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When Only Learnèd (Recondite, Recherché) Words Will Do

Even if we adopt the translation theory of meaning, wherein every immediate object (to use Peirce’s terminology) has an interpretation in terms of another immediate object (meaning), there is one such “object” that escapes ultimate characterization: the individual human being. This latter creature in its individuality can only be captured linguistically by the use of two learnèd words and no other (in English, at any rate): (1) haecceity, defined as the status of being an individual or a particular nature; otherwise individuality, specificity, thisness; specifically that which makes something to be an ultimate reality different from any other; and (2) quiddity, defined as the essential nature or ultimate form of something; what makes something to be the type of thing that it is.

These two Latinate words cannot be supplanted by any others from the rich storehouse of native English vocabulary because only they capture what is semiotically true––and at the heart of Peirce’s apothegm (meant asexually), “Man is a sign”––quite apart from such abstract defining characteristics of human personhood as thought and consciousness. The haecceity (“thisness”) of any given human person necessarily adumbrates a concomitant quiddity (“suchness”), and the two jointly body forth a unique, unreplicable figura that underwrites all the interpretants adumbrated thereby.

Only English, with its uniquely mottled Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman history, has the capacity to use learnèd vocabulary to such precise ontological effect.


Russian Patronymics

Although Russia is the biggest country in the world and has played a prominent role in modern world history, few people have any first-hand knowledge of Russia or the Russians, let alone of the Russian language. One of the special linguistic and cultural features of the latter (which it shares with the other East Slavic languages) is the obligatory use of an individual’s father’s name plus the suffix {ov/-ič} for males and {ov/ič + -na} for females–called a patronymic (pronounced [ˌpætrəˈnɪmɪk])––as a middle name between one’s given name and surname. Every Russian person has and uses all three names. This triplet appears on all formal documents, and the first two together (i.e., the forename and patronymic) are routinely used in formal and semi-formal speech (minus the surname). In colloquial speech the patronymic can be and is used alone as a substitute for the forename.

In Russian, therefore, Y-H-B––whose father’s name was Constantine, i. e., Константин in its Russian form–– goes by Михаил Константинoвич ‘Michael son of Constantine’ with stress on the ultima in the forename and the antepenult in the patronymic.

In allegro speech routinely and a few instances regularly for all styles, the patronymic utilizes a contracted version of the father’s forename, so that, for example, Y-H-B’s daughter Abigail (‘father’s joy’ in Hebrew, as in reality) is called Авигея Михайловна ‘Abigail daughter of Michael’. The case of the name Михаил ‘Michael’ is unique as to vowel contraction because in fact the last vowel is elided before the patronymic in formal speech as well, as it is in the patronymic, so that Y-H-B’s name comes out as Михал Констиныч (note the dropping of the suffix {-ov-}), and his daughter’s as Авигея Михална.

The existence of this onomastic pattern in Russian turns out to be uniquely useful as a cultural norm in ordinary discourse because if affords an intermediate stylistic means for addressing persons with whom the use of the forename alone would be ruled out because of familiarity and that of the surname preceded by a title (like Mister or Professor) awkward because of its formality. Thus, for instance, a student can avail him/herself of the forename + patronymic in addressing a professor instead of resorting to the equivalent combination in the typical Western European formal pattern.

As it happens, a particular irony of Y-H-B’s forename and patronymic duo is the fact that Mikhaíl Konstantínovich just happens to be the name historically of a Grand Duke (Великий Князь in Russian), i. e., a member of the Russian Imperial family. You can be sure, therefore, that when he introduces himself for the first time to a Russian speaker by saying his forename and patronymic, he never misses the opportunity to add the phrase “like the Grand Duke.”


Normativity, Habit, and Willful Mistakes

Any language is a system of habits that tolerates variety (stylistic among others) while subscribing wholly to the rule of norms. We all speak our native language in such a way as to be understood by our fellows, and that means deviating from the norm sparely under rational circumstances.

This is by way of introducing the topic of what can only be called “willful mistakes.” For example, recently Y-H-B audited a series of lectures in typically fluent (but heavily accented) English by an eminent mathematician of South American provenience. For some reason, this person kept pronouncing the English word category incorrectly, with stress on the second rather than the initial syllable. Now, the same item in Spanish (categoría) has penultimate stress. Why, then, the constant mispronunciation of the English word? Even categorizing the mistake as “willful” (pardon the pun) only begs the question.

One attempt at an answer could lie in the level of awareness that we all exhibit to differing degrees of our actions, including speech. Speakers may be innocently unaware that they are exhibiting an idiosyncratic linguistic habit even when the specimen is unambiguously erroneous from the standpoint of the norm. This is true in spades when the language spoken is not native but foreign.

The question remains open.


