The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage For readers who would like to have definitions of technical terms, the first 175 posts of this blog have been supplied with glossaries and are accessible by purchasing The Speaking Self: Language Lore and English Usage, available from and other sellers.


This book is not a usage manual in the conventional sense. It is a sui generis series of compact, self-contained essays, arranged into chapters by broad topic categories of problematic points of linguistic usage in contemporary American speech and writing, and cast in an uncompromisingly analytical style that is nevertheless accessible to any educated reader with a love of words, an inquisitiveness about language, and an appetite for exegesis.



This book is not a usage manual in the conventional sense. It is a sui generis series of compact, self-contained essays, arranged into chapters by broad topic categories of problematic points of linguistic usage in contemporary American speech and writing, and cast in an uncompromisingly analytical style that is nevertheless accessible to any educated reader with a love of words, an inquisitiveness about language, and an appetite for exegesis.

The author's project has been motivated in large part by the assumption that there exists a huge and entirely untapped reservoir of interest among the listening and reading public in questions of pronunciation, grammar, and etymology that has not been satisfied by other sources.

It is based on the author's blog,, many of whose posts have been revised and adapted for the present purpose. Judging by the countries of visitors to the website, there is an audience for this book outside the Anglophone world, particularly in Germany, Brazil, The Netherlands, Russia, and Ukraine.

The bias of the author is unabashedly prescriptivist. It is formed by a long-standing theoretical interest in and empirical observation of English usage, oral and written. Much of the material for analysis is drawn from the language of contemporary media, both print and broadcast. The discussion of examples frequently opens out on a perspective that takes in deeper questions of value and society in America as revealed in present-day language use.

The essays that comprise the chapters are what might be called linguistic vignettes. They call attention to points of grammar and style in contemporary American English, especially in cases where the language is changing due to innovative usage, including what older generations of speakers would consider errors in speech and writing.

The chapter headings are not meant to be mutually exclusive, which results in a certain amount of overlap, as when pronunciations have stylistic as well as phonetic outcomes, or when word formation is included under syntax. There are no sub-chapters because the detailed Index is meant to serve as a convenient way of facilitating any search for specific topics. This also allows for the order of entries within chapters to be similarly loose.

A book which deliberately mimics the miscellany genre and eschews the format of a strictly academic presentation driven by an argument will of necessity strike some readers as lacking guidance about the ordering and selection of its entries. The six chapter headings can only mitigate the impression of randomness in part, but the book is not meant to be read consecutively in any event but sampled repeatedly in no particular order.

Occasionally the scope is broadened to subsume languages other than English (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French, Russian, Japanese), especially when a comparative perspective helps clarify a historical point of English usage. The brief concluding chapter on poetics is conceived as a pendant, since it deals mostly with Russian, the author's mother tongue and the lifelong focus of his activities as a scholar.

The mode of presentation differs significantly from conventional usage manuals by its self-consciously academic diction, which consistently recurs to scholarly formulations in furtherance of analytical acuity. In every case where an analysis contains technical or recondite vocabulary, a Glossary precedes the body of the essay so that a reader unfamiliar with the terminology of linguistics can more easily follow and make sense of the argument. In cases of doubt as to whether a particular item should be glossed––and glossed repeatedly––the decision has been to err on the side of redundancy, since the format of the book is aimed at inviting readers to browse through the self-sufficient entries rather than necessarily reading them in consecutive order. The Master Glossary, which provides a completely synoptic register of all items glossed in the text, can always be consulted in case any particular essay is opaque as to any item of its technical vocabulary.

The practice of glossing every text is abandoned only in the three Epilegomena, which are meant to summarize the theoretical framework of the book for a strictly academic audience, while being of possible intellectual interest to the adventurous general reader as well. The gist of the second Epilegomenon is also to be found in Chapter 2.

Only the Epilegomena contain footnotes. In this respect, the text takes a leaf from Edward Sapir's classic Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech, whose author deliberately elided diacritic signs as burdensome to all but the initiate.

