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Metalinguistic Commentary in Conversation (Error and Normativity in Speech)

Most of what is exchanged in conversation between interlocutors is referential (i. e., strictly oriented toward content), but occasionally––and depending on a person’s variable disposition toward the norms of speech––one interlocutor may insert a correction of or comment on the grammatical side of what the other interlocutor has uttered. Parents routinely correct the speech errors of children; some parents are more scrupulous than others, insisting in some cases on adherence to norms that may be traditional or conservative rather than current.

To the extent that this kind of interpolation may interrupt the flow of speech, some speakers, while silently noting the irruption of an error, may choose to refrain from overtly correcting it, while others may habitually do so regardless of its force. Some linguistic purists take a special delight in correcting their interlocutors, as is the case with Y-H-B’s brother Jacobus Primus, who recently jumped at the chance when hearing the question “who called who?” (the colloquial norm in American English) from the lips of an otherwise strict adherent of linguistic normativity. He then went on to recount the case of a former coworker who blithely ignored being corrected for the erroneous locution “between you and I” and went on to repeat the mistake habitually.

Changes in language often start out as violations of the norm but when adopted by a significant proportion of the speech community cease to be regarded as errors and assume the status of grammatically unexceptional specimens. The “who called who?” example is an illustration of just such a trajectory.


The Tension between Grammar and Praxis

The grammar of many languages occasionally presents a seeming contradiction between the meaning of its categories and the real-life entities to which the categories are applied. For example, in languages that have gender distinctions, like German, the grammatical gender may not match the biological sex of the referent, as is the case of G das Weib ‘woman, wife’, which is neuter (as indicated by the direct article).

In contemporary English (as has been instanced in earlier posts), there is a tendency to refer to collective nouns that comprise human beings by the relative pronoun who instead of the grammatically correct which. This is increasingly the case in media speech when the word referred to (inter alia) is country, as in “the countries who . . . .”

The underlying cause of this sort of change can be traced to the kinds of verbs that are typically associated with human beings, like love, hate, speak, etc. The use of such verbs with collective nouns whose individual members are human creates a tension between the grammatical category of inanimacy (or non-humanness), on the one hand, and the occurrence of verbs denoting actions that are typical of human beings, on the other. The tension is resolved by reconstruing the inanimate collective as animate via its human members.

From a traditionally normative point of view, of course, this tendency in English represents a latter-day mistake, where grammar has been sacrificed at the altar of linguistic implicature.


Homo habilis and Language: Linguistic Theory as a Theory of Habit

The recent discovery of the oldest human jawbone in Africa has pushed the date of Homo habilis, our ancient ancestor, back another million years or so. This particular iteration is defined as ‘an extinct species of humans considered to be an ancestor of modern humans and the earliest hominid to make tools’ (American Heritage Dictionary). The most significant part of this definition is ‘the earliest hominid to make tools’. The Latin word habilis means ‘skillful’ and is derived from the verb habēre/habeō ‘have, possess’, the derivational source of Latin habitus (which is its past participle), alias our habit. The upshot of this definition amounts to the further understanding of a skill as a HABIT WITH MEANING.

The most important arena for the implementation of this idea of meaningful habit is, of course, human language. Moreover, a meaningful habit is necessarily a sign in the sense of Peirce’s theory of signs (or semeiotic). For the most part, linguists have looked on words, including their positional shapes and alternants, simply as artifacts of description which facilitate an economical, mutually consistent statement of distributional facts. But a semiotic analysis differs from this kind of accounting by resting on the fundamental assumption that all linguistic units have VALUES, which vary coherently and uniformly in alignment with contexts and their hierarchies.

The coherence of linguistic units among each other is by no means a static one, for we have incontrovertible empirical evidence that languages change over time. But the fact of change must be correctly understood as a dynamic based on teleology, where the telos is greater goodness of fit (iconicity, coherence) between underlying structure and its overt manifestation in speech. This teleology is always undergoing examination as a language changes and new speech habits come into being as patterned alterations of old ones.