Of Grexit, Brexit, and Other Portmanteau Words

The current vogue––especially in American media language––for blends or portmanteau words has reached what can only be called ham-mouthed (to coin a word). In today’s spam messages to my blog I even found the grotesque item consultdustry (although this one came from Thailand). To try to counteract the impression left by such ugly neologisms, I want to reprise an earlier post below (which I’ve never done before):

Moldiferate, v., intr. (Portmanteau Words)

March 9th, 2012 | Author: Michael Shapiro

A ‘portmanteau word’ (alias ‘blend’) is a word formed by blending sounds from two or more distinct words and combining their meanings, e. g., smog from smoke + fog. Apparently, the word portmanteau was first used in this meaning by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass: “Well, ‘slithy’ means ‘lithe and slimy’.‥ You see it’s like a portmanteau—there are two meanings packed up into one word.” The etymology (according to the Oxford English Dictionary Online) is from Middle French: French portemanteau ‘officer who carries the mantle of a person in a high position’ (1507 in Middle French), ‘case or bag for carrying clothing’ (1547), ‘clothes rack’ (1640) < porte- porte- comb. form + manteau manteau n. In the British English of Carroll’s time, a portmanteau was a suitcase. In modern French, a porte-manteau is a clothes valet, a coat-tree or similar article of furniture for hanging up jackets, hats, umbrellas, and the like.

As I sat contemplating my navel this morning, I suddenly remembered a portmanteau word created (with her nonpareil linguistic sprezzatura) by my late wife Marianne Shapiro to describe just my situation, namely moldiferate (mo[u]lder + proliferate), which is an intransitive verb meaning ‘to waste one’s time doing nothing while decomposing spiritually’. Another one of her creations in that vein is pestiferate (pestiferous + –ate), which she coined to mean ‘to cause to be pestiferous’. Neither word is in the OED, but they should be.



Paralinguistic Differences between the Sexes (“Vive la différence!”)

All languages exhibit differences between the speech of males and females, extending in differing degree across grammar, including phonetics and stylistics. In Japanese, for instance, women’s speech is markedly different from that of men, to the point that women resort to a special subset of grammatical categories when speaking (for example, the consistent use of the passive mood instead of the active that is characteristic of honorific language for both sexes).

When speaking, both men and women do other things with their bodies beside utter words: they gesticulate with their hands, raise their eyebrows, open their eye sockets beyond normal size, take sharp intakes of breath, hunch their shoulders, nod their heads up and down or side to side, etc. Among speakers of contemporary American English, the paralinguistic gap between males and females has been widening for some time: women’s speech today is accompanied by much more paralinguistic behavior than is that of men. All one need do to be convinced of this is to spend some time observing women talking––particularly to each other and without the participation of male interlocutors––preferably without their being aware of being observed.

What these various paralinguistic features mean is a difficult question to answer, although there have been numerous attempts to catalogue and analyze them in the sociolinguistic and semiotic literature (incl. whole monographs devoted to these phenomena). From the point of view of semiosis, the paralinguistic signs are iconic indexes, but it is not at all clear if there is a pattern informing the gestures that accompany speech. Some speakers clearly evince paralinguistic idiosyncrasies, i. e., movements that are peculiar either to them alone or to them as members of certain groups (like families). But overall, when it comes to American females of all ages, these movements are much more frequent, specialized, and overt in their behavior than they are in the paralinguistics of males. This is the sort of behavior that tends to confirm the cliché about women being generally more “expressive”––or even “emotional”––than men. Vive la différence!


Semantic Linearization and Linguistic Hypertrophy

As has been instanced more than once among the posts on this blog, American English in particular has a decided faiblesse for hypertrophies of all kinds, including pleonasms and their ilk. One fresh example, observed today in a café where Y-H-B stopped to have a hot chocolate and a canelle, will serve to remind the fastidious reader of this trend.

On a box containing some packets of coconut oil in said cafe there was a some words of advertising, viz. “Need an Extra Boost?,” in which the meaning of boost was doubled by the word extra. Now, probably the author of this ad had the meaning of ‘an uplift or encouragement’ in mind, but the notion conveyed by the word extra is already contained in the meaning of boost, since the latter connotes something produced in addition to, or over and above, some basic action. The extrusion or linearization of the notion associated with extra already encompassed by the semantic syntagm of boost thus qualifies as a pleonasm when overtly preposed before boost, instantiating yet again how American English allows itself to countenance the failures of thought associated with linguistic hypertrophy.


