Thus, for instance, the Russian word часы ‘clock/watch’ is a plurale tantum in the meaning of a timepiece, the singular form being used to mean ‘hour’.

In English there is a long history of pluralia tantum such as qualifications, finals, negotiations, etc., but in contemporary speech (especially American, but not only) these words are being misconstrued to mean things rather than activities (the latter being their proper semantic category). Thus the last match in a tennis tournament is properly called “(the) finals,” NOT “the final,” but this normative and traditional form is now routinely being replaced by the word in the singular. Speakers who make this mistake evidently take the event to be a thing rather than an activity, whence the change in morphology.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Hypertrophic Prepositional Complements of Verbs

Increasingly in the last decade, American media English has been swept up in the tide of hypertrophic variants in all sectors of grammar. This tendency has now come to affect the form of prepositions after verbs, such that the standard transitive variant enter in––as in “enter in the lottery”––is being routinely replaced by “enter into the lottery,” etc. Perhaps a contributing factor in this case is the related intransitive form, as in phrases like “enter into an agreement,” but the fact of a powerful contemporary tropism toward hypertrophy in American English is undeniable on its face, of which bloated prepositions as verbal complements are yet another instance.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Muddled Grammar, Muddled Thought (on behalf ofon the part of)

As first brought to Y-H-B’s attention by Jacobus Primus, speakers on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly prone to confuse the phrases on behalf of and on the part of, using the first when they mean the second. This mistake was heard being made by an otherwise RP speaker this morning on the BBC World Service, which can be taken as a warrant of its pervasiveness.

A confusion of this sort is significant not only in itself but as a sign of a failure of thought, illustrating yet again the role linguistic error plays in undermining the cognitive integrity of verbal communication.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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