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The Power of the Amphibrach (treméndous)

The newly-minted President of the United States, Donald Trump, has a penchant for the word treméndous, which he utters at every opportunity along with a few other favorites. Aside from its meaning, there are some structural (formal) reasons why this particular word has pride of place in Trump’s verbal armamentarium.

First of all, this word has no constituent structure other than the adjectival morpheme {-ous}, as in lugubrious, atrocious, populous, etc. This means that the word stands by itself as far as its core meaning is concerned: its base {treménd-} is unique, unassociated with any other lexical unit.

Second, and more important from the oratorical point of view, treméndous is amphibrachic, which is to say that it is a trisyllable whose medial syllable is stressed, buttressed on both sides by unstressed syllables. It is this prosodic structure––weak, strong, weak––that gives it the power one feels both when uttered by the speaker and heard by the auditor. Perceptually, nothing ever looms taller than a high surrounded on all sides by lows.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 10 & 11: ‘sycophantic’ & ‘calumniate’

What would English do without its Graeco-Roman patrimony?! Two words from that stratum of the lexicon swam into Y-H-B’s consciousness a few days ago when asked by the editor of a journal to write a piece about his dealings with his Doktorvater under the rubric of “unforgetting.” Here is the passage in which the pertinent items found their natural place:

There was a lot of acrimony on Jakobson’s side for a number of reasons, and my  dissertation went through four drafts before he signed off on it. But I aggravated my “sins” by publishing every one of the chapters he forced me to excise as journal articles. Then I got into a lot of hot water with Jak by writing a strongly critical book review in Language of one of his sycophantic former students. Jak went on the warpath (esp. in IJSLP) and tried to prevent me from getting tenure at UCLA. We eventually patched it up, but you can imagine the anguish of a young scholar to be calumniated in scholarly journals by a world-famous linguist!

The OED glosses them as follows:
           sycophantic, adj.
Etymology:
< Greek σῡκοϕαντικός, < σῡκοϕάντης sycophant n. and adj.

  1. Having the character of, or characteristic of, a sycophant; meanly flattering;  basely obsequious.
  2. Calumnious, slanderous.

         calumniate, v.
         Etymology: < Latin calumniāt- participial stem of calumniāri ; see
-ate suffix3. Compare 16th cent. French calomnier.


  1. a.
    trans. To asperse with calumny, utter calumny regarding; to accuse or        charge falsely and maliciously with something criminal or disreputable;to slander.
    b. intr. (absol.) To utter calumnies.
  2. To charge (a thing) calumniously against a person. Obs. rare.

The Russians have a saying, “Мeртвые сраму не имут,” literally “The dead take no shame,” which derives from the so-called Primary Chronicle and refers to words supposedly uttered by Prince Sviatoslav before sending his men into battle with the Byzantines in the tenth century. However, given the shameful circumstances chronicled in the passage above, here is one unforgettable instance where the paroemic is irrefragably beggared by the historical.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Sense of Grammar (Mood and Number)

Given the balkanized state of the field of linguistics in the twenty-first century, it may be easy to forget that an à la mode view of grammar may not necessarily be the best or truest. Apropos, a book published by Y-H-B almost a quarter of a century ago, The Sense of Grammar: Language as Semeiotic, still shows the way toward an understanding of the coherence of grammatical facts by stressing the overriding importance of diagrammatic semeiosis, wherein diagrammaticity (diagrams = icons of relation) prevails over arbitrariness.

This truth can be demonstrated concisely by examining the relation between mood and number in contrary to fact statements in English. The traditional norm requires such statements (as in wishes) to utilize the plural instead of the singular with a singular agent (“I wish I were in Dixie,” etc.). The contemporary tendency away from the plural may seem to restore grammatical coherence, but this is a specious judgment based on a basic incomprehension of how grammar makes sense semeiotically.

More precisely, the use of the plural number with the subjunctive mood constitutes a supervening coherence based on iconicity. A diagram (as noted) being an icon of relation, and the marked number being the plural (vis-à-vis the singular), just as the subjunctive mood is marked vis-à-vis the indicative, the sense of the use here of the plural transpires from the coherence of the markedness values of the two relevant grammatical categories. The Sense of Grammar may be out of print, but its purport has not suffered desuetude withal.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Orthoepic Shibboleths (*good-paying and *electóral)

With the growth of literacy and the spread of mass communications has come the dominance of linguistic standards all over the world. This is true of English as well as the languages of the rest of the first world. However, even among native speakers of the standard in any country there will always be the incidence of variation, specifically as regards older or traditional norms being superseded by innovations that contravene the latter, even among educated speakers.

Two vivid contemporary examples of this trend in Standard American English are the rise of the compound adjective *good-paying (instead of the correct well-paying) and the simple adjective *electóral (instead of the correct eléctoral), both of which were heard as uttered today on the National Public Radio program “Morning Edition Saturday” by a female college professor of sociology.

