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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.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Pathos of Everyday Life 3 (Goethe: “Die Nacht schuf tausend Ungeheuer”)

Having Sunday breakfast before the crack of dawn at my neighborhood eatery (as is my wont), seated adjacent to the Jack and Jill of earlier posts, I was reminded of a line from a famous Goethe poem, “Willkommen und Abschied” (Welcome and Farewell; set to music by Schubert, among others), that I had memorized in my German course at Hollywod High. Here is the strophe in which the line appears [trans. Edgar Alfred Bowring]:

Der Mond von einem Wolkenhügel
Sah schläfrig aus dem Duft hervor,
Die Winde schwangen leise Flügel,
Umsausten schauerlich mein Ohr.
Die Nacht schuf tausend Ungeheuer,
Doch tausendfacher war mein Mut,
Mein Geist war ein verzehrend Feuer,
Mein ganzes Herz zerfloß in Glut.

[From out a hill of clouds the moon
With mournful gaze began to peer:
The winds their soft wings flutter’d soon,
And murmur’d in my awe-struck ear;
The night a thousand monsters made,
Yet fresh and joyous was my mind;
What fire within my veins then play’d!
What glow was in my bosom shrin’d!]

One’s mental set at any given point in life is determined by the cumulative weight of reminiscences such as these, deposited at different levels in the mineshaft of the psyche, and one’s surroundings at any given moment may serve as the stimulus that brings a particular reminiscence to the surface. Since language is the vehicle of thought, nothing else has the power to frame one’s emotions to the same degree, and poetry of all linguistic products is the most powerful repository on which to draw in realizing the inner dialogue that Plato calls the silent converse of the soul with itself.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Language and Prestige (The Erroneous Pronunciation of err)

As was characterized from a different perspective in an earlier post (“Prestige and Language Change”), prestige is a precious commodity, no matter where it manifests itself in society, and language is no exception. There are still prestige dialects in various countries of the world that are: (1) varieties of the language associated with the capital city that have been canonized as standard, usually by Academies of Sciences (e. g., Parisian French in France, Muscovite Russian in Russia), but not only (cf. Tokyo Japanese in Japan); (2) by tradition deriving largely from the class dominance of its speakers, as in England, where RP (“Received Pronunciation”) is the variety of English spoken by the upper classes, as at Oxbridge (= “the Queen’s English”). America is an interesting case because Standard American English (SAE) is not legislated by an academy and not associated with the capital or any major city but rather with a wide territorial swath extending from the Middle West to the West Coast.

Prestige in America when it comes to language seems to accrue to speakers who speak “correctly.” There is a long tradition in America of correct speech codified in grammar books and taught in schools to children regardless of their geographical location. When it comes to phonetics, of course, territorial dialects that depart from SAE are alive and well, and continue to be spoken by persons with a higher education as well as by “just plain folks.”

In this context, it is interesting to note that when one hears a speech error uttered by a person who otherwise speaks perfect SAE, there may be an automatic negative evaluation on the part of the hearer resulting in a drop in the utterer’s prestige. A good example of this from the broadcast media was manifested this morning in the report of Julie Ravener on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” who pronounced the verb err to rhyme with air instead of the correct purr. (This matter was the subject of an earlier post; vide “The Dictionary Errs (Rhymes with Purrs),” March 10th, 2013.) Now, Ravener’s pronunciation is far from unique and has been slowly but surely displacing the traditional one during the last several decades. The derivation of this error is not hard to find: it comes from the generalization of the pronunciation of the associated noun error as the statistically dominant word vis-à-vis the verb.

Failure to observe tradition in speech by resorting to an erroneous pronunciation––no matter how widespread––always runs the risk of affecting the prestige of both the speaker personally and that of the content of the utterance containing the speech error. Once the pronunciation that started life as an error commands enough users to eclipse the traditional variant, prestige becomes irrelevant in assessing the new doublet simply because knowledge of tradition always tends to fade with time as older speakers die out and are succeeded by generations that are ignorant of the earlier prestige form. Sic transit gloria mundi.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Macaronic Language (A Contemporary Specimen)

When two or more languages are mixed in the same utterance or text, the term “macaronic” is traditionally applied to such linguistic products, defined as being ‘characterized by a mixture of vernacular words jumbled together with Latin words or Latinized words or with words from one or more other foreign languages’ (Collins English Dictionary). A fuller, historically based definition is that of the Oxford English Dictionary Online: ‘Of or designating a burlesque form of verse in which vernacular words are introduced into the context of another language (originally and chiefly Latin), often with corresponding inflections and constructions; gen. of or designating any form of verse in which two or more languages are mingled together. Hence of language, style, etc.: resembling the mixed jargon of macaronic poetry.’

In the linguistic literature one can find terms such as “Japlish” or “Franglish” used to designate words that are of hybrid construction, drawing on a combination of English words or roots to form new Japanese or French vocabulary. A particularly striking example is that of contemporary Japanese discourse, especially as produced by younger speakers, which is often filled with such words––and even whole phrases and sentences in faux-English––enclosed in otherwise perfectly normal native contexts.

