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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.


The Tension between Grammar and Praxis

The grammar of many languages occasionally presents a seeming contradiction between the meaning of its categories and the real-life entities to which the categories are applied. For example, in languages that have gender distinctions, like German, the grammatical gender may not match the biological sex of the referent, as is the case of G das Weib ‘woman, wife’, which is neuter (as indicated by the direct article).

In contemporary English (as has been instanced in earlier posts), there is a tendency to refer to collective nouns that comprise human beings by the relative pronoun who instead of the grammatically correct which. This is increasingly the case in media speech when the word referred to (inter alia) is country, as in “the countries who . . . .”

The underlying cause of this sort of change can be traced to the kinds of verbs that are typically associated with human beings, like love, hate, speak, etc. The use of such verbs with collective nouns whose individual members are human creates a tension between the grammatical category of inanimacy (or non-humanness), on the one hand, and the occurrence of verbs denoting actions that are typical of human beings, on the other. The tension is resolved by reconstruing the inanimate collective as animate via its human members.

From a traditionally normative point of view, of course, this tendency in English represents a latter-day mistake, where grammar has been sacrificed at the altar of linguistic implicature.


Homo habilis and Language: Linguistic Theory as a Theory of Habit

The recent discovery of the oldest human jawbone in Africa has pushed the date of Homo habilis, our ancient ancestor, back another million years or so. This particular iteration is defined as ‘an extinct species of humans considered to be an ancestor of modern humans and the earliest hominid to make tools’ (American Heritage Dictionary). The most significant part of this definition is ‘the earliest hominid to make tools’. The Latin word habilis means ‘skillful’ and is derived from the verb habēre/habeō ‘have, possess’, the derivational source of Latin habitus (which is its past participle), alias our habit. The upshot of this definition amounts to the further understanding of a skill as a HABIT WITH MEANING.

The most important arena for the implementation of this idea of meaningful habit is, of course, human language. Moreover, a meaningful habit is necessarily a sign in the sense of Peirce’s theory of signs (or semeiotic). For the most part, linguists have looked on words, including their positional shapes and alternants, simply as artifacts of description which facilitate an economical, mutually consistent statement of distributional facts. But a semiotic analysis differs from this kind of accounting by resting on the fundamental assumption that all linguistic units have VALUES, which vary coherently and uniformly in alignment with contexts and their hierarchies.

The coherence of linguistic units among each other is by no means a static one, for we have incontrovertible empirical evidence that languages change over time. But the fact of change must be correctly understood as a dynamic based on teleology, where the telos is greater goodness of fit (iconicity, coherence) between underlying structure and its overt manifestation in speech. This teleology is always undergoing examination as a language changes and new speech habits come into being as patterned alterations of old ones.

Human language is a body of facts that every new speaker masters (in the absence of pathology) by becoming a member of society. The way in which linguistic units are used involves a mastery not only of the physical side (phonetics) but the notional one as well. Explanation of this mastery cannot be achieved by the prevailing self-confinement to goals that are fundamentally (if unwittingly) non-explanatory. The rule-formalism approach that has driven contemporary linguists into sterile byways (what used to be known as the transformational-generative theory of grammar) cannot ever produce explanations of language use because a theory of grammar is not a theory of knowledge but a theory of habit (in the sense of Peirce). Explanation must focus on why the data cohere as signs, and not on the mechanisms by which grammatical forms can be derived by the judicious choice and application of rules. This requirement removes predictability-via-rules from the agenda of theory. The entire recent history of linguistics shows with great clarity the feasibility of kneading data into a wide number of mutually-compatible formalized configurations (‘notational variants’). What is needed, however, is an attitude toward the object of study which matches the structure of that object. Language is a system, both in its diachronic and synchronic aspects, that is informed by a pattern of inferences, deductive and abductive. The role allotted to interpretation in language as a structure––to its very nature and function as a hermeneutic object––demands that the methods of inquiry into and the theory of language be homologous with the principles of its organization.

