Michael Shapiro

As readers will see, this blog is written by someone who is a professional linguist and semiotician (specialist in sign theory) with a uniquely wide range of knowledge and experience in the humanities and social sciences. Since retiring from active university service in 2005, I have devoted myself to writing of all kinds, including fiction, and to public lectures at a variety of venues in the USA and abroad. In October 2017 I will be lecturing in China on language and linguistics at Beijing Language and Culture University and at Mongolia Technology University (Hohhut, Inner Mongolia).

For readers who are interested in availing themselves of my expertise and experience as a teacher and lecturer, I am available to tutor students who are preparing for various examinations (including the SAT, GRE, and LSAT) that test proficiency in the language arts. Initial contact with me can be established by e-mailing me (mms33@columbia.edu). Students wishing to get my help in preparing papers, theses, and dissertations are also welcome to contact me. I have a wealth of experience in this kind of work with students, including guidance in turning drafts of books into finished publications.

Teleology, Markedness, and Linguistic Change (Strong Verb Ablaut)

October 22, 2017

Markedness values are asymmetric. The value MARKED means relative narrowness of conceptual scope, whereas its counterpart UNMARKED means relative breadth of conceptual scope. These basic definitions are aligned respectively with greater and lesser complexity. When languages change, there is a general tendency to change from the more complex value (= marked) to the corresponding less complex value (= unmarked).

This teleology can explain the tendency in contemporary American English speech (and in American dialects) to collapse the three ablaut vowels of strong verb conjugation, as in sink/sank/sunk, drink/drank/drunk, etc. such that the simple past vowel is eliminated and replaced by the vowel of the past passive participle. Thus one constantly hears speakers saying things like “Honey, I shrunk [instead of the correct shrank] the dog,” etc.

The markedness values of the vowels involved underwrite this change in grammar. The [ae] of the simple past is marked, whereas the schwa [ə] of the past participle is unmarked, and thus the teleology is unmistakably from marked to unmarked, which corresponds to the empirical facts.


Stress Retraction and the Principle of Marked Beginnings

October 13, 2017

Contemporary American English has a peculiar device at its disposal for expressing emphasis, whereby the stress is retracted onto a preposition in a prepositional phrase, as in the following statement and response: “You need to tell him to dó it.” “Tó do it isn’t so easy.” The stressed preposition can only be explained as an implementation of the PRINCIPLE OF MARKED BEGINNINGS, which was first enunciated by Y-H-B as applying to metric structure in an article on verse theory (“The Meaning of Meter,” Russian Verse Theory [UCLA Slavic Studies, 18], ed. B. Scherr and D. S. Worth, 331-349. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1989; revised version in Michael and Marianne Shapiro, The Sense of Form in Literature and Language, 2nd, expanded ed., 259-77. Scotts Valley, Calif.: CreateSpace, 2009).

In a larger semiotic context going beyond verse and even language, beginnings, middles, and ends always have a value such that beginnings are marked, ends less marked by comparison––but still marked––and middles unmarked. These markedness values need to be taken into account whenever there is a stretch of semiotic space that has this fundamental tripartite structure.


The Second Amendment Revisited (Anent the Recent Events in Las Vegas)

October 5, 2017

The terrible atrocity and loss of life in Las Vegas last Sunday night have brought the Second Amendment into public view yet again, with some persons calling for its repeal. In that connection, Y-H-B wishes to repeat verbatim his post of December 24, 2012, to remind readers of the Second Amendment’s correct interpretation, the Supreme Court and its originalist faction notwithstanding. Here it is:

The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Gun owners assert a right to own and use firearms on the basis of the main clause of the amendment. In the so-called Heller case, the United States Supreme Court has sustained their right, ignoring in 2007 the well-reasoned amicus brief filed by professional linguists that argued that the grammar of the amendment does not allow such an interpretation. Here is a summary (from Dennis Baron, “Guns and Grammar: the Linguistics of the Second Amendment” (www.english.illinois.edu/-people/faculty/debaron/essays/guns.pdf):

“In our amicus brief in the Heller case we attempted to demonstrate,
• that the Second Amendment must be read in its entirety, and that its initial absolute functions as a subordinate adverbial that establishes a cause-and-effect connection with the amendment’s main clause;
• that the vast preponderance of examples show that the phrase bear arms refers specifically to carrying weapons in the context of a well-regulated militia;
• that the word militia itself refers to a federally-authorized, collective fighting force, drawn only from the subgroup of citizens eligible for service in such a body;
• and that as the linguistic evidence makes clear, the militia clause is inextricably bound to the right to bear arms clause.
     18th-century readers, grammarians, and lexicographers understood the Second Amendment in this way, and it is how linguists have understood it as well.”

What is paramount in the correct interpretation is something Baron et al. do not discuss, namely the order of the two clauses. The participial first clause, even in 18th-century English, could just as well have been placed second, in a familiar pattern that can be seen, for instance, in a sentence like: “There will be no swimming today at the recreation center, the pool being closed on Mondays.” Clearly, there is a cause-and-effect relation between the fact of no swimming and the particular day of the week, regardless of the placement of the two clauses vis-à-vis each other, but what is at stake here is a form of grammatical government that is best captured by their ORDER, which is to say their HIERARCHICAL relationship. The first clause occurs where it does because the writer/utterer deems it to be MORE IMPORTANT than the second clause.
The same obtains in the element order of the Second Amendment. The word militia of the first clause governs––is hierarchically superordinate to––the phrase the right of the people to keep and bear arms. The framers of the Constitution had the grammatical option to invert the two clauses but did not. The element order speaks for itself, rendering militia the pragmatistic scope (i. e., in the Peircean sense of the philosophical doctrine of pragmatism) under which right to keep and bear arms is restricted.


Is Intonation Iconic? The Question Refined

September 21, 2017

In an earlier post, “Yiddishized Enumerative Intonation” (November 6, 201), Y-H-B raised the question regarding a peculiar intonational pattern in contemporary American English involving items in an enumerative series. Since this pattern in the intervening seven years has become almost pervasive, particularly in female speech, one needs to examine it in semiotic terms, whether there is something iconic about it sensu stricto, i. e., similarity between sign and meaning). The rises and falls that accompany enumeration in a series (typically, consisting of more than two items) are significant because the rise is the physical manifestation of what is meant in locutions like “to raise a question” and is the linguistic analogue of what is meant by OSTENSION, i. e., the “display” of some content for examination or consideration.
This enumerative intonation is exactly what all languages also display in interrogative intonation. When one asks a question, one is linguistically offering a content for consideration without the certainty of a statement. The use of the verb “to raise” with the direct object “question” in many languages (including Y-H-B’s “native languages, Russian Japanese, and English) shows that the idea of the action associated with querying is metaphorized such that the trope is an index of the iconic relation between the linguistic means (rise of pitch) and the discourse meaning. This answers the question posed in the title hereinabove affirmatively.


Done and Dusted: Paronomasia as a Form of Emphasis

September 18, 2017

Languages have a variety of means to express emphasis, including repetition, lengthening of vowels, raising and lowering of normal pitch, pleonasm (and other species of hypertrophy), etc. In English the typical alliterative phrase one finds in paronomastic constructions (e.g., “through thick and thin”) is particularly effective because it utilizes the poetic principle of similarity amid difference to seal the semantic bargain. “Done and dusted” is to be heard in British English but has yet to attach itself to cis-Atlantic speech. It’s just a matter of time.


For the Nonce: Spontaneous Neologisms in Speech

August 31, 2017

Y-H-B was waiting for his gazpacho to appear as the start of a noon meal at one of his favorite Manhattan restaurants (Quatorze Bis on East 79th Street) when instead of the waitress one of the owners appeared bearing the soup––an unprecedented event in Y-H-B’s experience––which elicited my comment: “Are you short-staffed today?” To which the man (looking to be in his sixties or seventies) retorted: “No, we’re undercustomered,” a complete nonce word (spontaneous neologism) that he’d conjured up on the spot (the restaurant was empty except for me).

All languages have considerable room for word play of this sort, especially languages like English with a rich derivational morphology. The use to which speakers put this capacity is very much a matter of individual linguistic skills and predilections. Upon hearing undercustomered, Y-H-B made a mental note of it and silently complimented the owner-turned-waiter on his linguistic sprezzatura.


Syntactic Change Is Always Semantic Change: A Case in Progress

August 20, 2017

When rules of grammar change, meaning is always involved, whatever the formal effects of the change. This is illustrated concisely by the current expansion of the syntactic government of the past participial form of the verb base, i. e., based, in both American and British English, whereby the traditionally normative phrase “based on” is being replaced and or augmented by the variant “based around” (and even “based off of”), as heard increasingly in media language on both sides of the Atlantic.

This change is semantic as well as syntactic because it can be analyzed as an attenuation of the meaning of the complement on, which is what results when the complement changes to based around. The conceptual core of on is weakened to indicate only something circumferential (as it were) rather than solidly central. Speakers who have shifted to using based around mean something different, therefore, from those who adhere to the traditional norm.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 12: Words with Private Meanings

August 15, 2017

As has been noted several times in earlier posts, particular words may have private meanings for speakers while remaining vocabulary items of natural languages, not fabricated items in ad hoc or artificial languages (like Esperanto or those spoken by characters in theatrical or cinematic productions). Especially memorable for individual speakers may be names by which people refer to each other, such as pet names from early childhood or those exchanged by members of one’s immediate family. But nomina propria are not the only category of words that may carry a private meaning.

It is accordingly a reminiscence from childhood that has prompted this post. Driving from Manchester to Bennington (cities lying near one another in the state of Vermont), Y-H-B happened to turn on the classical radio station of Vermont Public Radio and heard the piano music his mother, Lydia Shapiro (1905-1983), often practiced at home and played in her concerts. It was Liszt’s “Au bord d’une source [Beside a Spring],” an especially powerful and beautiful exemplar of the composer’s consummate mastery of the lyric genre. But it was when the announcer identified the piece after the performance had concluded that the (utterly mundane) words of the French title exerted an especially powerful emotional effect on the listener, moving him to tears. They had brought back to mind, from many years of repetition in the distant past, the flawless French in which they had been uttered by the pianist whose playing of Liszt’s music had lain deeply embedded in her son’s psyche for all time.


Linguistic Purism

August 4, 2017

A purist (according to the definition in the OED Online) is “a person who aims at or insists on scrupulous adherence to an ideal of purity or correctness, esp. in language or style; a person who adheres strictly to a principle or doctrine.” As readers of this blog may have divined from earlier posts, Y-H-B belongs to the dwindling breed of linguistic purists, especially when it comes to the languages he speaks fluently (Russian, Japanese, and English).

The puristic impulse was rekindled anew by the trip I took recently to Japan; also by viewing the new Yiddish-language film “Menashe,” in which all but one actor belong to the Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community in Borough Park Brooklyn, New York. In Japan I constantly heard the contemporary variety of standard Japanese wherein practically every other word or phrase is a Japanized borrowing from (American) English, also known as Japlish (cf. Spanglish, Franglish, etc.). This hybridized (not to say bastardized) species of language eschews perfectly well-established native (or Sino-Japanese) forms of expression when an English alternative is readily available through the penetration of modern media. In “Menashe” a similar situation obtains, with lexical items from American English studding the speech of the characters, especially the younger ones.

Linguistic purism is seen as “the practice of defining or recognizing one variety of a language as being purer or of intrinsically higher quality than other varieties.” A linguistic purist is exercising a value judgment as to the integrity of the spoken or written language in active use. In the case of contemporary English, like any language with a long record of lexical borrowing from other languages, speakers resort to items that are of foreign provenience and of different time depths without realizing that they were borrowed (typically, from Latin or Anglo-Norman). When an item is obviously foreign––like machismo—it has a cultural resonance and is utilized in contexts that make direct or indirect reference to its origin.

Unlike borrowings in active use in contemporary English, however, those that are so frequent and growing in number in Japanese or Yiddish serve only the most expedient communicative purposes, which enable speakers to elide the necessity of learning how to express the same linguistic content in language that is more in keeping with traditional norms.


The Psycholinguistic Pathos of Everyday Life 11: Japan Redivivus

July 18, 2017

Finding myself in Japan (the land of my birth) again after a hiatus of seven years, I silently observed the country and the people as I made my way from the airport to Tokyo on the train. The manicured countryside brought to mind an undated poem by my father, Constantine Shapiro (1896-1992), probably written in the 1930s, on the same topic (rough translation follows):


Япония, страна искривленных деревьев,
Япония, страна улыбок и поклонов,
Япония, за что ты ненавидешь нас?

Япония, где все уныло и угрюмо,
Япония, где даже дети смотрят злобно,
Япония, скажи, за что?

За то ль, что мы пришли к тебе незваны?
За то ль, что мы стальной тебя сковали цепью?
Япония, скажи, за то ль?

Так мы уйдем обратно в свои долы,
Мы не хотим насильно твоей дружбы.
Пусть вновь сияет голубое небо,

Пусть вновь луна взойдет над небосклоном
И пусть, как некогда, в безмолвье недвижимом
Земля уснет и море опустеет.


Japan, land of crooked trees,
Japan, land of smiles and bows,
Japan, why do you hate us?

Japan, where all is depressing and morose,
Japan, where even children peer angrily,
Japan, say, what for?

Is it because we came to you unbidden?
Is it because we bound you with a steel chain?
Japan, tell us, was it for that?

Then we’ll go back to our valleys.
We don’t wish to have your friendship by force.
Let the blue sky glow once again,

Let the moon rise once again over the sky
And let the land, as long ago, in motionless wordlessness
Go to sleep, and the sea become desolate.

For a person in his seventies, with fourteen years of Japanese life in his mental cupboard (including World War II and the fire bombing of Tokyo) behind him, this poetic recollection of his father’s musing on Japan and the Japanese shortly after taking up residence there as a Russian refugee, emphasizes the fact that the emotional life of one’s parents is essentially and permanently a terra incognita.