Occasionally, the Glossaries notwithstanding, readers may find it necessary to consult a dictionary, but this is taken to be ineluctable, given the variable linguistic competence and background of the book's intended audience, which doubtless includes readers for whom English is not a native or habitual language. The author's guiding principles in this respect are his own lifelong word gluttony and love of dictionary excavation, a delight in the richness of the English language, which undergirds his conviction that those who encounter unfamiliar words when reading this book will, more often than not, choose to look them up––and will, moreover, find the effort rewarding.

The unique form of the book's presentation is aimed at satisfying the natural curiosity of readers who are alert to the peculiarities of present-day American English as they pertain to pronunciation, grammar, and style, and who wish to be enlightened about them in a way that does not "dumb down" or compromise the language in which the explanations are couched. This extends to the book's tone, which is guided not by considerations of political correctness or politesse, which the author regards as having no bearing on the presentation's content, but by aims that are first and foremost didactic, propaeduetic, and hortatory. At the risk of offending those readers who will recognize their own speech habits among the examples brought up for criticism, the tone of the essays is occasionally censorious, but that is unavoidable if the thrust is distinctly educative and not merely informative. In other words, no attempt has been made to buffer the book's stance on error.

It is hoped that a book which addresses itself to what is technically called orthoepy, the doctrine and study of correct speech in the broadest sense, will find a receptive audience among readers of all ages and backgrounds.

New Feature
Terms with dotted underscores are hyperlinks to definitions. Hover over them for more information.

Unstressed Vowels and the Demoticization of Vocabulary (synod, ebola)

English has a large stock of non-native vocabulary (i. e., words not of Germanic or Anglo-Norman provenience) whose pronunciation may still reflect their foreign origin. Typically, once such a word passes into common use, its pronunciation adjusts itself correspondingly to conform to traditional phonetic norms. At any intermediate stage between initial entry into English vocabulary and complete demoticization, there is usually some fluctuation involving doublets (two competing variants) before a historical resolution toward one as normative.

This process can be observed with two words that are currently in the news, synod (< late Latin synodus,< Greek σύνοδος assembly, meeting, astronomical conjunction, < σύν syn- prefix + ὁδός way, travel; reinforced later by French synode (16th cent.) and ebola (< Ebola, the name of a river and district in northwestern Zaire, where an outbreak of haemorrhagic fever occurred in 1976). The Oxford English Dictionary Online gives the following variant pronunciations for ebola: Brit. /iːˈbəʊlə/, /ᵻˈbəʊlə/, /ɛˈbəʊlə/, U.S. /ɪˈboʊlə/; but for synod all dictionaries register only one, namely /ˈsɪnəd/, despite the fact that one constantly hears the unstressed syllable pronounced with the full vowel of odd rather than the schwa alongside the normative pronunciation with the schwa.

In both words the American English pronunciation of something other than a reduced vowel ([ə] in synod and [ɪ] in ebola) in the unstressed syllable should be interpreted as a sign of its evaluation as a word of foreign origin. The value, specifically the markedness value, of the sounds at issue is what is at stake here. The appearance of a full vowel in unstressed position in dissyllabic words in English is marked, whereas that of a reduced vowel is unmarked. This follows from the value of reduced vowels as unmarked vis-à-vis their full vocalic counterparts. One way that demoticization of foreign words proceeds is by the gradual replacement of the marked vowel by the unmarked.

When persons who have either never heard the normative pronunciation of a word like synod or do not have it in their vocabulary start using it, the first result is to mark it as foreign by utilizing a full vowel (what might be called the “spelling pronunciation,” although the correct designation should be “reading pronunciation”) rather than the correct reduced vowel. In the speech of such persons the ultimate trajectory, when they have been exposed to sufficient instances of its use, is demoticization in the form of vowel reduction. The same is predictably true of ebola, as can already be heard in the pronunciation of some speakers of American English today.


Epenthetic N (Neither . . . Nor)

Epenthesis is defined as the insertion of a sound––generally, a consonant between two other consonants in a cluster––that is the result of a historical change in language. English has two unusual cases of epenthesis in morphophonemic alternations, both cases involving the sound n intervocalically (between vowels), viz. (1) after the indefinite article a before words beginning with a vowel, e. g., an apple (cf. a napkin); (2) before the head word either and its constituent conjunction or of the construction neither . . . nor (cf. either . . . or).

