The Lability of Grammatical Categories in Contemporary American English

February 14, 2019

In the twenty-first century, what used to be rigidly distinct in the grammar of American English––namely, the morphological distinction between verbs and nouns––has loosened so that verbs can easily serve as nouns without any change in form and vice versa. Thus the noun gift has come to be used as a verb (e. g., “X gifted me with Y”), and the verb build as a noun, as in computer lingo (e. g., “Choose how you get Insider builds,” from the Microsoft update page). To a linguistic purist like Y-H-B, this completely insouciant crossing of previously impervious categorial boundaries is stylistically anathema and not to be adjudged felicitous. Hoswever, there is evidently a semantic need that is being filled by such innovations, and younger speakers use them without any qualms. O tempora, o mores!

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Broad and Flat A in American English Redivivus

February 12, 2019

A reporter on todays’ NPR broadcast of “Morning Edition,” in speaking about the political troubles in Spain over Catalonia, was heard pronouncing the word Catalan with two broad a’s (as in want) in the first and last syllable instead of the normative flat vowel [æ] (as in fan). The reporter (a woman) had evidently never heard this word pronounced correctly and, therefore, took it to be marked (i.e., conceptually restricted), for which the marked broad vowel occurs de rigueur in contemporary American English.

Apropos, readers of this blog are reminded that among the PDFs on the upper portion of the homepage there is the link to my article, “Broad and Flat A in Marked Words,” American Speech 72.4 (1997), 436-439, which to this day provides the definitive explanation of the phenomenon at issue.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Norms of Professional Jargons

January 20, 2019

Every contemporary language, particularly in the First World, has professional jargons with their own norms that may differ from the standard in some aspect of grammar (usually phonology). Thus in contemporary standard Russian, mariners say kompás ‘compass’ with stress on the second syllable, whereas the ordinary norm for this word is stress on the initial syllable. A New York plumber may retain the flat vowel instead of the diphthong in the stressed first syllable of the word radiator.

Listening this morning to VPR Classical, Y-H-B heard the host mispronounce the word ballade in announcing one of Chopin’s Ballades. Instead of the accepted norm for musical pieces of this genre with stress on the second syllable, this host (evidently of the younger generation) put the stress on the first syllable, as if the word were spelled ballad. This mistake was a flagrant violation. Perhaps he had never heard the word pronounced properly by someone in the know.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Vocabulary as an Indicator of Intelligence

December 30, 2018

As is his custom, Y-H-B was sitting in his Sunday morning restaurant in Manchester Center, Vermont, “Up for Breakfast,” talking to one of the waitresses, a middle-aged woman who grew up in Rhode Island and now lives in Bennington, Vt. We were engaging in the usual early breakfast banter when the waitress (Gwen), a very nice and well-spoken lady, used the word potpourri to refer to a miscellaneous collection of implements in the restaurant. I immediately made note of this usage as a sign of higher-than-expected intelligence and silently congratulated Gwen for using this word.

While it is common for children in every country to be urged to expand their vocabulary in preparation for higher and higher schooling, in America it is not common for ordinary speakers to use high-style words like potpourri (a French borrowing) unless the context calls for their special use. In general, speech in America between people of different social classes and professions rarely goes beyond the boundaries of common vocabulary, although doctors and dentists are well-known for gratuitously engaging in special vocabulary out of habit instead of using common words to describe medical conditions.

Word choice as a stylistic matter is not merely facultative: it is always a sign of intelligence and necessarily has the effect of affecting one’s general evaluation of one’s interlocutors.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Asserting One’s Bona Fides

December 5, 2018

In contemporary American English, speakers are constantly asserting their good faith to their interlocutors by interpolating (or adding, or prefacing) the phrase “to be honest” as if to assure them that what they saying is valid or authentic, thereby elevating their bona fides as far as the authenticity of their utterances is concerned. However, almost without exception, there is no patent need for this phrase because the speaker’s sincerity or the accuracy of the information being conveyed is never in question.