Human language is a body of facts that every new speaker masters (in the absence of pathology) by becoming a member of society. The way in which linguistic units are used involves a mastery not only of the physical side (phonetics) but the notional one as well. Explanation of this mastery cannot be achieved by the prevailing self-confinement to goals that are fundamentally (if unwittingly) non-explanatory. The rule-formalism approach that has driven contemporary linguists into sterile byways (what used to be known as the transformational-generative theory of grammar) cannot ever produce explanations of language use because a theory of grammar is not a theory of knowledge but a theory of habit (in the sense of Peirce). Explanation must focus on why the data cohere as signs, and not on the mechanisms by which grammatical forms can be derived by the judicious choice and application of rules. This requirement removes predictability-via-rules from the agenda of theory. The entire recent history of linguistics shows with great clarity the feasibility of kneading data into a wide number of mutually-compatible formalized configurations (‘notational variants’). What is needed, however, is an attitude toward the object of study which matches the structure of that object. Language is a system, both in its diachronic and synchronic aspects, that is informed by a pattern of inferences, deductive and abductive. The role allotted to interpretation in language as a structure––to its very nature and function as a hermeneutic object––demands that the methods of inquiry into and the theory of language be homologous with the principles of its organization.

It is this very nature of language itself, the inherent organization of grammar as a patterned relationship between form and meaning––of meaningful habits–– that necessitates transposing the theoretical enterprise of linguistics to another dimension, one defined by the subsumption of all linguistic analysis under the rubric of meaning or hermeneutic. As Roman Jakobson put it:  ‘Any linguistic item, from speech sounds and their constituents to discourse, partakes—each in its own way––in the cardinal, viz. semantic, tasks of language and  must be interpreted with respect to its significative value.’


The Pathos of Everyday Life 5 (persona ‘mask’)

When one observes people speaking, especially when not participating in the conversation, what comes through is not so much the particulars of speech but the paralinguistic behavior, viz. shrugs, smiles, hand gestures, etc. that accompany speech and which are culturally coded. These body movements define the personality of speakers much more vividly than do the words they utter. It is, indeed, these gestural accompaniments that more than anything contribute to the image that is created in the mind of one’s interlocutors, which is what is meant by the word persona, the Latin forebear of the English word in common use today.

It is noteworthy that in Classical Latin the word persōna meant ‘mask, character, role’, a meaning preserved in the phrase dramatis personae ‘cast of characters’ for stage use. This implies that in speaking we always put on a mask, as it were, play a role, represent a character, and that the “real” self is to some extent always concealed from public view. Perhaps this trait of homo loquens—that of donning a mask while speaking––is an evolutionarily developed one involved in the process of getting along with others, including placating them when necessary. A poker face is not something altogether natural and hence not easily maintained. The expressivity of our face and bodies (especially the hands) goes along with the process of communicating meaning verbally and plays a significant role in the creation and maintenance of meaning.

The etymology of person is a useful backdrop to understanding this aspect of human semiosis. Here is it from the Oxford English Dictionary Online:

            Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman parsone, parsoune, person, persoun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French persone, personne (French personne ) presence, appearance (c1135), important person (c1140 in Anglo-Norman), the body (c1170), individual human being (1174 in Anglo-Norman), person of the Trinity (1174 in Anglo-Norman), grammatical person (first half of the 14th cent. in Anglo-Norman), juridical person (1481 in Anglo-Norman) and its etymon classical Latin persōna mask used by a player, character in a play, dramatic role, the part played by a person in life, character, role, position, individual personality, juridical person, important person, personage, human being in general, grammatical person, in post-classical Latin also person of the Trinity (early 3rd cent. in Tertullian), appearance, stature (9th cent.), of unknown origin; perhaps a loanword (compare Etruscan ϕersu , apparently denoting a mask). Compare Old Occitan, Occitan persona (mid 12th cent.), Catalan persona (1117), Spanish persona (first half of the 13th cent.), Portuguese pessoa (1267), Italian persona (a1200). Compare parson n. (originally the same word, but now differentiated in form).

Several of the uses of classical Latin (and post-classical Latin) persōna are after corresponding uses of Hellenistic Greek πρόσωπον (see prosopon n.), e.g. in grammar and theology.

In to respect no person the word originally rendered post-classical Latin personam of the Vulgate (which however has in some places faciem ), the corresponding Greek being πρόσωπον face, countenance, person, often in the compound προσωπολήπτειν to accept the face of, rendering Hebrew nāśā’ pānīm to lift up the face (towards someone), to show favour (originally referring to God’s countenance being raised towards a person upon whom he bestows favour; compare Exodus 6:26, Deuteronomy 10:17).

With singular person compare Anglo-Norman persone singuler (a1325 or earlier). With in one’s (own) person compare Anglo-Norman en sa persone (second half of the 12th cent. or earlier), classical Latin in suā personā . With in (one’s) proper person (see compare Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French en (sa) propre persone (c1250), post-classical Latin in persona propria (6th cent.), in propria persona (a1180, 1264 in British sources). With in (the) person of compare Anglo-Norman en la persone de (second half of the 12th cent.). With in person compare Middle French en persone (1464).