In the last twenty or thirty years, even otherwise careful writers and speakers are to be observed making the mistake of dropping the epenthetic n of nor, witness the following sentence penned by a Canadian writer in a contemporary scholarly publication: “What should be clear, however, is that Peirce’s praise of Spinoza is neither careless nor inconsistent with his thought or [instead of correct nor], indeed, with the early twentieth-century development of pragmatism.” In this example, where or appears instead of nor, the mistake could be mitigated, of course, by the fact that neither has already been copied once to its complementary first [n]or, thereby freeing the second or from obligatory epenthesis. But it is a grammatical mistake nonetheless.


[TERMINOLOGICAL CLARIFICATION: Although the term epenthesis does service for insertion of a sound at any position of a word, it is generally reserved for medial position, whereas the term prothesis is more particularly used for insertion in initial position, as in neither and nor. The insertion of a sound at the end of a word is called paragoge, which means that the n of an is, strictly speaking,  paragogic.]

“You Talk Like a Lawyah!”

Every language has several speech styles, including elliptical and explicit sub-codes, and a range of stylistic registers. One particularity of the language of an advanced society is the existence of professional jargons, by which is meant the specialized vocabulary, syntax, and diction that are found in the speech of professionals (doctors, lawyers, engineers, university professors, et al.). These jargons are normally used when professionals talk to each other and are generally not employed in talking to laypersons. However, some professionals seem unable to desist from utilizing jargonic speech even when the occasion and interlocutor would seem not to call for it. This indecorous habit amounts to what the French call déformation professionnelle.

Apropos, Y-H-B recalls that his father-in-law’s brother, an immigrant from Hungary, used to chide his nephew, a native-born American, for speaking in an especially crabbed way, and he did this by saying (in his heavily accented, quasi-New Yorkese English), “George, you talk like a lawyah!,” which usually put the quietus on what was otherwise a highly loquacious youth.


Fossilized Speech and Its Episodic Disinterment (“во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины”)

The way any living language is spoken (synchrony) always inevitably includes elements––phonological, grammatical, and stylistic––that are characterized as obsolete or obsolescent. This situation answers to what in the Prague School was described as “dynamic synchrony,” i. e., the presence as relics of older stages of any given language’s historical development, which is to say that there are always fossilized (“old-fashioned”) strata in any living language.

This idea was exemplified with striking patency when Y-H-B attended a meeting of a scholarly society in Seattle and had occasion to speak his mother tongue (Russian) to a fellow scholar, a Russian émigré many years his junior who was born and educated in the former USSR. At several points in the several conversations that took place between them over the span of three days, it was remarked with repeated amazement and delight by his interlocutor how Y-H-B had somehow managed to preserve and continue in what can only be described as fossilized form the refined pre-Revolutionary speech of the Russian educated elite to which his parents belonged and preserved over the long span of their worldwide peregrinations as refugees.

In order to understand the astonishment and incredulity of Y-H-B’s interlocutor, one needs to know that Russians as an ethnic group have a traditionally heightened fondness for their mother tongue. This affect was captured by the great Russian novelist Turgenev in his most famous prose poem (1882), which goes as follows:

«Во дни сомнений, во дни тягостных раздумий о судьбах моей родины, ты один мне поддержка и опора, о великий, могучий, правдивый и свободный русский язык!.. Не будь тебя — как не впасть в отчаяние при виде всего, что совершается дома. Но нельзя верить, чтобы такой язык не был дан великому народу!»

["In days of doubt, in days of dreary musings on my country's fate, thou alone art my stay and support, mighty, true, free Russian speech! But for thee, how not fall into despair, seeing all that is done at home? But who can think that such a tongue is not the gift of a great people!" (translated by Constance Garnet)]


Mispronunciations in Ersatz English (colleague)

Having given a name in the preceding post to the species of faux English that abounds in this age of linguistic globalization, perhaps an example is in order, viz. colleague, with the stress on the second syllable instead of the first. This incorrect rendition of the word is frequently produced by non-native speakers of English from South Asia and Africa, who have evidently not assimilated the rule of English prosody (accentuation) that regularly places the main stress of dissyllabic substantives on the first syllable.

It is interesting to learn that historically this word was (according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online) “still commonly accented on the second syllable” in the 17th century, having come into English from French in the 16th (“Etymology: < French collègue, < Latin collēga, one chosen along with another, a partner in office, etc.; < col- together + legĕre to choose, etc.”). Varieties of English, including dialects, typically differ in where they place the main stress of certain words. Cf. ínsurance in Southern American English instead of insúrance. Over time, even in Standard American, a stress that was current in earlier times may recede, e. g. consúmmate (adj.), which has all-but-disappeared from the language except in the speech of especially careful and knowledgeable members of the community.


Ersatz English

English in the twenty-first century is veritably the global lingua franca, the universal medium of linguistic communication between people whose native language is not English; and between people in situations where only some of the interlocutors have English as a native (or “near-native”) language. This sometimes leads to the psychologically interesting phenomenon when a person imagines that he/she is speaking English, but in fact the version of English being produced is defective grammatically as well as phonetically, and can (only at best) be called something like “ersatz English,” the meaning of ersatz being ‘a substitute or imitation (usually, an inferior article instead of the real thing)’. This sort of faux English is often heard, for instance, in interviews with African and Asian speakers on the BBC World Service––in a phonetic rendering, moreover, that is so impenetrable as to be barely recognizable and hardly comprehensible even by professional linguists.

Unfortunately, this kind of ungrammatical patois can now be found in written form as well. In an era when book publishing is in retreat and economically less and less viable, publishing houses leave the written form of English unedited to its authors and routinely offer books for sale that are rife with grammatical and stylistic errors. This species of ersatz English is especially to be found in publications by authors whose native language is Spanish or one of the Germanic tongues. Thus some Scandinavian and Dutch authors, having studied and heard English from early childhood on, have obviously been lulled into thinking that they have a command of the language that is error-free and adequate to the demands of scholarly discourse, when in fact what they say and write is grossly short of the mark. The loss in some global sense redounds to the great English language itself as a cultural institution, whose native speakers must often suffer in silence while being assaulted by speech (written and oral) that is only a specious simulacrum of the norm.


Assertion sub rosa (Lengthening of Clause-Final Unstressed Syllables in Female Speech)

One increasingly noticeable feature of the language of younger female speakers in contemporary American English is the lengthening of clause-final syllables, both open (ending in a vowel) and closed (ending in a consonant), in unstressed syllables. Thus words like America and negotiation, when occurring at the end of clauses, routinely have hyper-long unstressed vowels in the speech of women but not of men, most noticeably when the syllable is followed by a pause.

One possible explanation is compensatory. Lengthened syllables (syllables of greater duration) are always marked vis-à-vis their normal counterparts, and this marked character can serve the function of emphasis sub rosa. Speech in which this occurs can be interpreted as an attempt covertly to convey assertory meaning where overt assertion would undercut the generally apotropaic flag under which women’s speech––in American English, but not only––generally flies.


The Mangling of French by Speakers of American English

When native speakers of one language try to reproduce the words of another language, the results will vary naturally and understandably with the linguistic skills of the imitators. In this respect, the speakers of certain languages—Japanese in particular comes to mind—have a deservedly bad reputation for their utter inability to refrain from mangling the vocables of foreign languages. In this respect, speakers of English are somewhere in the middle of the scale of success when it comes to this task.

Speakers whose native language is American English do not, as a rule, fare well with French, despite the ubiquity of French borrowings in English and the frequency of French words and phrases that happen to be intercalated in English utterances as a matter of course. Particularly glaring examples are items that end in –eur in French (like entrepreneur and liqueur), which are typically rendered with the vowel of English pure rather than the more authentic vowel of sir. The latter is certainly within the grasp of an English speaker, who typically mangles the French by modeling their pronunciation on the orthography. Also badly served are words that end in –oir, such as the frequent item noir of film noir, which are regularly distorted by having the final [-r] omitted in utterances containing them by Americans. [ADDENDUM: Cf. the all-too-common mispronunciation in the media (as pointed out to Y-H-B by Jacobus Primus) of the phrase coup de grâce with the final consonant of  grâce missing, making it sound ludicrously like gras 'grease' instead of 'mercy'!]