This is yet another instance when Americans resort to utterly otiose verbal warrants in speech in order to prevent their interlocutors from so much as suspecting that what is being said fails to represents the speaker’s true thoughts. Media chatter of all kinds, because of its ubiquity and pervasiveness, only exacerbates the situation by providing a typically inauthentic model of ordinary speech.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 16: When Words Fail One

November 18, 2018

Y-H-B turned on his radio this morning to VPR Classical (as usual) and heard Chopin’s Barcarolle in F-sharp major, Op. 60, being played by Vladimir Ashkenazy. This is a piece I often heard as a child growing up in Tokyo and later Los Angeles, when my mother of blessed memory (1905-1983), Lydia Ita Shapiro (née Chernetzky [Лидия Абрамовна Шапиро, ур. Чернецкая], practiced it in preparation for one of her solo concerts (including Hibiya Hall in Tokyo). It was also the last piece that my beloved wife, Marianne Shapiro (1940-2003 עליה השלום), was learning before she was no longer able to sit at the piano.

When one hears music that is so close to one’s heart, there are no words to describe the emotional power of the sounds.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 15: Two Russian Proverbs and a Poem in Prose

November 13, 2018

As instanced in these posts more than once, Y-H-B is prone to engage in silent autocommentary by repeating material from his fund of Russian lore. Today, under particularly onerous mental circumstances on a cold day in Vermont, the following two sayings/proverbs came to mind:

Не мытьем, так катаньем ‘By hook or by crook.’
Попытка не пытка, спрос не беда. ‘It can’t hurt to try.’

This paroemiac material was then mentally garnished with the following poem in prose by the great Russian writer, Ivan Turgenev:

Иван Тургенев (1818-1883)
Стихотворения в прозе: Русский язык
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!
Июнь, 1882
[Translation: THE RUSSIAN TONGUE [Constance Garnett]
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!
June 1882.]

One’s thoughts do not necessarily have to be original to embody emotional force, especially in sad moments. Vox Populi, Vox Dei.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Syntactic Arbitrariness and Analogical Leveling in Language Change

November 7, 2018

When speakers of American English make grammatical mistakes like saying *play a factor (instead of be/constitute a factor) and *ask a question to (instead of ask a question of), they are relying on the analogy between similar constructions, viz. play a role and direct a question to. These two departures from normative grammar in present-day speech are frequently heard in media language and point to the arbitrariness of the traditional syntax involved.

The mistakes arise, of course, via the establishment of an implicit dominance relation between the newer (mistaken) form and the older traditional one. The postposition of in the verb phrase ask of represents a use of the postposition that is no longer felt by speakers to have the meaning of directionality, since its contemporary predominant meaning is possessive, i. e., “belonging to” and not “directed at/toward.” Similarly, the word factor has been reconstrued as being identical in meaning to role, hence to be governed by the verb play.

Analogical leveling of this sort in language change always has a structure that reposes on a reconstrual of the meaning of the constituents involved in governing their syntax.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 14: On the Sociology of Knowledge

October 21, 2018

Y-H-B is allowing himself to go slightly off-topic in this post, focusing as it does not on language and linguistics but on the SOCIOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE, which is defined as the study of the relationship between human thought and the social context within which it arises. This field of investigation was pioneered primarily by the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1885-1917) at beginning of the 20th century.

About three years ago I submitted an article to The New York Times for its Op-Ed page, which was not printed. Here it is:

Sham Solutions to Real Problems in Education by Michael Shapiro

Educational reform is constantly in the news, driven by the Obama administration’s avowed aim of improving test results nationwide. The most prominent nostrums today are the same as before: measuring achievement by standardized testing, awarding merit pay to teachers, and ending tenure. None of these comes to grips with the real problem: recruiting and retaining good teachers. Everything that happens in the classroom––the only genuinely crucial arena where learning takes place–begins and ends with the teacher. Good teaching is the only portal at which knowledge enters and educated students exit. Boards of education, superintendents, principals, department chairs–the entire horde of barnacles on the ship of learning–only impede the ship’s progress. Parents and politicians must learn this lesson and act on it if America is ever going to have an excellent system of public education.

Here are two real-life cases known to me personally which illustrate how good teachers are prevented from entering and staying in teaching. Both are drawn from the world of higher education but apply to the problem in general.