Ticastic so

In an earlier post (“Discourse-Introductory so in Geek,” January 16, 2011), the increasing presence of the particle so at the beginning of discourses was analyzed and its presence ascribed to the jargon of geeks and to Yiddish. Since then, however, it has become evident––at least in contemporary American English––that so is not limited to the beginning of discourses but actually has spread to a much more frequent status as the initiator of utterances regardless of their position in discourse. Moreover, when so occurs at the beginning of discourses it serves as a linking particle not only to preceding utterances but even to linguistically yet unexpressed material that has formed in the speaker’s mind as content that is relevant to the conversational context.

Beyond this linking function, for some speakers so has evidently become a verbal tic, to the point where such speakers cannot initiate almost any utterance––particularly at the beginning of a discourse, but not only––without prefixing so. This ticastic so is especially prevalent among young female speakers but is becoming increasingly characteristic of their male counterparts as well––and not just of geeks. Without rising (yet?) to the frequency of ticastic like, this trait has even become a habitual feature of the speech of some pre-teenagers and is growing apace.


Habit, Consciousness, and the Rule of Grammar

Charles Sanders Peirce’s seminal paper, “The Law of Mind” (1892), from which much of his philosophy can be derived, has a passage that is particularly pertinent to the concept of a rule of grammar, viz.: “To say that mental phenomena are governed by law does not mean merely that they are describable by a general formula; but that there is a living idea, a conscious continuum of feeling, which pervades them, and to which they are docile.” When it comes to language, of course, one can fairly advert to an attenuation of the “continuum of feeling” because when we speak we are typically not conscious of the habits that constitute grammatical rules even as we follow the laws that govern the mental phenomena underlying speech.

Although contemporary standard languages all have written codes that one can turn to when in doubt, no speaker in ordinary discourse needs to consult the canon of rules that exist in written sources in order to be able to use a language, which is to say that the rules are already immanent in one’s consciousness––just as they are in speech. The set of habits that transpire through speech has its counterpart in consciousness. That is what assures regularity, hence ease of linguistic communication, between speakers.

Variation between individual sets of speech habits can generally not exceed the bounds of the rules of a particular grammar. In a homogeneous speech community, all members who have mastered the language adhere to the rules as a matter of course. Where violations of the contemporary standard occur, they are generally due to imperfect learning rather than to dialectal deviation.

Apropos, in contemporary media language one often hears such spontaneous violations, even when their utterers are otherwise speakers of the standard. The extent to which errors matter to interlocutors or hearers depends on a variable sensitivity to what Peirce expressed (above) when he cited “a conscious continuum of feeling” as the “living idea” that pervades the law of mind.


Word Length and Emphasis (incredibly)

In the last decade or more speakers of American English have almost dropped using the word very as a modifier for emphasis or intensification and have resorted to the near-ubiquitous use of incredible/incredibly, in the face of the literal meaning of this adjective/adverb (‘that which cannot be believed’). The only explanation that suggests itself for this strange phenomenon is that of greater length of the word at stake by comparison with very. Quantitative increase is one way of iconically signifying semantic force, just as elongating the stressed syllable of any word (as of very itself) necessarily adds emphasis to it over and above the normal length of the vowel.


[ADDENDUM: As a couple of readers have pointed out, the use of incredibly can also be classed as HYPERBOLE. This fits one of the overarching themes of contemporary American usage, namely HYPERTROPHY, which has been instanced many times in earlier posts.]

Non-Pathological Agrammatism

Agrammatism––treated as a medical disorder––is defined as ‘a type of aphasia, usually caused by cerebral disease, characterized by an inability to construct a grammatical or intelligible sentence while retaining the ability to speak single words’. But there should be a different––wider––understanding of agrammatism as the regular incidence of ungrammatical forms in the speech of native speakers arising from imperfect learning.

Such incorrect forms may, of course, enter the canon willy-nilly by being sufficiently well-attested to warrant recognition as alternatives to the standard. Here, for instance, is the case of the past passive form of the verb enamor, used as an adjective (as cited in the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary Online), where the complement of is the traditional form and with the (formerly) erroneous one:

1:  to inflame with love :  charm, captivate — usually used in the passive with  of <tourists were enamored of the town> and sometimes with with <a beautiful Indian girl with whom he was enamored — Walter Havighurst>

2:  to cause (someone) to feel a strong or excessive interest or fascination — usually used in the passive with of or with < … kids who grew up enamored of both Black Sabbath and Black Flag … — Gillian Garr, Rolling Stone, 19 May 1994> <In 1999 Wall Street was enamored with anything dot-com … — Donna Seaman, Booklist, July 2003>

This particular example is relatively benign. But the wholly erroneous use of the Italian borrowing graffiti as a singular instead of graffito(an error compounded by the use of graffitis as a plural [sic!]), heard emanating this morning from the mouth of a published author on the American Public Media radio program “Marketplace Morning Report” (and noticed publicly in an ameliorative tag by the show’s literate host), can only be adjudged agrammatistically wholly beyond the linguistic pale.


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