When linguistic errors become frequent enough to be part of an ongoing language change, they can be regarded as orthoepic shibboleths, as signs of the speaker’s cultural level (and typically of their chronological age). As with all such phenomena, contraventions of the linguistic norm always fall into the category of signs of human behavior that serve as criteria by which we judge each other and are, therefore, material to how societies work.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 9: ‘pullulate’

A word I learned from my late wife Marianne, and which she used quite frequently in her everyday discourse, is the verb ‘pullulate’, defined in full by the OED as follows:

  1. trans. To engender, bring into existence; to cause to spring up abundantly or multiply. Now rare.
  2. intr.
    a.To be developed or produced as offspring; to spring up abundantly, multiply.
    b. To teem, swarm. Freq. with with.
  3. intr.
    a. Of a seed, plant, etc.: to germinate, to put out shoots or buds. Obs.
    b. Of a bud, shoot, propagule, etc.: to appear; to sprout, grow. Obs.
  4. intr. Med. To develop growths; to proliferate. Obs. rare.
  5. intr. Of a cell or animal, esp. a pathogenic organism: to breed, multiply; to reproduce prolifically.
    Derivatives
    pullulating adj. budding, sprouting, flourishing.

Origin: A borrowing from Latin. Etymons: Latin pullulāt-, pullulāre.Etymology: < classical Latin pullulāt-, past participial stem (see -ate suffix3) of pullulāre to send forth new growth, to sprout, to sprout out, spring forth < pullulus young nestling or chick, young shoot or sprout < pullus young of any animal, chick (see pull n.2) + -ulus -ulus suffix. Compare French pulluler (c1350 in Middle French in sense 2a, first half of the 15th cent. in sense 3b, end of the 15th cent. in sense 2b; the transitive use in sense 1 is apparently not paralleled in French before 1764), Italian pullulare (1313).

Marianne (petnames Mooyin, Mumpkin) used it most often in meaning 2b and in the derivative adjective. Here is a paragraph containing the word as used by me in a recent e-mail message from Cali (Colombia), where I stayed for a week and reported on what I observed:

“The people here have been extremely nice and welcoming. The sponsor [of my lecture], Universidad del Valle, put me up in a first-class hotel and paid all my other trip expenses. Especially memorable was an iguana I saw at the University’s park yesterday. A truly splendid creature! The city is pullulating with people and animals and vegetation.”

As I wrote the sentence with ‘pulluate’, I thought of my Mooyin––as always––and of her beautiful speech.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Grammatical Errors and Imperfect Learning (Verbal and Adjectival Government)

Speakers of Standard American English, perhaps more often than speakers of any other European standard, make grammatical errors that are clearly not lapsus linguae (slips of the tongue). Nowhere is this more evident than in the government of verbs and adjectives, where the prepositional complements are frequently being confused, particularly for, with, and to. This was glaringly observed in the mistakes made today by interviewees on the NPR program “Morning Edition” on National Public Radio.

One such mistake was *rife for instead of the correct rife with; the other was *complying to instead of complying with. That any adult native speaker of contemporary American English can commit such grammatical errors testifies not only to what is called imperfect learning but to a fundamental lacuna in their command of the language. Since the speakers sounded on the young side, these mistakes––which could be multiplied manyfold in public oral discourse––can only be attributed to insufficient experience with the written word and a near-ubiquitous reliance on social media, which by their very nature promote frequent heedless neglect of the rules of grammar.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Meaning and the Continuum in Language

When language is (properly) understood as part of nature and not merely as a tissue of conventions, the explanatory power of Peirce’s synechism––his theory of continuity––becomes overwhelmingly apparent. Peirce’s 1892 lecture, “The Logic of Continuity” (reproduced in Reasoning and the Logic of Things [Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1992, pp. 242-68]), stresses the relation between continuity, generality, and habit:

Habit is a generalizing tendency, and as such a generalization, and as such a general, and as such a continuum or continuity. It must have its origin in the original continuity which is inherent in potentiality. Continuity, as generality, is inherent in potentiality, which is essentially general [p. 262].

In my own understanding of continuity/synechism that I’ve been trying to apply to language for the purposes of my talks in Colombia later this month, I emphasize what might be called ‘meaning as a preexistent continuum’ rather than what we “make” of things and events alone. In this vein, meaning is both the empirical result of what we make of the world and what “always already” surrounds and pours in on us (the semiotic web?). This idea then necessarily brings up the distinction (opposition?) between the virtual and the actual. Any Thirdness (or law) must be able to specify the relation between what is and could be, and what could be is only limited practically by what was. This is where history (and experience) come in, and the acknowledgment of the “real presence” (as inexcludable from either perception or inference) of history is what makes judgments both verifiable and ground-ed/-able. With reference to language and its use specifically, there is no such thing as being able to speak a language without the necessary, implicit presence of the time axis (history) in every utterance of one’s own and in every understanding of the utterances of others. (Parenthetically, the whole argument about subjunctives and conditionals in Peirce’s statement of the Pragmatic Maxim both as to origins and to effects will always be deficient unless it explicitly recognizes the necessary presence of the historical dimension in both thought and action.)

The only point that needs to be expanded is the one that bears on the opposition––more properly, the contrast–– between virtual and actual. Every linguistic form and series of forms in utterances is actual but has a virtual set of alternatives as a backdrop (= the system of relations that make up the structure of a given language). In language the historical tendency is to take contrary relations (= contrasts) and make them into contradictory relations (= binary oppositions). The system of relations is a continuum made up of relational singularities, and these singularities are what is manifested in speech.

As to the historical dimension, one can say that every human act, not just involving language, occurs as a singularity backdropped by a continuum that is the pool of possible acts. Every present fact is the cumulative result of past facts of the same genus. Innovation––in language as elsewhere in nature–– occurs only against the backdrop of preexistent possibilities.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Living Norms in Language

In a joint campaign appearance yesterday with Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama used the word “embracing” as an adjective describing Mrs. Clinton’s relationship to Mrs. Obama. Now, this is an unusual––and apparently nonce––instance of a present active participle (< v. embrace) functioning as an adjective. Merriam-Webster Unabridged Online lists it as meaning “encircling, enclosing: such as a: of a leaf : having the base clasped about the supporting stem of the plant; b: comprehensive, inclusive.” It is clear that Mrs. Obama’s particular use of the word has embraced a function that is implicit in English but generally not recognized formally (e. g., in dictionaries) as part of the norm.

As Henning Andersen sets out in his far-ranging and definitive discussion of the concept of norm as applied to language, “the notion of language norms has played an important role in practical (‘applied’) linguistics since antiquity and in linguistic theorizing since the 1800s” (“Living Norms,” From Poets to Padonki: Linguistic Authority and Norm-Negotiation in Modern Russian Culture, ed. I. Lunde and M. Paulsen, Slavica Bergensia, 9 [Bergen: University of Bergen], 2009, p. 18). He goes on to distinguish between what he terms “declarative” and “deontic” norms, under which headings a further distinction is made between “explicit” and “implicit” norms. “Living norms” are then called “implicit deontic norms.”

When a speaker makes up a word that is perfectly understandable and in conformity with the morphological rules of the language, they are not contravening any norm, except perhaps the “statistical” one that is based on hitherto observed language usage. No native speaker of American English would characterize Michelle Obama’s use of embracing as a pure adjective (derived, to be sure, from the verb embrace) as ungrammatical and would moreover, if questioned, agree with the observation that her word choice was perfectly in the spirit of creative exploitation of the language’s inherent norms, alias its implicit deontic norms.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Vagaries of Yiddish vs. Hebrew as Reflected in American English

Today is the Jewish Day of Atonement, which in Hebrew is Yom Kippur (יום כיפור), with the stress on the second syllable of the second word. This is the stress that people in America have adopted ever since the so-called Yom Kippur War, which began when the Arabs launched a surprise attack in October 1973 on Israeli positions in the Israeli-occupied territories on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in Judaism.

Jews and Gentiles in America had theretofore conventionally pronounced Kippur with stress on the initial syllable, the stress in Yiddish, reflecting the Ashkenazic habit of retracting all stress in Hebrew disyllables onto the initial by comparison with the Sephardic pronunciation. For those in the know, this Yiddishized stress made the word sound the same as the English word kipper ‘a name given to the male salmon (or sea trout) during the spawning season’ (OED [“of uncertain etymology”]). The enormous publicity attending the Yom Kippur War gave pervasive currency to the Sephardic stress and all but obliterated the Ashkenazic one as far as American English was concerned, a situation lasting to this day.

American English, by contrast with British English, is prone to adopt in loan words, especially nomina propria, what is perceived to be “authentic,” hence the latter-day change in the second vowel of items such as Iraq and Iran from the traditional flat vowel to the current pervasive broad one.

Apropos of the Day of Atonement, when having nothing to atone for, one remembers Y-H-B’s father (who could read the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) admonishing his son that the most important thing for a Jew to have is lev tov לב טוב ‘a good heart’.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Glossary of Useful Words 8: ‘indecorous’

The OED defines the adjective ‘indecorous’ as ‘contrary to, or wanting, decorum or propriety of behaviour; in bad taste’. This word came to mind when Y-H-B was eating breakfast at Up for Breakfast in Manchester Center, Vermont, as is his wont whenever he is in Vermont on a Sunday. Mind you, this word was unearthed from his memory in inner speech––all thought being in language––while recalling a meal in Manhattan some years ago, to which he had invited a couple from Los Angeles. They had asked whether they could bring a friend with them, and Y-H-B ended up paying for her as well as the couple because he thought at the time that it would be indecorous to ask the friend to pay for herself, once she had joined them for the meal.

Decorum is not limited to the behavior of others. In evaluating one’s own behavior, propriety as a criterion naturally obtains in all spheres, including the treatment of strangers.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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