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.
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.
All languages have a store of proverbs and similar sayings, Russian, Japanese, and English (my three “native” tongues) having numerically the greatest ones. These formulaic utterances are commonly stored in the linguistic data banks of users, to be recalled, sometimes silently, when the occasion prompts them. Their typically paronomastic form (“A stitch in time saves nine”) enhances the thought encapsulated in them and makes them easier to remember.
Thus it was last week, when Y-H-B attended the Charles S. Peirce International Centennial Congress at the University of Massachusetts Lowell (cf. the account by Spencer Case, “The Man With a Kink in His Brain,” www.nationalreview.com, July 21, 2014), that the perfusion of bearded men among the attendees caused the Latin proverb, “Barba non facit philosophum” (‘A beard does not a philosopher make’), to insinuate itself into his brain during all four days of the gathering. The story of the origin of this saying includes an animadversion not only on the concerned individual’s facial hair but on his beggarly attire. Needless to say, in this day and age when academics––let alone philosophers––have succumbed to the general impulse to dress informally, the attendees of the male persuasion in Lowell strove mightily, not only to explicate Peirce’s cast of mind but to replicate his (hirsute) physiognomy. One can only wonder whether the Latin proverb ever gave them pause.
In contemporary media language, an increasingly frequent phenomenon is the misapplication of the word term when what is meant is phrase. This was exemplified in full by a discussion this morning on the NPR program Morning Edition that explored how Americans of a certain age wish to refer to themselves (as well as hear themselves referred to). In assessing phrases like older adult and senior citizen, the discussants mistakenly kept using the word term instead of phrase.
This error evidently derives from the mindless transference of the plurale tantum terms––as in phrases like on good terms with, terms of an agreement, etc.––to the designation of the singular term, where the latter, strictly speaking, consists of a single word and not more than one. Lamentably, this error has now been legitimated as standard usage in dictionaries, as reflected, for example, in the following definition: ‘a word or group of words designating something, especially in a particular field, as atom in physics, quietism in theology, adze in carpentry, or district leader [sic!] in politics’ (Dictionary.com).
The historical process exemplified by what started as an error needs to be taken account of in describing the range of factors underlying linguistic change. All living languages, wherever they are spoken, inevitably include examples that owe their origins to failures of thought and other species of misinterpretation but become canonized over time as correct by speakers who have either lost the feeling of their erroneousness or been born at a stage of the language when the transition is largely complete.
Idiomatic phrases and constructions are part of linguistic usage and as such not amenable to alteration. A command of one’s own language includes the knowledge of idioms. Violation of the idiomatic norms of a language is a sign of deficiency.
In a recent utterance attributed by the media to Hillary Clinton, Mrs. Clinton mentioned that when she and Bill left the White House, they were “dead broke.” American English does not have such a phrase, the idiom being “flat broke.” One can be “dead drunk” and “dead last,” but not *dead broke (in linguistic notation the asterisk signifies either an incorrect or a reconstructed––hence questionable––form).
How should one evaluate a sin against usage? In the case of a prominent politician like Hillary Clinton (who actually writes remarkably well), one can perhaps chalk the mistake up to the heat of the media moment. At the same time, usage is a form of truth, since by its very fixity, it is immutable. A violation of usage––whatever the circumstances––is, therefore, a transgression against verity, i. e., a sin against truth. Such a mistake, especially emanating from the mouth of a politician, thereby speaks against their veracity.
Because of the deep historical and cultural connectedness between world-view and language in traditional societies, it has often been pointed out by anthropologists and linguists that words and phrases are not necessarily translatable from one language into another. Yiddish stands as a well-known exemplar of this situation, despite the steady penetration of Yiddish vocables into languages (like English or Russian) whose speakers include sizable Jewish segments.
It has been remarked that for Jews––and not only those from the ghetto––life consists of four elements, designated by the following Yiddish words (all derived from Hebrew originals): tsores (צרה) ‘troubles’, nakhes (מכּה) ‘pleasure, especially that of a parent from a child’, makes (מכות) ‘abcess; scourge, plague’, and yikhes (ייִחוס) ‘descent, lineage, pedigree’. Of these, perhaps the most familiar one to English speakers is tsores (also transliterated tsures and tsuris). But the translation ‘troubles’ cannot do justice to what the Yiddish word connotes in the Jewish worldview. Here is a piece of personal linguistic folklore that will illustrate this assertion.
A paternal distant cousin of Y-H-B known in the family only as “Uncle Misha” was routinely cited in the appropriate conversational context for his having excogitated the humorous rhyming couplet (a takeoff on Cicero), “[Latin] O tempora or mores/[Russian] O vremena, o tsores [О времена, о цорес].” The original has Cicero deploring the viciousness and corruption of his age, for which the literal translation is ‘oh what times!, oh what customs!’ The use of the Yiddish word tsores in Uncle Misha’s version immediately shifts the semantic dimension into the age-old experiential context of Eastern European Jewry, a world utterly incompatible with that of ancient Rome. (By the bye, this is the same Uncle Misha who made an appearance in an earlier post on the word continental, namely the picaresque personage who escaped death by firing squad in revolutionary Kiev, immigrated to Paris, and lived there into his hundreds as a wealthy arms dealer. Among his other (putative) witticisms was “Il y a une différance entre air et courant d’air.”)
Here is a contemporary example (from the editor’s introduction to a book published in 2010) of the untraditional generic use of the feminine pronoun instead of the masculine: “If mathematical reasoning is in some sense maximally perspicuous, then no other kind of reasoning can be capable, by dint of its greater perspicuity, of rescuing the mathematician when she goes wrong.” The writer of this sentence––a man––uses the feminine pronouns she/her without fail in every case where he/his is demanded by the norms of English grammar. This practice––perceived by Y-H-B as a verbal tic––is evidently intended by the writer as a badge of his ideological bias against the exclusivity of the masculine gender when the personal pronoun refers to a noun unspecified as to biological sex.
What writers of English who resort to the blatant inversion of the generic/specific distinction fail (or care not) to understand is that their practice is a grammatical error. This error is rooted in the markedness value of the feminine in all languages which have gender as a grammatical category. That value is marked, i. e., conceptually restricted vis-à-vis the masculine (and the neuter gender, if the latter is extant), which is correspondingly unmarked. In a language like English, where gender in nouns is not overtly specified morphologically (unlike, say, Russian), the only other way for gender to inhere in the grammatical makeup of a word is to be part of its lexical meaning. Thus woman can only refer to a member of the biologically female human sex, just as bitch in its straightforward (i. e., non-emotive, non-pejorative) application can only designate a female dog; or gander a male goose, etc.
Thus the use of the feminine pronoun to refer to a word like mathematician––which is neutral, i. e., undesignated lexically as to biological sex––is not only a violation of the rules of English grammar but a distortion of the specific/generic distinction rooted in nature, of which grammar, like biology, is an integral part. The ideological motivation for this contravention of grammar, far from advancing the cause of feminism, only serves to undercut it.
The terms ‘tenues’ and ‘mediae’ have traditionally been used to denote the series of obstruents (= true consonants) associated with the letters p, t, k, s, etc. and b, d, g, z, etc., respectively.
From the phonological point of view, tenues and mediae subsume two distinctive features in terms of which they can be opposed: voiced vs. voiceless and tense vs. lax. The distinctive feature voiced vs. voiceless presents, from a logical viewpoint, two contradictory opposites whose physical counterparts are the presence vs. absence of glottal vibrations. A distinctively voiced media is thus normally constituted by the corresponding tenuis with superimposed glottal vibrations. Since voicing and tenseness are syncategorematic features, there obtains a normal complementary distribution of their physical correlates such that, in languages with distinctive voicing (like Russian), voiced obstruents are phonetically lax and voiceless ones phonetically tense. At the same time, in comparison to languages (like English) which have distinctive tenseness, languages evincing distinctive voicing manifest tenues which are normally relatively lax and tenuis stops which are relatively unaspirate (aspiration being a concomitant of distinctive tenseness, not voicelessness).
The distinctive feature tense vs. lax, on the other hand, is composed of two contrary opposites––greater vs. lesser protensity––typically implemented as a difference between tenues and mediae in the relative duration of the release portion and the tenure portion.
