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The Drift toward Linguistic Hypertrophy in American English

Among different types of language change, American English has had a long history of what has come to be called back-formation, that is “the creation of a new word by removing an affix from an already existing word, as vacuum clean from vacuum cleaner, or by removing what is mistakenly thought to be an affix, as pea from the earlier English plural pease.“(American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.). But this reduction of words is now being counter-balanced by engorged versions, in line with an opposite tendency, viz. toward hypertrophy, instanced here on several previous occasions.

Besides the verb commentate (< commentator) instead of comment, we now often have cohabitate (< cohabitation) instead of cohabit. This enlargement of the verb is given impetus by the relative frequency of its morphologically affiliated noun. In the case of cohabitate, ignorance of the normative verb is also doubtless a factor.

What may now seem like an isolated instance can be reevaluated as the instantiation of what the pioneering American linguist Edward Sapir called “drift”––alias the principle of final causation in language––and characterized as follows: “Wherever the human mind has worked collectively and unconsciously, it has striven for and attained unique form. The important point is that the evolution of form has a drift in one direction, that it seeks poise, and that it rests, relatively speaking, when it has found this poise.”

Present possibilities with greater or lesser powers of actualization exist at any given historical stage of a language. Innovations that come to be full-fledged social facts, i. e., changes, must have something about their form that enables them to survive. The aggregate of such innovations-become-changes is what constitutes the drift of a language. Items such as commentate and cohabitate are thus an early change of what can rightfully be reckoned a drift toward hypertrophy in American English.


Desyllabication of /n/ in Consonant Clusters

American English in the last decade or more has manifested a phonetic change whereby what was previously a syllabic /n/ in the clusters /dnt/ and /tnt/ at the end of words has instead developed an epenthetic [ɛ] preceding it. Accordingly, whereas the older normative pronunciation of words like student, hadn’t, didn’t, and patent typically had no vowel before [n], now the younger generation of speakers inserts an unstressed open mid-vowel [ɛ] before it.

The explanation for this change has to do with the kind of language English is typologically, namely a consonantal language, and not a vocalic language. All languages of the world are divided into these two basic types. The vocalic languages have evolved through a series of phonological changes which seem to manifest general tendencies to change consonants to vowels, to use consonants as syllabics, to develop new syllables by vowel insertion, to simplify consonant sequences, etc. By contrast, the consonantal languages have maintained complex consonant clusters but have manifested a tendency to suppress the sonority of liquids and nasals. Vocalic languages evince a tendency to vocalize consonants, whereas the consonantal languages suppress the natural sonority of consonants.

Contemporary American English, as a consonantal language, by desyllabicating the nasal sonorant /n/ in the clusters /tnt/ and /dnt/, is thus just fulfilling its typological Bauplan. This is its teleological fate, as the long-term goal of change in language, as in evolution generally, is determined ultimately by the conformity of any individual change to the type of outcome that it implements.


Hypermetrical Stress for Emphasis in Adverbs

All languages have prosodic (supersegmental) systems that encompass different ways of giving prominence to certain syllables in the word via stress (loudness), pitch (high or low), or length (long or short). English is a stress language, in which the position of stress is mobile and can fall on any syllable (unlike, for instance, Czech, which has fixed stress on the initial syllable; or French, with stress on the final syllable). Occasionally word classes in English can be differentiated solely by stress, as in noun/verb pairs like pérmit/permít, cómbat/combát, etc.

Stress is also used to give emphasis to words. This can be accomplished by increasing the loudness of the stressed syllable beyond its normal degree; or by stressing syllables that are normally unstressed or bear secondary rather than primary stress.

Emphatic stress of the latter sort in particular can be called “hypermetrical” (adopting the term from verse analysis), by which is meant a stress on a syllable over and above the normal distribution. This is evidently what has happened in the recent history of American English as regards certain adverbs in {-ly} such as apparently, supposedly, etc., wherein some speakers are putting a hypermetrical stress on the final syllable for emphasis in addition to the normal primary stress on a medial syllable.