When it comes to French, a perfect example of the incidence of macaronic language presented itself yesterday when Y-H-B found himself seated next to two bilingual women (one in her twenties, the other in her forties or fifties) in a French restaurant on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and could not avoid eavesdropping on their conversation, conducted in a potpourri of English and French. The younger of the two females, from whose utterances it transpired that she was raised in America in a French-speaking family, consistently interlarded her fluent Parisian French with long stretches of equally fluent, native American English (including uptalk and ticastic like), to which her older interlocutor always responded exclusively in French. It became clear that the younger woman (a computer programmer, as it turned out) was incapable of expressing herself in French to the same degree as English and consequently resorted to fast-paced English sentences and sentence fragments, alternating with French framing sentences. This macaronic mélange, inescapably within Y-H-B’s earshot, was most definitely not on the menu and caused great annoyance to the sensibility of a dyed-in-the-wool prescriptivist and purist, who recognized (and appreciated malgré lui) the perfection of the young woman’s speech as a rare example of the genre.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[ADDENDUM. Anent the etymology of ‘macaronic’, here is information from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “originally, comic Latin verse form characterized by the introduction of vernacular words with appropriate but absurd Latin endings: later variants apply the same technique to modern languages. The form was first written by Tisi degli Odassi in the late 15th century and popularized by Teofilo Folengo, a dissolute Benedictine monk who applied Latin rules of form and syntax to an Italian vocabulary in his burlesque epic of chivalry, Baldus (1517; Le maccheronee, 1927-28). He described the macaronic as the literary equivalent of the Italian dish, which, in its 16th-century form, was a crude mixture of flour, butter, and cheese.”]

The Metalinguistic Function (Free Variation and Self-Correction)

Among the six basic functions of language (referential, expressive [alternately called “emotive” or “affective”], conative, poetic, phatic, and metalinguistic [or “metalingual”]), according to which the act of verbal communication can be qualified, the last-named function is meant to describe the use of language to comment on itself, as when a word is defined in speech. The impetus for speakers to implement this self-referential function varies with their Sprachgefühl (a sensitivity to language, especially for what is grammatically or idiomatically acceptable in a given language), some possessing it in greater measure than others.

The incidence of free variation in language may provide the opportunity for the metalinguistic function to be utilized on any given occasion. This was in fact manifested today within Y-H-B’s hearing when his interlocutor (a male native speaker of American English in his twenties, with a college education) first pronounced the word data to rhyme with platter and then corrected himself by pronouncing it to rhyme with pater within the span of the same sentence. For the speaker in this viva voce example, this phonetic change evidently comported a higher self-valuation of the second variant over the first and may have been prompted by a latent orthoepic sense that was externalized by the felt linguistic requirements of the social situation, wherein the speaker’s interlocutor was also his intellectual superior.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Pathos of Everyday Life 2 (eros and agape)

I was reminded of an earlier post (“Paronomasia in Proverbs” [For Every Jack There’s a Jill]”) by seeing the pair animadverted upon therein once again this morning in the same venue, for which denigration I had been rightly admonished at the time by my magical daughter. The couple’s smiles and affectionate gestures toward each other warmed one’s heart and recalled the justice of the admonition, hence this post, by way of recognition and remediation.

One does not have to be a Christian to recognize the supernal standing of Gk Agápe (ἀγάπη agápē) by comparison with Éros (ἔρως érōs). From a Hebrew perspective (as pointed out to Y-H-B long ago by his father), what counts is טוב לב (lev tov ‘good heart’).

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Ticastic like in Non-Native English

The irruption of disfluent like, especially in the contemporary speech of adolescent and younger females, has been chronicled and typologized here in earlier posts, but it is noteworthy to observe that this trait has penetrated non-native English speech as well, witness the interview this morning on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Saturday”with a Filipina who survived Super Typhoon Haiyan. The interviewee sprinkled her English with ticastic like just like (NB!) a representative American female. Whether this use of like in the service of a discourse strategy by a non-native speaker can be judged an apotropaism is, however, an open question.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Pathos of Everyday Life 1 (Ronkonkoma)

Herewith the first installment in a series of posts entitled “The Pathos of Everyday Life.” It will use words to entrain ruminations on lived reality. Pathos is understood here as an element in experience or in artistic representation evoking pity or compassion.

One is comfortably seated on an LIRR train from Penn Station to Mineola. The terminus is Ronkokoma, one of several towns on Long Island whose names evoke American Indian tribes and their language. Note that Ronkokoma (an adaptation of an Algonquin word) has a decided prosodic structure: a monosyllabic anacrusis followed by a dactylic clausula. It has three sonorants (r, n, m) and only one obstruent (k), but this true consonant is placed immediately before the stressed vowel (Ronkónkoma). It is this phonetic structure that limns the word and invites repetition for the sound’s sake alone.

Great thunderheads in the October sky lower as the train makes its way through the derelict houses and household detritus trackside. Airplanes coming in for a landing in Queens at JFK International Airport intersect with the clouds and buildings to suggest a constructivist painting.

One learns a new use of the word platform, viz. as a verb: “The front cars do not platform at Woodside,” proclaims the public address system. One announcement in particular, delivered in flawless diction by a disembodied but sure-footed baritone, begins to sound poetic: “As you leave the train, be careful to step over the gap between the train and the platform.”

It is then, for some mysterious reason, that the final four lines from a Russian poem dedicated to his wife (Y-H-B’s mother of blessed memory) by the musician-poet Constantine Shapiro (1896-1992) float unbidden into one’s consciousness:

Поэт Вам счастия желает,
Он жизнь спокойную сулит
Тому, в душе чьей обитает
Любовь и правды верный щит.

(The poet wishes you happiness,
He foretells a peaceful life
For one in whose soul reside
Love and truth’s faithful shield.)

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[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.]

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