Despite the availability of a rich phonetic literature since at least the time of the pioneering English phonetician Henry Sweet (1845-1912), contemporary phonologists (including those of the generative stripe and their offshoots) have continually vacillated in their interpretation of English tenues and mediae, with the voiced vs. voiceless feature posited as distinctive more often than not. The great Russian phonologist Nikolai Trubetzkoy (1890-1938) even claimed in his Principles of Phonology that it is “impossible to say whether in English a correlation of tension or a correlation of voice is present.”
A refutation of this latter view is implicit in the several earlier posts (vide infra) where the theory of phonology underlying the analysis reposes on the fundamental principle that the sound system of a language is a semeiotic, a system of signs. Once the semiotic workings of the system are charted, using phonological implementation rules as a sign of the underlying hierarchy defining the sounds (phonemes), the membership of English in the typological group of languages (e.g., Japanese, Latin, Ukrainian, etc.) evincing protensity and not voicing in their tenues and mediae becomes irrefutable.
The meanings of words are generally stable over time, but when a shift does occur it can often be attributed to a change of ideology in the culture. This is the case for the fading of the word sex as the traditional designation of the biological category and its replacement by the word gender, which was once restricted to the field of grammar.
The Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED) gives the following definition as the primary one for the word sex: “Either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions; (hence) the members of these categories viewed as a group; the males or females of a particular species, esp. the human race, considered collectively.” A secondary definition reads as follows: “Quality in respect of being male or female, or an instance of this; the state or fact of belonging to a particular sex; possession or membership of a sex.” With regard to persons or animals, the entry supplies the following commentary: “Since the 1960s increasingly replaced by gender . . . when the referent is human, perhaps originally as a euphemism to distinguish this sense from . . . Physical contact between individuals involving sexual stimulation; sexual activity or behaviour, spec. sexual intercourse, copulation. to have sex (with): to engage in sexual intercourse (with). Now the most common general sense. Sometimes, when denoting sexual activity other than conventional heterosexual intercourse, preceded by modifying adjective, as gay, oral, phone sex, etc. . . . The word sex tends now to refer to biological differences, while gender often refers to cultural or social ones.”
It is both interesting and ideologically relevant to note that many foreign languages (and not just the European ones) have borrowed the English word sex in the meaning “denoting sexual activity,” e. g., Russian секс (seks) and Japanese sekusu (セクス).
With respect to the native English cultural development, there is no gainsaying that the linguistic substitution of gender for sex serves to individuate the latter word in its social sense as part of the pervasive sexualization (including that of children in the United States at least) so characteristic of modern culture all over the globe. Insofar as a devaluation of the dignity of the individual human being can be descried in this phenomenon, English as the language that first offered up its linguistic expression can only be reckoned to bear full responsibility.
That words mean largely by convention is a well-established truism of language analysis, attenuated only by the knowledge that there are such phenomena as onomatopoeia, among a range of sound-sense symbolisms/parallelisms. A more indirect manifestation of the latter is contained in the final consonant d of the newish verb meld in the meaning ‘merge, blend; to combine or incorporate’, whose first attestation (according to various dictionaries) is dated to 1936. The original meaning was quite other, viz. ‘announce’, as in cards; also ‘make known (by speech), reveal, declare’, the etymology being Germanic (as e. g. in Old Frisian and Old English). The origin of the new verb is explained as a blend between melt and weld.
What is interesting in this process is the appearance of the sound d, evidently borrowed from weld. Why would this phonemically lax (erroneously characterized as “voiced,” which it is phonetically) stop lend itself to the new meaning of the verb, which can be generalized as ‘merging’, ‘fusing’, etc? The answer resides in the semiotic characterization of laxness in stops in languages, like English, which have distinctive protensity in their obstruent system (unlike languages like Russian, for instance, where voicing is distinctive rather than protensity). Thus d (the lax member of the opposition) is to t (the tense member) as unmarked to marked. Markedness, nota bene, is defined as the restriction of conceptual scope; hence the marked member is always relatively more restricted conceptually than its unmarked counterpart. That is exactly what we have in the new meaning of the verb meld, viz. unrestrictedness, here concretized to mean indistinctness, i. e., ‘merging’ or ‘fusing’. That is the raison d’être for the sound d in meld, of which it is the icon of the verb’s sense.