Case 1: an assistant professor is hired to teach in a language department but is not told that she is merely a place-holder for the chairman’s chosen candidate who cannot assume the position until he satisfies a visa requirement. A year goes by. The place-holder does an excellent job. The fair-haired boy then becomes eligible, so the chairman manufactures an entirely bogus dossier to make it look like the woman is incompetent and get her terminated. The vice chancellor rubber stamps the chairman’s action. Learning of this, the woman complains of sham treatment to a university-wide committee, which rules in her favor and censures the chairman. But the vice chancellor [may he rot in hell!] ignores the ruling, saying to the aggrieved scholar: “Do you think I’m going to exchange a chairman for an assistant professor?” The teacher sues the university but is unsuccessful because the federal judge refuses to allow into evidence material from confidential files that would have vindicated the plaintiff and reinstated her. The law suit not only leaves her jobless but renders her unable to secure a tenured position over her entire working life because the chairman and his henchmen repeatedly blackball her out of spite by writing poisoned-pen letters to prospective employers. The woman perseveres as a scholar and dies prematurely, her only revenge being a legacy of written work that marks her as the most accomplished and versatile American specialist in her field of the 20th century.

Case 2: a university professor with forty years’ experience, a record of distinguished scholarship and teaching at all levels through the postdoctoral, and an international reputation for pioneering research in his field retires and some time later offers his services–without salary–to the presidents of five colleges near his new domicile in a Northeastern state. Three do not bother to answer his letter at all. Of the two that do respond, only one accepts the offer, the second’s response being, “There is currently no appropriate context for your services.”
Despite their differences, these two cases––each in its own way––testify to the fact that administrators, who have the responsibility for insuring that the best teachers are recruited and retained, routinely allow considerations unconnected with education to hold sway over their personnel decisions. Their overriding goals, in order of importance, are: 1) keeping themselves in their jobs; 2) keeping the natives (alias their subordinates) from causing trouble. The second conduces to the first. Anything that avoids resentments and recriminations trumps everything else. After all, unlike business or commerce, there is no profit motive in education.

Ending tenure might help but is not a panacea; nor is merit pay, which already exists anyway and is bootless to change the situation fundamentally. In higher education these issues are usually raised in the context of a false dichotomy–between good teaching and research. After more than fifty years spent in the trenches, I can testify that only infinitesimally are professors who produce no lasting scholarship first-rate classroom teachers all the same. That most publications are dross, not gold, changes nothing: it’s their habits of thought that scholars and scientists of the first rank pass on to their students. A useful comparison is with music pedagogy. My parents’ conservatory instructors in inter-war Germany, the cellist Julius Klengel (Leipzig) and the pianist Leonid Kreutzer (Berlin), were world-renowned pedagogues whose mastery of their instruments was an indispensable ingredient of their success as teachers. My father’s University of Freiburg teacher Edmund Husserl, whose philosophical writings will endure for all time, gave lapidary lectures that attracted students and colleagues from all faculties. But for every Husserl, there are always numberless—-tenured!—-time servers. Abolishing tenure won’t change that. Nor will merit pay.”

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

Schwa in Unstressed Syllables as between British and Amderican English

October 20, 2018

Among the many differences between British and American English is the way that vowels are treated in unstressed syllables. For the most part, British English tends to pronounce them with schwa, so that the final vowel in Pentagon and Amazon, which has a relatively full vowel in American speech, has a reduced vowel in British. Occasionally, the results are inverted, so that the final syllable of Maryland and partisan in British speech has the full vowel, whereas a schwa is the norm in American.

The occurrence of a reduced vowel in unstressed position (or in syllables with potentially secondary stress) is to be interpreted as a sign that the word is being interpreted as a unified whole, with a constituent structure. Maryland pronounced by a speaker of American English is thus construed as having no segment structure phonetically, whereas in British speech the maintenance of [a] and secondary stress is a sign that speakers are interpreting the word has having two constituents, Mary– plus –land.

This sort of (tacit) construal of a word’s constituent structure has different phonetic outcomes in the speech of newer vs. older generations of American speakers when it comes to items that contain final morphemes like {ent} in student and president, with younger speakers coming increasingly to pronounce them with a full vowel rather than the traditional schwa. This secondary stress in the newer variant seems to be occasioned by the reconstrual of these words as containing a suffix, since the stems (stud– and presid-) also occur elsewhere in verbs.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO