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Prestige and Language Change

Languages change for extrinsic (heteronomous) reasons as well as intrinsic (autonomous) ones. A typical extrinsic cause of linguistic change is prestige. While all speakers generally are impelled to speak like their fellows, the spur to imitate the speech of others is particularly potent when prestige is involved.

This situation is true of institutionally regulated speech as well. Thus, in the recent past, speakers of British English (as heard, for instance on the BBC World Service) have largely converted to using the word sports in the plural rather than the traditional British English singular sport. This change can only be reckoned as resulting from the influence of American English (where sports is de rigueur), whose prestige has grown to such an extent that even speakers from the mother country must now bow to its status as the world language and change their idiolect accordingly. Autres temps, autres mœurs.


The Pathos of Everyday Life 6 (Language as a Badge of Authenticity)

This morning I had to telephone the call center of a bank in order to transact some business. The voice that eventually got on the line sounded like a middle-aged woman who announced that she was speaking from South Dakota, so I said to her: “You sound like a native South Dakotan.” Her happiness was clearly audible: “Born and bred,” she answered, with a lilt in her voice, and repeated the phrase to punctuate her pride. “I’ve lived in South Dakota all my life! I’ve lived in the eastern part, and I’ve lived in the western part.” For my part, I said nothing about my being a linguist and being able to discern a South Dakota accent. (Listening to “Prairie Home Companion” for many years helped, of course, since Minnesotan and South Dakotan American English are similar.)

In an era when regional dialects are fading under the onslaught of media language, it is clear that natives of rural areas still cling tenaciously to their traditional linguistic forms of expression, and for them the fact that a stranger on the other end of the telephone line has acknowledged the authenticity of their speech is of considerable personal and social import.


The Vocative and Its Functions in Discourse

The traditional name for the form of a noun when a member of this word class is used not just to name but to address someone or something is vocative. Together with the imperative of verbs, the vocative, strictly speaking, serves the so-called conative function. Thus the Indo-European languages (but not only) have to one or another extent maintained a vocative case and its concomitant separate desinence (ending) in the paradigm devoted to this naming or addressing function, although the overarching tendency in the history of these languages is for the vocative to fall together with the nominative in form. In a language like Russian, for instance, where the vocative overwhelmingly gave way to the nominative (except for the recent resurgence of the so-called “new vocative”), the form of the noun used for address is the same as the nominative, although Russian still has fossilized instances of the old vocative in religious terms like Боже (for nom. Бог ‘God’) and Господи (for nom. Господь ‘Lord’), which are now just part of common parlance as exclamations rather than terms of address.

Like any other language, English has a vocative intercalated in discourse that is identical in form with the nominative (subjective); moreover, as in all languages, English vocatives serve the phatic and emotive functions over and above the conative. A word like sir in military practice, for example, is a token of deference and is de rigueur in speech whenever a person of higher rank is addressed. This sort of practice can be called the “formulaic” use of the vocative, which also occurs in other contexts, such as in advertising and marketing, where agents who are serving customers or clients are encouraged to sprinkle their utterances with the addressees’ names (usually preceded by a term of deference such as “Mr.” or “Miss/Mrs./Ms.”).

A particular instance that is worthy of further study is the variable phatic and/or emotive use of the vocative as a feature of an individual speaker’s predilections when addressing an interlocutor. Speakers typically differ from each other in the frequency with which they resort to naming their interlocutors as part of discourse. Constant interspersion of one’s wife’s or husband’s name in addressing a spouse may start as a sign of endearment but may also ultimately devolve into a verbal tic devoid of emotive meaning and destructive of genuine affection. Similarly, the same speech habit in addressing a customer or client can easily lead to annoyance on the part of the addressee and subvert the very psychological affect that the utterer is aiming to engender in order to further their mercantile goal.


Contraction in Language and Its Stylistic Dimension

To expand a bit on the previous post (prompted in part by Gary Richmond’s apposite comments), contraction in language is necessarily to viewed as a stylistic alternative to its unexpanded counterpart, specifically as a colloquial/informal/elliptical variant on a “full” form that is employed in stylistically formal or neutral contexts. This is overwhelmingly the case in English (as well as most other languages), where augmentation as part of a shift to a colloquial or informal genre of speech is extremely rare. Thus nope, which is the colloquial counterpart of no, represents a completely atypical example of adding a segment in order to signify informality instead of subtracting one.

By the bye, the case of nope, while rare, is nevertheless a good riposte to those who maintain that informality is achieved through economy of effort, hence contraction as something to be explained primarily as a physical means. Anything stylistic, whatever its value, is always conceptual precisely because value is necessarily conceptual, always part of the cognitive dimension of human semiosis.

Why contraction lends itself to implementation as a means of conveying informality is an interesting question. There is clearly something about the human mind that tends to regard the patterned reduction of plenitude as informal in comparison. But examining this question further would take us too far afield from language and must therefore be left unanswered for the time being, at least.


Vowel Syncope and Its Functions

Vowels that appear in one form of a word may be elided in speech (and even in writing) depending on the context, especially between consonants but not only. This elision (called “syncope”) occurs in many languages of the world including European languages like English or Russian and is typically the product of a historical process, wherein earlier “full vowel” forms (i. e., unsyncopated) alternate with newer forms that omit the vowel in question. The occurrence of syncope is routinely associated with the stylistic dimension of language, specifically with the so-called “elliptic code,” and contrasted with the “explicit code” wherein the vowel in question appears unelided. (These terms were introduced for the first time into the discourse of linguistics in Y-H-B’s first book, Russian Phonetic Variants and Phonostylistics [University of California Press, 1968]). The elliptic form tends to be generalized over time at the expense of the explicit one, as often happens under the appropriate circumstances in the pronunciation of nomina propria, including English (British) place names such as Leicester (pronounced [lɛstər]); cf. the colloquial syncopated pronunciation of the British English word governor as [‘ɡʌvnə(r)], occasionally rendered as guvna orthographically to reflect the colloquial phonetics.

In English the archetypical instance of syncope is in contractions. Thus, for example, the subject-verb combination “I am” is characteristic of the explicit code but is reduced to “I’m” (where the apostrophe marks contraction) in the elliptic code.

Certain phonetic contexts are more likely to induce syncope than others. The occurrence of a vowel in an unstressed syllable is a sine qua non by itself. From that basic starting point, the occurrence of an adjacent sonorant in the syllable––more specifically, a nasal consonant like /n/ or /m/––often leads to the unstressed vowel being dropped, as when heaven is pronounced (esp. in British English) in the second syllable without the vowel and a syllabic nasal.

Traditional phonetic explanations of vowel syncope rely on such notions as economy of effort, but this is clearly inadequate, even though items in the elliptic code tend to be pronounced faster than their counterparts in the explicit code. The function of vowel syncope is rather the usual semiotic one, viz. of mapping the hierarchy of distinctive features that define a phoneme through its instantiation contextually in speech. Thus vowels––which are defined as [+ vocalic] and [- consonantal]––signify this definition in connected speech by being liable to syncope, the only speech sounds which function that way in the rules of implementation characterizing a phonological system.


Pluralia tantum and Their Contemporary Misconstrual

In the European languages, including English, there are words which either appear exclusively in the plural form or do so with particular meanings. Thus, for instance, the Russian word часы ‘clock/watch’ is a plurale tantum in the meaning of a timepiece, the singular form being used to mean ‘hour’.

In English there is a long history of pluralia tantum such as qualifications, finals, negotiations, etc., but in contemporary speech (especially American, but not only) these words are being misconstrued to mean things rather than activities (the latter being their proper semantic category). Thus the last match in a tennis tournament is properly called “(the) finals,” NOT “the final,” but this normative and traditional form is now routinely being replaced by the word in the singular. Speakers who make this mistake evidently take the event to be a thing rather than an activity, whence the change in morphology.


Hypertrophic Prepositional Complements of Verbs

Increasingly in the last decade, American media English has been swept up in the tide of hypertrophic variants in all sectors of grammar. This tendency has now come to affect the form of prepositions after verbs, such that the standard transitive variant enter in––as in “enter in the lottery”––is being routinely replaced by “enter into the lottery,” etc. Perhaps a contributing factor in this case is the related intransitive form, as in phrases like “enter into an agreement,” but the fact of a powerful contemporary tropism toward hypertrophy in American English is undeniable on its face, of which bloated prepositions as verbal complements are yet another instance.


Muddled Grammar, Muddled Thought (on behalf ofon the part of)

As first brought to Y-H-B’s attention by Jacobus Primus, speakers on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly prone to confuse the phrases on behalf of and on the part of, using the first when they mean the second. This mistake was heard being made by an otherwise RP speaker this morning on the BBC World Service, which can be taken as a warrant of its pervasiveness.

A confusion of this sort is significant not only in itself but as a sign of a failure of thought, illustrating yet again the role linguistic error plays in undermining the cognitive integrity of verbal communication.


Basically the Englishes

As has been instanced in more than one earlier post, contemporary English wherever it is spoken all over the globe takes its cue for stylistic and grammatical development from the native speech of America in particular and the United Kingdom in second place. This characterization seems to apply to discourse markers like “as it were,” “if you like,” “so to speak,” “honestly,” etc., as well as to the strictly grammatical composition of speech.

The interpolation of the word “basically” to qualify or fudge what is being asserted is an increasing presence in all the Englishes. What this phenomenon means is the global impulse, when resorting to English as the means of one’s linguistic expression, not to make categorical assertions, to protect oneself from the potential repercussions that may ensue from blanket statements signifying the veracity of the content of one’s utterances. This resort to “basically” in non-native as well as native varieties of English is a sign of a fundamental attitudinal shift in how speakers have come to construe the social and behavioral contexts of expressing themselves linguistically. This retreat from old-fashioned British and American English plainspokenness is much to be regretted.


Metalinguistic Commentary in Conversation (Error and Normativity in Speech)

Most of what is exchanged in conversation between interlocutors is referential (i. e., strictly oriented toward content), but occasionally––and depending on a person’s variable disposition toward the norms of speech––one interlocutor may insert a correction of or comment on the grammatical side of what the other interlocutor has uttered. Parents routinely correct the speech errors of children; some parents are more scrupulous than others, insisting in some cases on adherence to norms that may be traditional or conservative rather than current.

To the extent that this kind of interpolation may interrupt the flow of speech, some speakers, while silently noting the irruption of an error, may choose to refrain from overtly correcting it, while others may habitually do so regardless of its force. Some linguistic purists take a special delight in correcting their interlocutors, as is the case with Y-H-B’s brother Jacobus Primus, who recently jumped at the chance when hearing the question “who called who?” (the colloquial norm in American English) from the lips of an otherwise strict adherent of linguistic normativity. He then went on to recount the case of a former coworker who blithely ignored being corrected for the erroneous locution “between you and I” and went on to repeat the mistake habitually.

Changes in language often start out as violations of the norm but when adopted by a significant proportion of the speech community cease to be regarded as errors and assume the status of grammatically unexceptional specimens. The “who called who?” example is an illustration of just such a trajectory.


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