Of Eths and Thorns

The word “eth” is the name of a letter used in earlier versions of English orthography (among other Germanic writing systems) for the so-called voiced (inter)dental fricative, this grapheme being pronounced with the same voiced sound, viz. [ɛð]. (The proper phonological designation is “lax,” not “voiced,” since English is a protensity language, not a voicing language.) The symbol inherited from Old English resembles a reversed numeral 6 with a stroke through the stem. While contemporary English orthography has dropped this item from its inventory, its phonetic/phonological counterpart, the voiceless (inter)dental fricative called “thorn” and represented in transcription by the Greek theta, i.e., [θ], survives as the digraph th.

The pronunciation of orthographic th in present-day English varies in large part with its position in the word (initial, medial/intervocalic, final), and secondarily with the word class to which a given item belongs. Taking the latter first, the deictics (demonstrative pronouns) this, that, there, thus, and thither, along with the personal pronoun they, all have initial eth, whereas non-pronominals have thorn, e. g., thistle, thatch, thorn, etc. Intervocalic th is exceptionlessly pronounced with eth, as in blather, hither, lather, etc. The directional deictic thither can be pronounced either with a medial eth or a thorn.

In the case of plural forms of items ending in th in the singular, there is a regular assimilation such that eth appears before the {-s} desinence realized phonetically as [z], e. g., path is sg. [paθ] but pl. [paðz], etc.

The distribution of eth and thorn in the immediate vicinity of a liquid (l and r) depends on which liquid it is and on their position in the word. In initial position before /r/, the pronunciation is regularly “voiceless” (throne, thrust, etc.), but medially it is “voiced” before r (e.g., brethren) and “voiceless” after r (e.g., arthritis), as it is after l (e. g., wealth).

An interesting case of distribution is that of the noun/verb pair with final th, viz. bath/bathe. Instead of the correlation expected from markedness theory of the marked sound (here, the tense thorn) obtaining in the marked category (the verb), we have an instance of complementation rather than replication, the markedness values being reversed (the marked sound appearing in the unmarked category and vice versa). Perhaps this distribution is to be explained as a garden-variety case of markedness DOMINANCE, since the two interdental sounds eth and thorn already constitute a marked (restricted) class in the phonology of English to begin with.


A Semantico-Syntactic Portmanteau (Enjoy!)

Contemporary speakers of American English are used to hearing the imperative Enjoy! uttered by waiters and waitresses upon presentation of the food ordered, but they are doubtless unaware of the usage’s provenience (Russian via Yiddish, as detailed in an earlier post [December 3, 2011]). Be that as it may, the lack of a complement––a direct object or a reflexive pronoun––after what is in standard English a transitive verb, is here to be explained as what might be called a functional ambiguity. Not specifying a complement syntactically allows BOTH the meaning of the direct object (it, i. e., the food) AND of the reflexive (yourself) to be implied despite their absence. This useful semantic portmanteau, of two meanings only by adumbration and not by the explicit presence of either, is what accounts for the spread of Enjoy!

By way of explanation from the structural perspective provided by markedness theory and its semeiotic understanding, the absolute (= intransitive) use of an otherwise reflexive verb to denote a state can generally be seen as an instance of iconicity: the reflexive-less form diagrammatizes the nonspecific (broadly defined, unmarked) meaning of the verb, whereas the form with the reflexive pronoun diagrammatizes a specific (narrowly defined, marked) meaning. Hence the change in the syntactic properties of enjoy that allows for its absolute use is just a garden-variety case of synchrony being the (cumulative) result of a teleological process.


The Stress of Adverbialized Prepositional Phrases

When prepositions govern personal pronouns, as in stick to it, go with him, proud of it, etc., the primary stress falls on the preposition, and the prepositional phrase is adverbialized, i. e., functions as an adverb, hence the stress pattern, since adverbs normally bear the phrasal stress when immediately preceded by the verb they modify (e. g., go quickly, write slowly, breathe deeply, etc.). This also happens when the preposition is a compound, as in look up to him, the stress falling invariably on the first component of the compound.

With first or second person pronouns, stress on the preposition is facultative, whereas with the third person pronoun it, it is obligatory. This pattern is to be explained by the fact that as the neuter member of the category the third person is less central in the hierarchy of pronominal personhood compared to the first and second persons, hence less capable of bearing the stress in the prosodic structure of adverbialized prepositional phrases.


False Analogy (inherent[ly])

Languages develop largely along rational lines, and (proportional) analogy is often at the bottom of a particular development. However, as was noted here in recent posts, viz. on the pronunciation of the verb err and the government of the adjective courteous, the source of the analogy can be erroneous or false. This is what obtains in the common (all but exclusive) pronunciation of the adjective inherent (more frequently represented by the related adverb inherently), wherein the stressed vowel is made to rhyme with that of the much more frequent verb inherit rather than the actual deriving verb inhere, whose stressed vowel rhymes with here.

False analogy stems from imperfect learning and is a failure of thought. Requiescat in pace, oh, book learning of yore!



Three earlier posts have focused on the ubiquity in contemporary English of the adverb absolutely as an intensified version of the simple affirmatives yes, of course, etc. This speech habit has reached such a degree of pervasiveness as to constitute a verbal tic and a source of annoyance.

In order to counteract the tendency to absolutize affirmation in English, Y-H-B wishes to offer herewith a worthy substitute, viz. irrefragably, pronounced not as recommended in dictionaries with stress on the second syllable but with the more natural stress on the third syllable, the stressed vowel being the same as in ragged.

The word is based on the adjective irrefragable, characterized as follows in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary:

ir·ref·ra·ga·ble [i(r)ˈrefrəgəbəl]
1:  impossible to gainsay, deny, or refute <irrefragable arguments> <irrefragable data> <these irrefragable authorities>
2:  impossible to break or alter :  inviolable, indestructible <irrefragable rules> <an irrefragable cement>
ir·ref·ra·ga·bly [i(r)ˈrefrəgəblɪ]

Late Latin irrefragabilis, from Latin in- 1in- + refragari to resist, oppose (from re- + -fragari —as in suffragari to vote for, support) + -abilis -able
First Known Use: 1533 (sense 1)

Readers of this blog are urged to try irrefragably on for size whenever the urge to say absolutely comes over them.


Adjectival Government

Adjectives can govern other parts of speech in the syntactic construction of a sentence. In English the element that comes after an adjective is a postposition, e. g., in, of, to, from, with, etc. Adjectives rarely “take,” i. e., govern, more than one postposition. Typical of the stylistically more bookish or formal adjectives in –ive is their government of the postposition of; thus the constructions supportive of, derivative of, illustrative of, etc.; but cf. the appearance of to after conducive. When it comes to non-derived adjectives, the typical postposition governed by adjectives is to, toward, with or from. Hence one gets courteous to, patient with, etc.

When contemporary speakers of American English make errors with adjectival government, it is probably not only the result of imperfect learning but also of hypercorrection, i. e., trying to sound “hifalutin.” Thus the error in the public address announcement on New York MTA vehicles that comes on during the cold and flu season warning passengers not to sneeze into their neighbors’ faces. The well-modulated male voice utters a sentence that includes the ungrammatical phrase “be courteous of your fellow-passengers.” Evidently, the person who wrote the text of the announcement wanted to punctuate the content stylistically by giving it the bogus bookishness that comes with having the adjective courteous govern of rather than to.


The Pathos of Everyday Life 4 (“Но с хорошенькими мисс/Я иду на компромисс!”)

Some readers of this blog will remember the staircase wit, my father’s Uncle Misha, whose life was saved after the Russian Revolution through the intervention of a waiter whom he was in the habit of tipping generously during his frequent visits to the Hotel Continental in Kiev (v. “Discontinuous Lexica,” July 16th, 2009). Among the numerous pieces of doggerel verse in Russian he excogitated for his family’s enjoyment was one that included the following closing couplet: “Но с хорошенькими мисс/Я иду на компромисс!” (But with good-looking misses/I reach a compromise.)

In alignment notionally with the preceding post in the series, these two rhyming lines came to mind when Y-H-B was sitting in a barber’s chair this morning and heard the barber say to a young woman who had walked in and was looking around for reading material while waiting her turn to be shorn: “The magazines are over there, miss.” The one word “miss” immediately triggered a remembrance of Uncle Misha and his doggerel, followed by an approving glance at the young lady’s svelte figure and the mental congeries it prompted via the word’s rhyme fellow.


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