The primary dictionary meaning of persona is ‘aspect of a person’s character that is displayed to or perceived by others’. Jungian psychology uses the word as a term to designate ‘the outer or assumed aspect of character; a set of attitudes adopted by an individual to fit his or her perceived social role’ and is contrasted with anima. Given the ancient meaning of the latter word, one aspect of the pathos of being human evidently resides in the necessarily mediated character of our true selves.


America’s Linguistic Hegemony and Its Cultural Locus

The global spread of English in the last century as the world’s lingua franca has come about as the result of cultural and political developments. From the strictly linguistic point of view, it is interesting to note that even speakers of British English have fallen under the cultural sway of America to the extent that they often use American expressions without any knowledge of their trans-Atlantic origins and their original meanings.

This realization transpires when one listens to the various Englishes and accents on the BBC World Service that are not American, but especially the British ones. This morning an obviously British female speaker resorted to the American idiom “play hard ball” (varying it, notably, by emphasizing “hard” through the preposition of the word “very”) in describing the peripeteia attending current EU discussions on Ukraine in Brussels. Anyone familiar with the meaning of the phrase “hard ball” (by contrast with “soft ball”) as deriving from strictly American sports terminology would be able to describe why “play hard ball” came to have an extended meaning beyond its literal meaning in the game of baseball. When the phrase is used, however, by a British female speaker, it somehow loses whatever humble authenticity it may have, since the cultural context that comes with the linguistic usage is lacking on its face.


The Markedness of the Female Sex

Why do people (of all sexual orientations) speaking English persist in using the syndetic phrase “gays and lesbians” when the epicene word gay alone would do for both male and female homosexuals? As anyone who has read Y-H-B-‘s squib in American Speech (65 [1990], 191-192; see PDF list) knows, the reason has to do with the marked value of the female sex, as of the feminine gender. Since lesbian can only pertain to females, whereas gay does service for both males and females, there is no need to single out females unless males are explicitly being excluded from the universe of discourse. That female homosexuals still require linguistic individuation is strong evidence of the abiding marginal status of the feminine in an age that propagandizes equality of the sexes.


The Frisson of Etymological Discovery

Every word has a history. But the history of most words in a speaker’s vocabulary is obscured from view until discovered, often serendipitously and rarely by dint of inquiry. For ordinary language use the etymology of a word need not be known to speakers in order for them to have a command of the lexical stock of a language. Words are tokens absorbed unreflectively in the process of acquiring a language’s lexis, and whose meaning seems largely to have been established by convention along with the habits of their proper usage.

Occasionally, however, even a professional linguist can experience the thrill of etymological discovery. This is what happened today to Y-H-B while reading a history of music and learning that the word conservatory, which now means a music school in all the European languages, goes back to the Italian conservatorio and its original meaning ‘orphanage’ (= a hospital or school for orphans and foundlings). It seems that orphans were “conserved” in institutions that, besides giving them housing and sustenance, trained them in music so as to enable them to make their way in the world when they left the orphanage.

For someone who loves language, the experience of learning the etymology of a word for the first time is akin to hearing a passage of music performed with great skill by a virtuoso. Closer to home, the linguistic experience akin to the musical one can only be realized, for instance, by hearing the inexhaustibly rich explanations of such an expert as Y-H-B’s lifelong friend, the great Finnish-American Indo-Europeanist and Fennicist Raimo Anttila, whose knowledge of word origins can only be called miraculous.


Latin as the Verbal Weapon of Choice in English

Latin is the fons et origo of much of English literary phraseology and has been deployed to good rhetorical effect for centuries. Contemporary speakers are not as prone to utilize it as were language users in the past, due to the decline of Latin as a required school subject, but it is still available to be summoned up when the discourse invites it.

This was illustrated in today’s broadcast on NPR of “Morning Edition,” when the presenter used the phrase “one hand washes the other” in describing the scandalous situation currently embroiling politicians in Albany, the state capital of New York. From the strictly linguistic standpoint, this was precisely the moment to use the Latin original, manus manum lavat, and, moreover, to greater effect because of the paronomasia informing the phrase––a value lost in the English equivalent. Paronomasia is not only the stuff of poetry but the consummate implementation of the poetic function in language––the only self-reflexive of the six functions in verbal communication, i. e., the one foregrounded when words call attention to their own structure.


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.


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