It is this very nature of language itself, the inherent organization of grammar as a patterned relationship between form and meaning––of meaningful habits–– that necessitates transposing the theoretical enterprise of linguistics to another dimension, one defined by the subsumption of all linguistic analysis under the rubric of meaning or hermeneutic. As Roman Jakobson put it:  ‘Any linguistic item, from speech sounds and their constituents to discourse, partakes—each in its own way––in the cardinal, viz. semantic, tasks of language and  must be interpreted with respect to its significative value.’


The Pathos of Everyday Life 5 (persona ‘mask’)

When one observes people speaking, especially when not participating in the conversation, what comes through is not so much the particulars of speech but the paralinguistic behavior, viz. shrugs, smiles, hand gestures, etc. that accompany speech and which are culturally coded. These body movements define the personality of speakers much more vividly than do the words they utter. It is, indeed, these gestural accompaniments that more than anything contribute to the image that is created in the mind of one’s interlocutors, which is what is meant by the word persona, the Latin forebear of the English word in common use today.

It is noteworthy that in Classical Latin the word persōna meant ‘mask, character, role’, a meaning preserved in the phrase dramatis personae ‘cast of characters’ for stage use. This implies that in speaking we always put on a mask, as it were, play a role, represent a character, and that the “real” self is to some extent always concealed from public view. Perhaps this trait of homo loquens—that of donning a mask while speaking––is an evolutionarily developed one involved in the process of getting along with others, including placating them when necessary. A poker face is not something altogether natural and hence not easily maintained. The expressivity of our face and bodies (especially the hands) goes along with the process of communicating meaning verbally and plays a significant role in the creation and maintenance of meaning.

The etymology of person is a useful backdrop to understanding this aspect of human semiosis. Here is it from the Oxford English Dictionary Online:

            Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman parsone, parsoune, person, persoun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French persone, personne (French personne ) presence, appearance (c1135), important person (c1140 in Anglo-Norman), the body (c1170), individual human being (1174 in Anglo-Norman), person of the Trinity (1174 in Anglo-Norman), grammatical person (first half of the 14th cent. in Anglo-Norman), juridical person (1481 in Anglo-Norman) and its etymon classical Latin persōna mask used by a player, character in a play, dramatic role, the part played by a person in life, character, role, position, individual personality, juridical person, important person, personage, human being in general, grammatical person, in post-classical Latin also person of the Trinity (early 3rd cent. in Tertullian), appearance, stature (9th cent.), of unknown origin; perhaps a loanword (compare Etruscan ϕersu , apparently denoting a mask). Compare Old Occitan, Occitan persona (mid 12th cent.), Catalan persona (1117), Spanish persona (first half of the 13th cent.), Portuguese pessoa (1267), Italian persona (a1200). Compare parson n. (originally the same word, but now differentiated in form).

Several of the uses of classical Latin (and post-classical Latin) persōna are after corresponding uses of Hellenistic Greek πρόσωπον (see prosopon n.), e.g. in grammar and theology.

In to respect no person the word originally rendered post-classical Latin personam of the Vulgate (which however has in some places faciem ), the corresponding Greek being πρόσωπον face, countenance, person, often in the compound προσωπολήπτειν to accept the face of, rendering Hebrew nāśā’ pānīm to lift up the face (towards someone), to show favour (originally referring to God’s countenance being raised towards a person upon whom he bestows favour; compare Exodus 6:26, Deuteronomy 10:17).

With singular person compare Anglo-Norman persone singuler (a1325 or earlier). With in one’s (own) person compare Anglo-Norman en sa persone (second half of the 12th cent. or earlier), classical Latin in suā personā . With in (one’s) proper person (see compare Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French en (sa) propre persone (c1250), post-classical Latin in persona propria (6th cent.), in propria persona (a1180, 1264 in British sources). With in (the) person of compare Anglo-Norman en la persone de (second half of the 12th cent.). With in person compare Middle French en persone (1464).

The primary dictionary meaning of persona is ‘aspect of a person’s character that is displayed to or perceived by others’. Jungian psychology uses the word as a term to designate ‘the outer or assumed aspect of character; a set of attitudes adopted by an individual to fit his or her perceived social role’ and is contrasted with anima. Given the ancient meaning of the latter word, one aspect of the pathos of being human evidently resides in the necessarily mediated character of our true selves.


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