Lately, because of its prominence in world affairs, the designation of the organization of doctors who go by the appellation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) comes in regularly for mispronunciation in the mouths of the American media. The first word, Médecins, is actually easy to reproduce, once one knows that the second vowel is elided in French, hence disyllabic and not trisyllabic, and the final vowel equivalent to the nasal vowel of aunt.

The upshot of all this distortion is inescapable, namely the deep-seated idea in the American psyche that FRENCH IS AN EXOTIC LANGUAGE, with a hopelessly wayward phonetics that lies beyond the reach of speakers of American English. Vive la France!


Gender-Specific Designations of Human Referents: Vacillations in Usage

In contemporary American English usage, the words on either side of the virgule man/woman, boy/girl, gentleman/lady, male/female can be used more or less interchangeably, but in some cases it remains unclear which of the two alternatives is stylistically appropriate. (This is the sort of vacillation that facilitates the well-know sexist joke: Q: “Who was that lady I saw you with? A: That was no lady, that was my wife.”). Women in particular are sensitive to being referred to by the word “woman” rather than “lady.” Colloquially, of course, women refer to themselves and to other members of the female sex casually as “girls,” even when the referents are well beyond girlhood in age.

Occasionally, with women designees in particular, one becomes unsure as to the stylistically appropriate term. This was brought to mind recently when Y-H-B was being tended to by two nurses (female) in a hospital examining room. When one nurse left the room, the patient asked the other the first’s name and vacillated before choosing woman. Lady would clearly have been inappropriate, but at the same time woman seemed coarse, especially after being treated so kindly and gently by her. Once having uttered woman nevertheless, the patient wished that he had avoided the impasse by choosing “other nurse” (“colleague” would doubtless have sounded pompous under the circumstances) in framing the question. This sort of linguistic problem, let it be noted, rarely comes up in referring to adult males, a reminder of the semiotic fact that the feminine is the marked gender in all languages, regardless of whether that opposition is grammatically codified or not.


Productive but Wrong (Childish Linguistic Errors)

A five-year-old boy whose native language is American English answers his mother and uses two forms of the past tense in consecutive sentences that exemplify productive rules of verb morphology but happen to be wrong, viz. *holded (hold) and *bended (bend; but cf. on bended knee). Eventually, of course, typically after having been corrected, he will learn that the correct preterits are held and bent, respectively, and are part of the class of verbs with irregular past-tense forms (the so-called strong verbs).

The bulk of a language’s morphology conforms to rules that determine the productive sector of its structure, and unproductive rules (like the change of root vowel in English accompanied by the suffixation of a desinence in the preterit) tend to disappear with time. Children understandably apply the productive rules first when learning their native language and only later acquire a mastery of the unproductive sector.

An interesting question of linguistic theory is why unproductive forms (= exceptions) perdure in every language despite the general tendency to whittle away exceptions and replace them by productive ones. Some unproductive sectors of the morphology are large enough (like the English strong verbs) to constitute a distinct class of exceptions with its own localized raison d’être, although it may be difficult to define. Others are isolated enough to drop out of the language with time, although they persist in the speech of those who––perhaps unconsciously––use them to define their linguistic identity in terms of superiority to speakers who are ignorant of the traditional norm. Eventually, of course, the norm changes with the death of those who adhere to it, and the productive rules inevitably triumph, solidifying the new norm.

Even within unproductive sectors of the vocabulary there may occur changes toward the elimination of certain forms. Thus, to continue with the English preterit, not all vowel alternations in strong verbs are being sustained in contemporary speech and writing. Instead of the normative shrank and stank, for instance, one increasingly observes the substitution of the past participle form shrunk and stunk for shrank and stank. In the long run, given the strength of this shift, the traditional forms will wither away and disappear. Meanwhile, those speakers who adhere to the older norm will thereby define themselves linguistically and culturally vis-à-vis the increasingly larger group who use only the newer forms while recognizing the extancy of what used to be their only correct counterparts.


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